In navigating the unprecedented circumstances of the current global pandemic, we have been forced to respond in extraordinary ways on a societal level. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) are uniquely positioned at the moment in that they find themselves dealing with the overlapping crises of climate change and COVID-19. Their recent webinar in the midst of the global pandemic examined our physical and mental health at this moment, and reaffirmed the basic notion that human health is an extension of ecological health. This is an important truth at a time when our disconnect from nature has made it all too easy to ignore the degradation of the natural systems that sustain us. COVID-19 has changed us, perhaps for good. There is much to be learned from this experience, but perhaps most remarkable of all is just how effective we can be when we work together with a common understanding to achieve a common goal.
Listen to experts. It saves lives.
We are living in an era of ‘post-truth’ in which confidence in mainstream institutions such as media, science, and governments is being tested like never before. We self-diagnose using WebMD, then go the doctor for a second opinion. The word “establishment” has been refashioned as derogatory by people who have grown weary of facts and expertise as it pertains to their firmly held beliefs.
The Coronavirus pandemic has, in turn, proven to be a test of the value of ‘alternative facts’, demonstrating just how useless disinformation, conspiracy theories and populist sentiment are in dealing with a genuine crisis. Individually and collectively, these things serve to doubt, deny, and delay the most prudent course of action.
The differing responses to COVID-19 from countries provide an interesting case study in this regard. Political leaders who insist on holding onto their ideology when confronted with the facts of this pandemic have not fared well, and neither have their constituents. The relatively clear, focused, compassionate, consistent and evidence-based communication and policy from public officials in Canada has proven to be among the most responsible and effective responses to the global pandemic. If we can apply anything from this, it is that facts are indifferent to our best-laid plans, and although scientific understanding is not perfect, it is our best guide, just as it always has been.
Let’s Meet Online
Social distancing measures have pushed our interactions further online, increasing our use of existing digital infrastructure. Not that we weren’t already connecting on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Zoom, but we certainly have a new appreciation and have explored new opportunties. DJ-Nice recently held a live party from his living room on Instagram that topped out at over 100,000 people. Even celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Will Smith participated.
There is nothing to replace meeting face to face, but online meetings serve their purpose and also have the benefit of eliminating emissions due to travel. Video conferencing effectively makes certain travel unnecessary and not very cost-effective. This is an efficient way to communicate that will help us meet our climate targets and contribute to better air quality, not to mention help maintain and strengthen our connections.
The World Health Organization suggests that 9 of 10 people breathe air with high levels of pollutants, and estimate that air pollution kills 7 million people each year. New York City has seen a substantial increase in bicycle traffic as more people avoid crowded public transit. While public transit is essential, active transport has the added benefits of increasing cardiovascular health and reducing air pollution. These work together to increase the health and resiliency of populations, leaving us better prepared to mitigate public health emergencies. Active transportation corridors should be promoted as an investment in public health and happiness.
Climate and Disease
While climate change has not contributed to the spread of COVID-19, it certainly hasn’t helped either. Healthy, diverse ecosystems are more resilient and resistant to pathogens. Habitat destruction, besides being ecologically devastating, puts animals and humans in closer proximity, thus increasing the incidence of zoonotic infections. Global heating also has the potential to increase the spread of vector-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease in Canada, as a warming climate expands the territory of the ticks that carry pathogenic bacteria. These impacts need to be considered, and especially relevant in the context of the current health crisis.
Time in nature is good for our mental and physical health and well-being. Anyone who spends time in neighbourhood green spaces or national and provincial parks will attest to the proven benefits of being in nature. Nature also has incredible potential for sequestering carbon, so it also gets us closer to Paris climate targets.
Harm is spread disproportionately it favours the impoverished and vulnerable. During a global pandemic, it is the elderly, immunocompromised, people experiencing homelessness, incarcerated, and indigenous communities who are most affected. If we had measures such as a universal basic income in place, adequate rights for workers, paid sick leave, and benefits for the most vulnerable, it would have been far easier to roll out effective and humane measures to mitigate this crisis.
Switch from Divest emphasis to Reinvest
We are making great sacrifices to our way of life to combat the spread of COVID-19. This is an opportunity to reflect upon the very nature of our civilization and consider the things we take for granted. If we are sincere in our accounting of this crisis, it will hopefully clear the way for a path to a better tomorrow. As we move through this crisis, we need money invested wisely in the things that will promote a healthy, secure and prosperous future.
During this time it may feel as though efforts to mitigate climate change are losing traction as we combat COVID-19. We may be tempted to redirect attention and effort back to the cause. But people are running on empty in a crisis, so instead let’s be kind to everyone and build up our resilience, be compassionate, take care of each other, and prepare for the work of climate change with the lessons of today. We may find that the climate change movement will benefit more from the hope, resilience and action which will also get us through the pandemic.
By Nick Clayton
Nick is a high school teacher at Collingwood Collegiate Institute. He is passionate about Climate Change and puts that passion into his writing.