Since 1950, each first week of April has concluded with an international celebration of World Health Day. With the motto of “building a fairer, healthier world”, the World Health Organisation will use this year’s 7th April to raise awareness of inequality in human health.
To steer attention in this direction, even if just for a day, could not seem more apt in a world still in the grips of a deadly pandemic. It is a bittersweet coincidence that this year’s World Health Day should be observed alongside so-called “lockdown anniversaries”, dates that differ by country but remind us all about the same thing: a whole year has passed since lives all over the planet were turned upside down by COVID-19.
Not long after the start of it all, a tweet went viral, summing up the ugly and hard-hitting truth – that despite this being a global emergency, there is a vast contrast between the ways in which it impacts different groups of people. Last September, a survey carried out by the BBC established that the coronavirus pandemic “has had a more severe impact on people in poorer countries and has exacerbated existing inequalities.” In the words of Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan, “results show that those who are most systemically disadvantaged have been hit the hardest.” And perhaps there isn’t a better parallel to the climate crisis.
Suffering was never a one-size-fits-all, but rather an example of inverse proportion. The more money you have, the less likely you are to even notice anything is wrong with the world – simply unaffected, tucked away, surrounded by luxuries like air conditioning and human rights. But ignorance about just how bad things are – or worse, indifference to the facts – are indulgences most people can’t afford.
Mainly for financial gain, but also to meet the ever-increasing demands of a growing population, we continue to inflict irreversible damage on the planet. Greenhouse emissions, pollution and biodiversity loss, among other human-induced causes, increase the Earth’s temperature and trigger an avalanche of devastation.
2015’s Paris agreement saw nations vow to limit global warming. Five hottest years on record later, winters keep on shrinking, giving way to longer summers that are projected to potentially “cover nearly half of the year” by the end of the century.
To some, this may just paint a large question mark over skiing holiday plans and dreams of white Christmas. For others, global warming already means water shortages, floods, storms, droughts, wildfires – a freaky grocery list for the recipe of exacerbated poverty, illness and death.
Unfortunately, plenty of data could be gathered over the past twenty years to confirm just how detrimental increasing heat is to human health. From the beginning of the millennium, heatwaves claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. And it is by far not “just” the elderly that are affected by this – people with chronic health conditions, mental illness, or those taking certain medications, are more at risk. To make it even worse, cue wealth inequality. It’s no coincidence that higher numbers of trees and plants, our green shields against extreme temperatures, can be found in wealthier neighbourhoods. Slum-dwellers, homeless people and non-urban populations all represent heat-vulnerable communities. These groups of people are also massively underrepresented in studies, so the real impact of heat-related deaths and associated health complications amounts to much more than we acknowledge.
“The frequency of climate-related natural disasters is rising“, states one of many reports on anthropogenic changes of climate. Heatwaves and droughts aside, it’s also hurricanes, storms and floods that have nearly tripled in incidence since 1975. In the last 20 years, “over 1 million people worldwide have died from natural disasters”. Sentences like that are hard to comprehend (how do you even imagine so many people) and impossible to stomach (so many people). But these numbers are only a fraction of a devastating reality: many more survive, only to lose their livelihoods, suffer psychological trauma, and descend even deeper into poverty. Once again, it is individuals of lower socioeconomic status who fare far worse when disasters strike. This is because they are more likely to be living in cheap accommodations located in areas that are at the mercy of the weather, with no means of evacuating themselves, unable to afford insurance and therefore left with greater financial losses.
It is also important to realise that climate change-induced destruction reaches far beyond the obvious. In an interview following a disquieting report published in The Lancet journal, researcher Nick Watts pointed out that natural disasters “do not only cause direct injuries but can also shut down hospitals, spur disease outbreaks and produce lingering mental health problems, as people lose their homes.”
The World Health Organisation warned that climate change will “cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year“ between 2030 and 2050. But this estimate has been labelled as “conservative” by other researchers. Death rates are likely to reach way higher than the estimated five million over the next twenty years when other factors are considered. Droughts and heatwaves will result in great loss of labour productivity in farming, construction, and other industries. Extreme weather also impacts food production – and with over 815 million people already facing undernourishment and starvation, perhaps the last thing you want to lay your eyes on is reports of yields of major crops declining, further compromising food security worldwide.
Last item on this rushed list of frightening facts is something nobody needs a reminder of right now: infectious diseases. “The climate suitability for infectious disease transmission has been growing rapidly since the 1950s,” scientist warn, and identify biodiversity disturbance and climate change as reasons for new pandemics to “emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than Covid-19”.
Perhaps now more than ever it’s time those in charge listened to what the experts have been saying all along. Mitigating climate change has been identified as the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”, and to ignore the facts would pretty much be equivalent to mass murder. Whilst this sounds extreme, bear with us: reducing air pollution alone could apparently prevent over 8 million deaths per year. Tackling diet-related risks could help save up to 11 million people on top of that. There are several other equally terrifying examples but you get the idea.
Frustratingly, those who contribute to climate change the least are often the ones most affected by it. From our privileged points of view, it’s easy to say we can all do our bit to #savetheplanet (and feel better about ourselves) – it’s good to get informed, educate/depress our friends and strangers by sharing disquieting climate facts on social media, put more plants on our plates, ditch fast fashion or cycle to work… And though of course, even the smallest act of care is much better than doing nothing at all, these day-to-day choices simply aren’t impactful enough to be considered power in our hands. Michael E. Mann puts it much more eloquently in his article: “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions.“ What we need is systemic change. Environmentally friendly policies. Because the world is only a few “this is fine, we can just deal with it later” away from becoming that dark dystopian place we dare not imagine.
Read more about the campaign attempting to counter growing inequality and make healthcare and justice more accessible to everyone on World Health Organisation’s website.
Tags:environment, health, pollution, sustainability, travel, world health day