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Why Covid-19 won’t be the last health crisis – and how to mitigate the upcoming ones

Reading time: 5 minutes

It all started off at a wildlife market in Wuhan. The health crisis currently shaking our entire system began when a pangolin, the most illegally traded mammal in the world, was eaten by a human. Vegetarians and vegans would here find an argument to stop animal illegal trade but also legal husbandry, and they would probably be right. Indeed, zoonotic diseases (caused by harmful germs that spread between animals and humans), such as MERS, Ebola or even HIV, make more than 60% of emerging infectious diseases that have been identified since 1940. But that one change, although helpful, wouldn’t prevent us from getting new viruses. Indeed, as scientists have been asserting in vain for decades, numerous alterations caused by greenhouse gas emissions, resource overuse and threats to biodiversity by humans directly lead to the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale. 

First, climate change increases the survival of infectious diseases and spreads some of them in previously immune areas. For instance, transmission season and geographical exposure to malaria, the deadliest mosquito-borne infectious disease, will drastically surge as mosquitos breed better in a warm, rainy, and humid atmospheres – all patterns that are amplified by global warming. It also applies to other vectorborne and zoonotic diseases (VBZD) such as dengue, Hantavirus or the West Nile virus. VBZD diseases, that can notably spread through direct or indirect contact with infected animals, will similarly increase as natural habitats are being destroyed and are forcing animals to relocate themselves closer and closer to human populations (the opposite applies too). Cholera and other diarrheal diseases, which affect an estimated 5 million people worldwide, also increases with water disruptions such as heavy rainfall events and floods, as both spread contaminate waters. Likewise, waterborne diseases will rise as higher temperatures allow more hazardous species to bloom.
But the most worrisome source of infectious diseases might come from the unlocking of microorganisms from thousands of years ago. As I dare hope that we all know, climate change in the Arctic is harsh, causing the ice to melt, which comes with numerous devastating consequences. But the main thing that is alarming on a direct sanitary level is what occurs to permafrost, which, as the name itself can indicate, is defined as “an area of land that is permanently frozen below the surface” (Cambridge Dictionary). But it seems they’ll have to update that one, since humans managed to cause its thawing. Along with the fact that it contains more CO2 (from frozen plant matter) than there is in the atmosphere, putting climate change into a devastating feedback loop, permafrost also trapped microbes, allowing ancient viruses to travel in time, until nowadays. This ground covers a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, in countries such as Russia, Canada, Alaska, or Greenland, that is, proximate areas that will allow an easy direct spread to our communities. If some can find amusing being able to catch the same diseases as Neanderthals did, it is mostly alarming.

Most westerners assume that climate change doesn’t and won’t affect them directly. We tend to think that only poor and exotic countries will pay the price of our profligacy while, as developed states, we are protected from its consequences. Even if it is true that some populations are more vulnerable than others, the Covid-19 turmoil showed us that we are far from being immune to a pandemic. Whilst mainly under-developed countries were targeted until now, because of their climatic conditions, poor infrastructures and health systems that couldn’t hinder the spread of diseases, developed countries are also at risk nowadays, chiefly as warmer temperatures over the globe make new areas at risk. And as we are seeing now, almost none of our yet developed health structures are capable of dealing with it.
We frequently hear about the damages of climate change on biodiversity, landscapes, farming, etc… We do perceive that pollution levels are at the highest and cause millions of human deaths per year. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that climate change will cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year by the 2030s, and some even claimed that the lives preserved thanks to the drop in atmospheric pollution in China more than offset the death toll from coronavirus infections. But all of this data doesn’t seem to alert people enough yet, as we are still going to our loss with our current way of life. Therefore, maybe hearing that the global sanitary crisis we are currently facing foreshadows many more, for all the reasons mentioned above (although the listing isn’t exhaustive) will make people react.

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If the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions due to the standstill of production is encouraging, and the fact that “nature is taking back its rights”, with dolphins swimming in clear Venice canals, is pleasant to see, it is in fact meaningless. Because it is not a blank year in the climate disaster that we need, it is a structural change. As the sanitary consequences I have stated illustrate, the climate crisis isn’t a matter of opinions, but facts. As you can appreciate if you listen to their statements, climate activists keep pushing people to believe the scientific evidence experts have been delivering for decades now. Today, the public praises health workers by thanking them for their commitment, and they answer that the best way to help is to stay at home. Because scientific experts proved that confining the population is the best way to contain the virus. Well for climate change, it is the same process: listen to the experts, they just know better. Read an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment Report – or a summary for the lazier – and you’ll realize it.
Once you acknowledge the catastrophic situation we are facing, there are several ways of dealing with that issue. The collapsologists will argue that the industrial civilization is already condemned, and the more optimists that individual changes in behavior are the key to a sustainable world. Liberals praise green growth while rational people advocate for a systemic revolution. But the one sure thing is that we can’t keep on going as we currently are. It seems that middle to upper class citizens are the perfect sample for individual behavioral change, as they have means to afford responsible consumptions (recall that the USA and EU-28 were responsible for 47% of cumulative CO2 emissions from 18th century until 2017). Hence, here is a non-exhaustive list of ways in which you can actively engage: widely consume as less as possible, buy local and – regarding food – seasonal, avoid plastic and overpacked products, sort your waste, limit your plane and long-distance travels… You can also aim at building a stronger self-sufficient community in your surroundings, and advocate for change with your peers. But as you surely know, small individual steps aren’t sufficient. Although they are undoubtedly aware of the whole situation, our leaders can’t help but think in the short term. As we observe, almost nobody (less and more developed countries comprised) was ready for a sanitary emergency on a national and global scale, and the same applies to the sanitary, cultural, political, social and economic crisis triggered by climate change. We are all wondering what will happen once we will go back to normal, although the truth is probably that we won’t ever: what is directly waiting for us down the road is a devastating economic and social crisis. But we can try and make the post-meltdown better in the long term. That is why the people – you – have to understand for itself that a holistic global change is needed in order to allow humans’ minds and souls to make it through and thrive, in a better system for all.

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Ayelle Tiné
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