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We have to invest in resilience-building measures, especially in health infrastructure, and weather and disease forecast systems, addressing training and adaptive capacity needs

The coronavirus epidemic is a wake up call to climate action (Image by Trinity Care Foundation)

The coronavirus epidemic is a wake up call to climate action (Image by Trinity Care Foundation)

Global temperatures are on track to increase by at least 3 degrees Celsius towards the end of the century, twice the limit to avoid severe economic, social and environmental consequences. The last five years (2015-19) were the warmest on record, and the frequency and intensity of natural disasters is only increasing, as Cyclone Amphan demonstrated just two days ago.

While the world is grappling with the challenges of managing climate risks, it has been threatened with another major health crisis, the ongoing pandemic due to Covid-19. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report considered infectious diseases and pandemics, like Covid-19, as one of the top 10 risks in terms of impact over the next 10 years along with climate change.

The dual-threat of Covid-19 and climate change has not only exposed numerous vulnerabilities within our systems, especially in emergency response, governance, early warning, disease forecast, and public health care, but has also illustrated the need for collective action and a paradigm shift in our approach to manage multiple crises.

Science is unequivocal on both — pandemics and climate change. It portrays both as global emergencies that are expected to change the world for present and future generations. The scientific community has alerted the world about the alarming consequences of the impacts arising out of both threats.

The sensitivity of human health to aspects of weather and climate is well documented, though it is difficult to anticipate what measures can be taken in the future to mitigate risks of adverse health outcomes because of the uncertainly associated with climate change. Climate impacts on health are largely observed in terms of its propensity to cause infections, heat stress and vector borne diseases; plus there are more insidious effects such as heightened blood pressure due to drinking water with higher than usual salt content, as has become common in coastal regions affected by saline water ingress.

In context of the pandemic, we see climate change playing a crucial role in:

  • Altering the geographical and seasonal distributions of existing vectors and vector-borne diseases;
  • Rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and a higher frequency of some extreme weather events associated with climate change influences the distribution, abundance and prevalence of infection in mosquitoes that transmit a variety of viruses and other pathogens by altering habitat availability and mosquito and viral reproduction rates; and
  • Vector-borne pathogens are expected to emerge or reemerge due to interactions of climate factors with many other drivers, such as changing land-use patterns and its impacts on human disease.

Ecological reservoirs

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic arguably could be in part attributed to climate change. The stresses imposed by climate change on the wild ecological reservoirs housing various species including plants, insects and animals in multiple ways creating a conducive atmosphere for propagating infections within and among species including humans. Every single species is interconnected and embedded in the web of life and hence, humans cannot escape the brunt.

Another critical aspect is connected to the change in wildlife migration patterns observed across continents by the warming trends. This may lead to larger releases of novel viruses that can infect humans and their livestock and pets. Though these attributions are based on circumstantial evidence, they could be logically compelling.

There is an observed pattern in seasonal variations induced by increase in temperature across the globe. This effectively lengthens the summer at the expense of other seasons. This shift in the seasons affects health. Longer and hotter summers take a toll on health and air quality, and enhance the wildfire season, which has an indirect bearing on the spread of pandemics.

While higher temperatures and lengthy summers influence the transmission intensity of infectious diseases, there are some scientific arguments and less conclusive studies pointing to high temperature, high humidity and direct sunlight creating conditions that are less favourable for coronavirus to thrive and spread.

The shifting seasons of autumn and spring create ecological issues with spread of pollinators, changing growing seasons, and longer allergy seasons. Meanwhile, shorter and warmer winters allow more pests to survive into the following season, increasing the odds of lower crop yields which impact food and nutritional security of people. Worsening food and nutritional security in turn impact human health adversely by altering the immune system.

Economic and social costs

The economic and social costs of a pandemic like Covid-19 are increasing by the day with spread of infection. As evident from several studies and media reports, not only does it impose huge infrastructure demands on healthcare systems, it also exacts substantial economic costs in terms of sickness-related absenteeism, disrupted work schedules and lost productivity under the lockdown conditions.

India’s quarterly GDP is estimated to decline by over 9% between April and June 2020. This follows a 5% growth estimate at the beginning of 2020. The country went into lockdown on March 25, restricting over 1.3 billion people, the largest in the world. This has now extended to May 31. India’s government estimated its real estate, professional services and financial sectors to be hardest hit during the lockdown. This has a direct bearing on livelihoods of the poor and vulnerable sections of society, besides the business community.

While direct costs are easily identifiable, indirect costs remain hidden. How should these be measured? How does one assess the cost of lost opportunities, and what are the economic gains of vaccination regarding avoided costs? Which target groups for vaccination would generate the greatest avoided costs? There are so many questions to grapple with. There are no definite answers so far and the uncertainties associated with the Covid-19 pandemic continue.

Moving Ahead

Targeted investments in resilience-building measures, especially in health infrastructure, weather and disease forecast systems, addressing training and adaptive capacity needs at different scales are imperative. The state should focus on improving vector control practices and personal protective measures. Politicians and policymakers need robust data to optimally allocate costs of preventative healthcare and climate resilience measures.

There should be complete revamp of how we design and implement our social safety net systems. The social safety nets and associated policy measures beg for health and climate considerations. Apart from this there is so much to learn from the world about the behavioural issues, existing cultural norms that help manage pandemics, and the power of social capital and collective action.

Above all, investments in science and technology, appropriate tools and approaches, and early warning systems are critical. Harnessing political will assumes enormous importance in the context of both – the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Political will needs to be driven by compassion and a strong desire to wake up to the realities of a new normal.

Nambi Appadurai is Director, Climate Resilience Practice, World Resources Institute, India

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