Fighting for Health, Resilience and Truth in the Face of COVID-19 and Climate Change

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

The following post appears courtesy of Dr. Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH, public health physician based in Oakland, CA and Michelle Deatrick, Founder and Chair of the DNC Environment and Climate Council.

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us what public health professionals have been warning for years: our frayed and under-funded public health infrastructure is not ready for new, unpredictable, and changing health threats, whether from pandemics or climate change.

While the threats we face are diverse and varied, the backbone of our public health response will be the same. We need strong health care systems, investments in prevention to boost the health of our entire population, and public health agencies that are resourced and prepared for early and sustained interventions.

Heroic health professionals are working in adverse conditions to beef up our surveillance capacity, reaching out to the most vulnerable populations, and mounting an all-hands-on-deck effort to flatten the curve of the pandemic. We must backstop their efforts by making smart and strategic investments in public health. Those investments pay dividends long after the current crisis has passed because they will help us cope with the long-term health crisis posed by climate change. Here is what we must do now:

Rebuild the public health infrastructure.

Due to years of disinvestment, government public health agencies lack the capacity and resources required to mount a rapid, robust, and coordinated response to COVID-19. This, despite expert warnings that a pandemic was inevitable. Health departments are similarly challenged in their response to the increasing severity and number of climate health emergencies, such as wildfire smoke and heat waves.

Weaknesses in our capacity for disease surveillance on display with coronavirus will also affect our ability to deal with climate-related dengue fever or food-borne illnesses. We need a significant investment in our public health infrastructure to protect Americans in the face of multiple emerging threats.

Invest in healthy communities.

COVID-19 and climate change both disproportionately impact the elderly and people with chronic illness, which is more prevalent in low-income communities and communities of color. Air pollution — which kills more than seven million people around the world every year and is highest in disadvantaged communities — increases the risk for asthma, respiratory, and heart disease, which are associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes. Investments in clean air will increase health resilience in the face of future pandemic threats, reduce deaths and health care costs quickly, provide tens of thousands of jobs, and reduce climate pollution.

Building for a healthy future also requires that investments be designed with an eye toward reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change. Investments in public transit and infrastructure that encourage walking and biking would yield huge reductions in diabetes and heart disease, air pollution, and climate pollution, while creating high-paying jobs. Investments in sustainable, local agriculture would broaden access to affordable and healthy foods while promoting a healthier climate. Funding community organizations to plant trees, install rooftop solar, and retrofit homes in low-income communities for energy efficiency provides jobs and builds climate resilience.

Invest in a resilient health care system.

Right now, people across the U.S. are fearful that our health care system cannot cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Health care providers are working without protective equipment and our hospital bed capacity is far less than that of other developed nations. Providers also face dire conditions when hospitals lose power in hurricanes and wildfires, burn unit beds are in short supply, or stretched emergency medical systems are overwhelmed in extreme heat events. Any healthy stimulus package must include money to strengthen our health care workforce, provide surge capacity for times of crisis, and equip hospitals to keep functioning when they are needed most.

Tell the truth.

Our lack of preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic shows what happens when science and health experts are ignored. While the initial downplaying of risk by the White House surely impeded public response, everyone now knows that coronavirus is a serious threat. It is time for similar candor about climate threats. Over 150 leading health and medical organizations recently declared climate change a health emergency, but few in the public understand that threat, due to denial and obfuscation on the part of politicians and the fossil fuel industry. Once the pandemic is controlled, the public deserves to know that the climate health emergency has already begun.

Put equity at the center of our response.

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are both global threats that impact everyone, everywhere. But we’re not all affected equally: Vulnerable communities and populations are hit first and worst. Our response must protect and lift up the most vulnerable. Without paid sick leave and family medical leave, low-wage workers cannot stay home to protect the rest of us from illness. Without water, electricity, food, and shelter, people cannot be healthy. Congress should ensure all people in our wealthy nation have affordable access to these basic amenities, both during the pandemic and when climate-related drought and extreme weather threaten access. And we must make a just transition away from a fossil-fuels economy, ensuring that impacted workers and communities benefit from — and support — a shift to cleaner energy.

Work together to build a healthier, more resilient future.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us again it is best to be prepared and act early when we face major threats. We have known for years the climate crisis demands urgent action. Let’s use this crisis to rapidly invest in the transformative changes we need to weather the pandemic, while advancing health and safety for the long-term challenge of climate change.

The DNC Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis is a permanent entity of the DNC, created in August 2019 to ensure that the Democratic Party takes bold, ambitious action on the climate crisis and other environmental issues. Learn more at dncclimate.org and join in our online conversations DNC Environment and Climate Crisis Council on Twitter or at on Facebook

The Council is a permanent entity of the DNC, created to ensure that the Democratic Party takes bold, ambitious stance on climate and environment issues.