Coronavirus is the vital wake up call for the bigger challenge, climate change

Within a space of a few months, we have seen our lives completely transformed by a virus. Our working lives digitised, cities emptied, and economies grinding to a halt.

Last week, I was informed that my uncle was in a critical condition after being diagnosed with coronavirus. On that same evening, the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the country would be entering lockdown for three weeks.

As the editorial registrar for The BMJ, based in London, I took one year out of my clinical training from August 2019 to work full time as an editor and immerse myself in the world of medical journalism. Through this role I have been able to contribute to one of the biggest global health challenges of our generation, climate change. I have been attending conferences, editing papers on health and climate, writing articles and advocating for healthcare to embrace changes in order to meet its net zero target. 

At The BMJ, we have the challenge of understanding how best to approach the climate crisis and to make a meaningful impact in the run up to COP26. From attending international and national climate events, I found that we were certainly not alone in this. COP25 was deemed a failure due to the lack of substantial policy decision making. It was clear that stronger political leadership was required – but even as the UK prepared for COP26, the conversations turned into a political contest rather than collective action.

With the emergence of covid-19, our attention has shifted even further away from climate change. Countries have shut their borders and curfews and lockdowns are in place to protect our health systems from becoming overwhelmed.

In February, whilst Wuhan became the first region to close its borders, NASA released satellite images showing a dramatic reduction in polluting emissions—a drop of 10-30%—across China. Similar data are emerging from other countries as industries are forced to close and air travel is halted. Perhaps, this should be a time that all climate scientists and advocates should be celebrating. Coronavirus has solved climate change? Unfortunately, this is far from the reality. 

Coronavirus has reduced emissions because people have died, and the cogwheels of the economy have temporarily stopped. This dip is similar to the 2008 recession, when a fall in economic activity correlated to a fall in carbon dioxide emissions. At that time, unemployment was 5-10% and US GDP fell by 4.3%. Yet, in immediate response, the economy overcompensated for this period, emissions rebounded and started to rise again at a greater rate than before. This phenomenon is also true of the majority of significant historical events: the Great Depression, Spanish Flu, and the First World War show similar changes.

With coronavirus predicted to cost the world economy $2.7 trillion dollars, and a likely recession ahead, maintaining economic growth will inevitably become the key priority of governments. The NHS will also have little time to think about a net zero system when they are struggling with this unprecedented crisis. Crucial climate conversations are being postponed and all of this risks climate falling down the political agenda. But we simply cannot let this happen.

The evidence for climate change is indisputable—unlike the evolving and changing evidence on covid-19. Air pollution already kills 4.2 million people annually. The WHO has predicted there will be around 250,000 additional deaths between 2030 to 2050 due to malaria, diarrhoea, heat stress and malnutrition, caused by climate change. Weather related natural disasters result in over 60,000 deaths. Whole ecosystems are threatened by collapse. Perhaps the most alarming part of the climate crisis is that unknown pathogens are predicted to occur in greater frequency as animals will be exposed to each other for the first time following habitat destruction. Climate change will lead to more infectious disease. Covid-19 could be just the beginning.

Today, we must focus on overcoming the immediate and urgent tide that has come our way. The lives and families of those affected by covid-19 should be protected as a first priority, and the dedication and hard work of our health and social workers commended. But let us be mindful that bigger waves are yet to come—from rising sea levels, increasing displacement, higher disease burdens and unpredictable environmental conditions. Covid-19 reminds us that human beings are not infallible to the environment. We are incredibly vulnerable.

What can we learn from covid-19? So far, we have taken conferences online and realised that work can be done remotely. For the first time, I had a family call, with relatives participating from three continents, to make up for a visit I could not make to India. All of this could have been done before, but an urgent situation has made these possibilities necessary realities. Governments have also proven they can respond with urgency and immediacy when required. 

Once the pandemic passes our leaders, nations and people have more work to do than ever. Now is the time to envision how we rebuild society and put climate at the centre of our economic and political decision making.

As the public health motto goes: an ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure. In this case, I think it is worth a whole lot more.

Shivali Fulchand, Editorial Registrar, The BMJ

This article is part of The BMJ’s Health in the Anthropocene collection.