By Poorvaprabha Patil and Sophie Gepp
Photo: Alishya Tanku
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst health crisis since the Spanish Flu of 1918. With over 844,000 deaths, as of 30th August 2020, and slowing economies due to strict quarantine measures, human lives have been disrupted in more ways than one. On the flip side, the pandemic has brought out in bright light the failures of our existing systems and misplaced priorities of many governments across the world. While we head to a “new normal” after the pandemic, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves which direction our pre-pandemic “normal” was driving us in. And find a “new normal” that not only internalizes the ideals of the SDGs and leaving no one behind, but also responds to the next imminent threat that the world faces- climate change.
There are lessons from COVID-19 for the climate crisis that we cannot overlook.
We learned how we need to act in solidarity, between generations, across borders and differences. We learned that we are capable of acting and adapting in the face of a crisis. We learned the importance of science and timely action and the need for prevention. And we learned that human health and the state of the ecosystems we live in are inextricably linked. These are the lessons we should not, must not forget for the other, imminent crisis we are facing: the climate crisis.
In his press conference on 21st August 2020, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the recovery from COVID-19 a “once-in-a-century opportunity to shape the world our children will inherit”. But make no mistake: with regards to the climate crisis, it is not only a once-in-a-century opportunity, it is likely our last shot. With that urgency in mind, it is now our time to collectively reimagine what we want the post-COVID world to look like. Many voices have called for “building back better”. WHO has released a manifesto, with “prescriptions for a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19”. After clapping for health workers all over the world, now it is time to listen to what health professionals worldwide are demanding for a healthier future.
Many solutions already exist, with benefits to both – human health and the climate.
Phasing out fossil fuels protects the climate and reduces the negative health effects of air pollution. Reducing car traffic in cities and increasing cycling or walking reduces air pollution, noise and road-traffic accidents, and provides health benefits through physical activity. If we put together our efforts and all our investments towards building a healthy, green future, imagine what the “new normal” could look like!
As young people who will live through the consequences of the climate crisis if it’s not averted, we imagine a post-COVID world that’s equipped to face these challenges. A future with the SDGs, sustainability and climate action at the centre, with priorities that serve all of humankind and not just a subset, is the only possible future we have.
To actualize a future like that, we need to:
1. Listen to science and act. Now.
It’s not the dearth of scientific data that keeps us from moving in the right direction, but the lack of action. Even before COVID-19, scientists warned about the pandemic potential of zoonotic diseases and the increased risk due to destruction of habitat and biodiversity loss – we just weren’t listening. Furthermore, we witnessed blatant disregard for scientific facts and evidence in some parts of the world, and the aftermath of those actions. The climate crisis isn’t unannounced. We do not have the time to debate over climate change being “real” or not, or the space for empty promises. We and our governments need to act now, in the direction of science. And we, as citizens, need to hold them accountable.
2. Identify vulnerabilities and reduce inequalities
Climate change is the 21st century’s biggest threat to global health, and human life at large. Like COVID-19, it will – and has started to – impact the most vulnerable. The fabric of a healthy and safe society can only be weaved by equitable solutions, and policies that address these vulnerabilities, especially in times of crisis. As leaders of today and the future, the world we strive to create is one where we realize the true essence of leaving no one behind, using the blueprint that the SDGs provide us.
3. Understand that the SDGs aren’t optional
While some countries have made progress on “some SDGs” that are most convenient to their agendas, we are far from realizing them. With the opportunity of a green, healthy recovery out of a world gripped by COVID 19, comes the opportunity – and obligation – to truly start realizing the importance and interlinkages between all 17 SDGs for a safe and healthy world capable of averting the climate crisis. There is no space to treat the SDGs like a list of 17 “options” to choose from.
4. Act together
Global crises need global responses. Not only do we need to act beyond borders, we also need to act beyond age, race, colour, caste, nationality, political affiliations, sexuality, gender orientation and other differences. Climate change will impact us all.
Intergenerational leadership is the key to a sustainable future. Just like flattening the curve included all generations, and many young people stayed home and away from beloved ones to protect them, we now need all generations to come together to protect our future.
*This blog has first appeared at UN DESA.
About the authors: Poorvaprabha Patil is President of the Medical Students Association of India and a mentee at the Women Leaders for Planetary Health 2020 class. Sophie Gepp is a member of the Health for Future and an associate at the Women Leaders for Planetary Health.