How climate crises and COVID-19 are interconnected

Interrogating the links between climate change and the coronavirus

A firefighter battling a blaze during the summer bushfire crisis. Courtesy: National Geographic.

COVID-19 has shown us just how interconnected the world is. As the virus spreads, it has left a trail of stripped shelves, laid-off workers, and overwhelmed hospitals. But these connections run much deeper.

Health crises are inextricably linked to environmental crises. The destruction and transformation of our natural environment has created conditions which both facilitate the spread of disease and amplify its impacts. Additionally, with the media focused squarely on COVID-19, governments are rolling back environmental protections without scrutiny or regard for long-term public health.

As we recover from this pandemic, our response necessitates principles of climate justice. By recognising the mutuality of health, the economy and the environment, and the fact that vulnerable communities are disproportionately burdened by these crises, we have a chance to reorient our social and economic institutions to protect life in the future.

Environmental destruction facilitates the spread of disease

Our reshaping of habitats and ecosystems has forced humans and wild animals closer together, creating ideal conditions for new diseases to emerge. Around three quarters of novel infectious diseases have originated in animals, most of them wildlife. While these viruses generally exist harmlessly within animals, humans become hosts when we venture into and alter their habitats. 

The Ebola outbreak of 2014-16, which killed more than 11,000 people across West Africa, occured in areas which were deforestation hotspots and likely emerged after fruit-eating bats were driven to human settlements in order to find food. COVID-19, which is similarly thought to have originated in bats, is the just the latest infectious disease to arise from human interference with nature. 

Further, the conditions of industrial agriculture and intensive factory farming today not only produce substantial emissions and toxic waste but also serve as breeding grounds for viral pandemics. In abattoirs and meat markets, animals are often kept in overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and unsanitary premises – the ideal climate for disease.

COVID-19 has been traced back to a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where caged animals are slaughtered onsite in crowded stalls. China’s live meat trade emerged during its economic transformation in the 1990s, when some small farmers – undercut by industrial farms and pushed out to uncultivable areas – turned to farming wild species in order to stay afloat.

Disease is also facilitated through small changes in ecological conditions – temperatures, rainfall and humidity – which occur as a result of destructive practices. Land clearing and agricultural expansion in the Amazon have created moist habitats, ideal for malaria-carrying mosquitoes to breed. In Australia, similar changes to the distribution of mosquitoes have resulted in human contractions of dengue fever and Ross River virus in areas which were previously not at risk.

The impacts of climate crises amplify the impacts of global pandemics

Climate change is a risk multiplier that accelerates the pace and deepens the severity of global pandemics such as COVID-19. Extreme weather conditions, rising temperatures, and deteriorating air quality exacerbate our vulnerability to a range of diseases.

As heatwaves in Australia become longer and hotter, illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which may alter immune functions, are on the rise. Smoke pollution and haze from the recent bushfires resulted in thousands of hospitalisations for respiratory problems, as well as increased presentations to emergency departments with asthma. These people are more prone to further respiratory problems such as pneumonia, putting them at a higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19. 

Importantly, climate change and pandemics work in tandem to produce disproportionate impacts on poorer communities. Not only do these groups have higher rates of adverse health conditions, they also bear the brunt of air pollution as they often live closest to pollution sources. In Australia, around 90 percent of facilities such as power plants, industrial installations and hazardous dumps are located in postcodes comprising low to middle income households. In contrast, only 0.1 percent of polluting facilities are located in the most affluent postcodes.

First Nations people living in remote and rural areas are particularly impacted, as hotter conditions are likely to bring about elevated risks of disease and health conditions in places such as tropical northern and western Australia. 

The mutually reinforcing cycle of health, economic, and environmental disadvantage makes it extremely difficult for vulnerable communities to recover from COVID-19 and future pandemics. 

Such health inequities become a problem for everyone. A large segment of workers do not have the luxury of working from home or simply cannot afford to self-isolate. Lack of access to quality health services also makes it difficult to get diagnosed or treated if they become ill. And since a large number of these workers are in jobs that involve high contact with other people, it means that viruses can circulate a lot faster.

Governments are using COVID-19 to roll back environmental protections

At the same time, governments and businesses are beginning to relax environmental regulations to achieve short-term economic stimulus. The Victorian government has recently lifted the moratorium on onshore gas extraction, which risks fugitive emissions – greenhouse gases that can escape into the atmosphere from poorly managed sites. 

The NSW government has also approved the extension of coal mining under the Woronora Dam, risking contamination of Greater Sydney’s water supplies. It was the first mining approval under a Greater Sydney reservoir in two decades. 

And in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has assured companies they would not face penalties for not complying with environmental obligations, for as long as the outbreak persists. 

These changes show how companies and governments assume they have no choice but to exploit natural resources in order to remain economically viable, especially in periods of crisis. However, this is a narrow view which neglects to consider that environmentally destructive practices will reduce our capacity to prevent, and respond to, the economic and health impacts of future shocks. 

As public health diminishes and our public and private health systems are strained, governments inject huge amounts of money to support them during crises. Instead, we should develop environmental and social policies which improve public health and ensure a more sustainable health system that can withstand the worst effects of future pandemics.

Our responses to COVID-19 must incorporate climate justice

Our broader responses to COVID-19 therefore must be informed by principles of climate justice, recognising that pandemics are not purely a health or economic matter, but encompass issues such as workers’ rights, Indigenous rights, infrastructure and housing, and indeed, environmental sustainability. 

To assist in economic recovery after the pandemic, our goal should be to support livelihoods by investing in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. We should now begin to redirect the $5.2 trillion spent globally on fossil fuel subsidies to fund initiatives such as green infrastructure and reforestation, including fossil fuel workers in these programs. 

Government assistance to corporations must have strings attached to ensure targeted progress towards social goals. Qantas was recently criticised for standing down 20,000 workers without pay after the airline industry received a $715 million bailout. Instead, loans to airlines should be conditional, or the industry nationalised, requiring a commitment to invest in low-emissions and zero-waste flights while protecting wages, employment and working conditions.

The Federal Government announced last week that thousands of nurses and hospital beds in the private healthcare system would be repurposed to deal with COVID-19. Moving forward, we should create stronger relationships between public and private health providers or increase government control to regulate prices, improve community access, and help us coordinate our response to future pandemics and natural disasters. 

While reduced work travel and aviation have cut emissions in the short term, anything that causes human death is counterproductive to social and climate justice. When the risk of transmission lowers, governments should look to how we can sustain these effects purposefully and without human cost.

For example, we should invest in and promote public transport and electric vehicles to decrease emissions from commuting. Businesses need to assess whether work can continue to be done remotely, while keeping as much of their workforce employed as possible. City planners could make communities more pedestrian-friendly, ensuring that people have easy access to essential services without needing to travel great distances. 

Ultimately, solutions must not only allow us to recover from COVID-19, but improve outcomes in the future. COVID-19 will not be the last shock to the global economy. If we scramble through each new crisis, putting out fires without addressing the structures that got us here, we will soon find it difficult to deal with potentially deadlier disasters that are worsened by climate change. 

As governments and communities respond to the health crisis in ways previously unimaginable, it is clear we are capable of transforming ourselves overnight. We are now at a vital turning point. If we shift our current stance of defensive protection to one that is restorative and community-led, we may begin to achieve justice for workers, vulnerable communities, and the planet moving forward.