What we can learn from Earth Day on lockdown

We mark the 50th Earth Day under quarantine as we endeavor to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It might be more pleasurable to spend the day admiring natural beauty, politically organizing or perhaps even picking up trash.

But our circumstances are also strangely fitting. The first Earth Day was marked with a protest march that drew a tenth of the entire U.S. population, but the original plan was a teach-in. Our current situation presents a number of lessons we can learn about our relationship with the planet’s natural systems from the ongoing pandemic.

Pandemics are among the challenges that health advocates have warned would come as a result of climate change. As IGHS affiliate Jonna Mazet’s work has shown, the destruction of natural ecosystems has laid the groundwork for viruses, including the coronaviruses that cause SARS, MERS and COVID-19, to jump from animals into humans. The rate of novel viruses has grown faster as the environment has become dangerously imperiled. Existing tropical viruses are also expanding their reach.

Uplifting images of wild animals reclaiming urban spaces and cleaner air providing exquisite views of the Himalayas have highlighted how quickly the natural world can begin to heal.

But climate advocates like IGHS’s Naomi Beyeler, MPH, who is helping drive UCSF’s response to the health effects of climate change, have taken note of how quickly governments, civic society, businesses and individuals can act to protect public health.

“This pandemic and the rapidness of the response has shown the capacity of governments and societies to take ambitious action in the name of health and to be innovative quickly – being able to say that public health is important enough to us to make real change,” Beyeler said.

“We need to take advantage of this break to build back in a way that’s different,” Beyeler insisted. Shifts toward greener forms of energy, transportation and industry would not impose the kind of economic devastation COVID-19 has.

“These are smart investments because they protect health and can bolster our economy,” Beyeler said.

IGHS was among the public health and medical organizations that wrote to Congress asking that the COVID-19 relief provisions include support for cleaner energy.

At the local level, some public health efforts have found common ground with environmental improvements. For instance, Oakland is moving ahead with efforts to devote 10 percent of its streets to pedestrian and bike traffic. More space will allow people to exercise while practicing social distancing. But as COVID-19 has taken over public life and captured national attention the federal government has quietly repealed several major environmental regulations.

And yet the pandemic’s clearest lesson, most U.S. health policy experts agree, is the high cost of low investment in public health. Public health departments find themselves lacking in staff and other resources to do the work that containing the COVID-19 outbreak requires. The outbreak and climate change both disproportionately affect low-income communities of color, who have been made vulnerable by structural racism and historic disinvestment.  

For Beyeler, bolstering preparedness in public health is perhaps the most important part of bracing for climate change. After all, we will continue to face heat waves, wildfires, and other climate impacts as COVID-19 spreads: We will have to find ways to protect health from these overlapping threats. Cities and states will have to find ways to shelter to those displaced without risking large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19.

There will likely be an uptick in public health investment over the next few years, just as there was a spate of spending on law enforcement and national security after September 11. Beyeler and others who see climate change as a health issue just want to make sure some of it goes to creating health systems worldwide that can handle more surprises.

Photo by Sergio Rodriguez - Portugues del Olmo