Climate change is the most severe existential threat of our time, with impacts affecting public health, economic prosperity, and social harmony. The last decade was hotter than any period in the past 1,25,000 years. The global ocean has warmed faster than it has in 11,000 years and sea-level rise has tripled compared to 1901-1971. These findings from the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in August, point to a future where heat waves, heavy rainfall, and droughts, become increasingly more severe and more frequent.
Climate-induced disasters have taken lives and have been burdening healthcare systems for many decades in the Global South; and now increasingly in the Global North as well. The recent floods in Germany and Belgium, which were intensified 3-19 per cent by climate change according to scientists, caused about 200 deaths. The unprecedented heat wave in Canada claimed almost 700 lives, and was deemed “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”
Injuries and deaths due to extreme heat, flooding, and food and water shortages; health impacts due to air pollution; and disease and deaths due to migration when a region is rendered unlivable due to floods or desertification – these are some of the ways in which human health is affected. Climate change is also increasing exposure to infectious disease agents – rising temperatures are expanding the areas where mosquitoes can survive, leading to more cases of malaria. Destruction of natural habitats due to floods, snowmelt or landslides is increasing exposure to animals than can transmit other zoonotic diseases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 2,50,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone.
And the brunt will be borne mainly by the fragile and the poor.
Of the former, the very young, the elderly and those with chronic conditions are the most vulnerable to heat and humidity stress, says Jeff Schlegelmilch of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, referring to the recent North American heat wave.
We already see increased hospitalizations and deaths during heatwaves, and as temperatures rise, so will these impacts”, he says. But beyond that, increased heat also means increased strain on the electric grid. With widespread power outages, you have more people impacted by the heat and increased impacts on those who rely on electricity for their health and wellbeing. The impacts cascade across all aspects of society, even beyond these few examples.
According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, between 2000 and 2019, 4,75,000 deaths occurred directly due to more than 11,000 extreme weather events. Eight out of 10 countries most affected in 2019, belonged to the low-income category; half of them are Least Developed Countries (LDCs). India ranked 7th.
Other than the obvious need for rapid reduction of carbon emissions and protection of biodiversity, we need greater investments in healthcare infrastructure, particularly socialized healthcare, to prepare for the impacts that will inevitably occur in the next few decades, even as we attempt to rein in global warming.
And yet, as the frequency of climate disasters rises, healthcare has continued to be reduced as a public sector offering and sold to private players. Through the COVID-19 crisis, Pfizer’s profits were 44 per cent higher in the first quarter of 2021, than they were a year ago, even though the vaccine development process was funded primarily by public sector funds – a phenomenon termed socializing the risk and privatizing the profits. This, while dozens of low-income countries continue to lack adequate access to vaccines due to punishing patents.
Investments in healthcare have also declined. India’s healthcare spending as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined from 4.03 per cent in 2000 to 3.54 per cent in 2018, a startling 12 per cent drop, shows the WHO’s Health Expenditure database. COVID-19 laid bare these inadequacies – Oxfam found that states that have had higher GDP expenditure on health, such as Assam, Bihar, and Goa, have seen higher recovery rates of COVID-19 cases.
Inequalities exist across borders as well: for OECD countries, healthcare expenditure comprised 12.45 per cent of their GDP in 2018, while LDCs spent a mere 4.02 per cent. In fact, about 64 lower income countries, many of whom are categorized as LDCs, currently spend more on external debt payments than they spend on healthcare, according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign in an analysis published last year.
Depleting social safety nets and cross-border public health crises like vaccine apartheid foreshadow a fatal future for the survival of the poor as the climate crisis intensifies. The challenges are intertwined in ways obvious to many, but not to the neoliberal policymakers bent on framing climate change as a technical issue to be solved solely by disruptive technology, and with inadequate consideration of the links to socioeconomic infrastructure. The editors of over 200 medical journals published a joint statement in the British Medical Journal this month where they have called upon global leaders to do more to tackle the climate emergency and protect public health, since current country commitments to reduce emissions are inadequate.
They believe that governments must intervene and support the redesign of transport, food, and health systems rather than leave it to the markets, citing the example of ‘unprecedented funding’ that was mobilized for COVID-19. They warn against a return to ‘damaging austerity policies or the continuation of the large inequalities of wealth and power within and between countries’ and urge wealthy countries to provide more funding to help developing countries. The question remains if centers of power recognize these interlinkages and take steps to address the multiple overlapping crises.
(Avantika Goswami is a Deputy Program Manager, Climate Change and Renewable Energy at Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.