Coinciding crises: how COVID-19 and climate change are putting pressure on health systems worldwide – and how we can prepare for the future

By Mariana Simões, Regional Technical Specialist on Climate Change Adaptation (Tw: @MarianaSim0es) and Mashida Rashid, Public Health Specialist, UNDP (Tw: @MashidaRashid)

It is hard to believe that in a few short months, it will be a year since we were first introduced to COVID-19. What started as a strange acronym for us all, is now a part of our everyday lives as we take measures to keep ourselves and others safe.   

From the early days of the pandemic, we can recall confusing messages and strained health systems. In many countries, clinics and hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, unprepared for the impact of the virus – lacking in capacity to treat the influx of patients, lacking even in basic personal protective equipment.

Simultaneously, health systems have had to continue to cope with other pressing health issues, including the increasing health-related impacts of climate change.

Consider floods, such as the ones that struck Nepal in July, which expose communities to water and vector borne diseases (for example bacterial diseases, diarrheal disease, Hepatitis A and E, cholera, malaria, and dengue).

Or powerful storms, such as the cyclone that hit Fiji and Vanuatu in April, which can cause immediate physical harm but also facilitate the spread of diseases associated with crowding (such as COVID-19, measles, meningitis, and acute respiratory infections), as well as result in longer-term distress related to loss.  

Or the health implications of slow-onset climate change impacts, for example the contamination of freshwater sources due to sea level rise and flooding in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

While COVID-19 will remain a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, we can already begin to apply the lessons learned. Among them, that early warning and preparedness are needed for health systems to respond effectively to crises.

While this may not be possible in all cases, when it comes to the health impacts of climate change, it often is: we can monitor and analyze weather data and develop climate projections; we can identify areas of potential health risks; we can help the population to protect themselves through early warning messages and advisories; and we can prepare our health systems to respond. 

To support health systems in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), with the support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is undertaking a six-country project aimed at building the climate-resilience of health systems in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal and Timor-Leste. A similar project is in development for the Pacific region, covering Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The projects seek to strengthen institutional capacities in integrating climate risks and adaptation into health sector planning; to improve climate health surveillance, early warning systems, and health advisories; to strengthen health facilities to climate impacts; and to support communities with water and vector borne disease prevention measures, such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) investments.

A key initiative is also to create evidence-based cases for investing in climate-resilient health systems. With the lack of data around climate change and health, the analyses will serve as a useful tool in policy and decision-making, and resource allocation, to ensure that climate-informed health investments are made, and that risks are mainstreamed in national plans and legislation.

Of course, climate change and COVID-19 are inextricably linked, with roots that can be traced. Sixty percent of all infectious diseases, and 75 percent of all emerging diseases are zoonotic. Previous epidemics such SARS, MERS, H1N1, and now COVID-19, point to growing evidence that the same human activities that contribute to climate change, leads to emergence of new diseases, and enables their spread.

Better understanding of these connections, and the impacts of climate change on health, will help us not only better prepare our health systems, but also prevent future health risks.   

 

Malaria has always been a problem in Afghanistan, especially in the eastern and south-eastern provinces. Successful malaria control programmes, including with UNDP, have dramatically decreased incidents of the disease, however climate change threatens increased risk of transmission. Photo credit: Omer Sadaat/UNDP Afghanistan

A radiographer wheels a portable x-ray ion to the main island of Tuvalu after the discovery of an active case of TB activity in the country. In the Pacific, where remoteness is an additional challenge facing under-equipped health systems, early warning and preparedness are particularly crucial to saving lives. Photo credit: Aurélia Rusek/UNDP Pacific
Last Updated: 29 Oct 2020