August 12, 2020

Health professionals call for a healthy recovery

By Barend ter Haar.

In a message to the leaders of the G20, organisations representing forty million health professionals note that the recent levels of death, disease and mental distress “could have been partially mitigated, or possibly even prevented by adequate investments in pandemic preparedness, public health and environmental stewardship”. [1] They advocate learning from these mistakes. We should no longer allow pollution to kill seven million people every year and climate change to continue unabated.

The message of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19 is essentially the same, but the following six prescriptions are more detailed.[2] As they concern the health of each of us, they deserve serious consideration.

1) Protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature. 

This might be the most difficult point, because it requires a fundamental change in our view of nature. Humanity, especially its so-called developed part, has far too long believed that nature can be exhausted and ignored with impunity. The current pandemic might be a relatively small “reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet” in comparison to the potential consequences of climate change, pollution and the loss of biodiversity.[3]

2) Invest in essential services, from water and sanitation to clean energy in healthcare facilities.

To prevent diseases like COVID-19, essential services, such as save drinking water and sanitation, should be available everywhere for everybody,.  

3) Ensure a quick healthy energy transition.

A rapid transition to clean energy would not only help to meet the Paris climate goals, but also improve air quality. The resulting health gains would easily repay the cost of the investment.

4) Promote healthy, sustainable food systems.

One of the biggest causes of ill health are unhealthy diets that increase the risks of obesity and diabetes. Following WHO dietary guidelines would save millions of lives and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

5) Build healthy, liveable cities.

Walking, cycling and using public transport instead of cars could reduce air pollution and road accidents – and reduce the number of deaths (three million a year!) caused by physical inactivity.

6) Stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution.

The price of fossil fuels is kept low by subsidies and by ignoring the damage caused by these fuels.  If governments ended these subsidies and when the damage caused by fossil fuels would be taken into account, the price of these fuels would become high enough to halve the number of deaths from outdoor air pollution and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than a quarter. 

On a personal level, most people will probably choose better health over economic growth, but politicians tend to be more interested in economic growth than in public health. Will Covid-19 change that?


[1] https://healthyrecovery.net/  

[2] https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-manifesto-for-a-healthy-recovery-from-covid-19

[3] See also: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/01/sixth-mass-extinction-of-wildlife-accelerating-scientists-warn

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