A tale of two crises

It might be that with this combination of reduced consumption and reduced environmental harm, coupled with societal commitment to ensuring the meeting of basic needs for all, we will find ourselves unintentionally creating the well-being economy we need in the 21st century

By Vic Neufeld & Katrina Plamondon

Undoubtably, the COVID-19 situation is occupying much of your attention in the last few weeks—and so it should. But how shall we, as a community committed to planetary health, think about this new “crisis” in the context of the on-going (and slower moving) climate change crisis. The purpose of this note is two-fold: to highlight some interesting recently published perspectives on the interaction between these two phenomena; and to invite you to share your views on how the COVID-19 story is influencing your thinking.

Illustration by Calvin Dexter

Two perspectives

Earlier this month, Thomas Homer-Dixon (Executive Director of the soon-to-be announced Cascade Institute at the Royal Roads University) wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail entitled: Coronavirus will change the world. It might also lead to a better future. He makes the point that the COVID-19 situation is a “global tipping event”, characterized by two increasing global phenomena—high connectivity and high uniformity that make us all more susceptible to rapidly cascading change, and at increased risk of “synchronized crises”. He goes on to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic could be viewed as a collective problem that “requires global collective action—just like climate change”.

In his March 22 column in the Victoria Times Colonist, our colleague Trevor Hancock refers to recent observations that dramatic reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions have been noted in China and Italy, and “this will soon become worldwide”. A Stanford University economist has suggested that “reduction in air pollution in China might have already saved more lives than the COVID-19 epidemic had cost”. Trevor concludes his column with this suggestion: “It might be that with this combination of reduced consumption and reduced environmental harm, coupled with societal commitment to ensuring the meeting of basic needs for all, we will find ourselves unintentionally creating the well-being economy we need in the 21st century.”

COVID-19 also presents important opportunities to examine and reconstruct the equity choices that shape our world. Not all countries will experience this pandemic in the same ways. In Canada, healthcare systems are bracing in anticipation of an extreme burden of demand. Our municipal, provincial, and federal public health and political leaders are all working together. They are communicating with their constituents daily. Policies and mechanisms are rapidly being put into place to accommodate for the consequences of a halted economy. And still, we are fearful of our uncertain futures. In contrast, colleagues in the Global South are bracing for complete collapse. Their choices will not be whether or not to stay home, but rather whether or not to risk one’s own life. In settings where healthcare systems are drastically under-resourced, without basic supplies or health professionals, those who become sick enough to need care will likely not get it. Fatality rates from COVID-19 will not be universal. Once this pandemic spreads through Africa, we can anticipate such a dramatic increase in case fatalities that the global average will increase by several percentage points. COVID-19 is a window into global inequities. This is the time to examine our equity choices, and to leverage the opportunities that Hancock and Homer-Dixon point to through an equity lens.

The CCGHR Principles for Global Health Research provide one useful framework for such a lens. Now is an opportune time to look at these principles, bring them into your classrooms and dinner tables, write to your political leaders—spark a dialogue about the world you’d like to see, and collectively, perhaps we can plant seeds for a more equitable one.

We welcome your comments and notes about your thoughts and experiences. In particular, we encourage those of you from home countries other than Canada (such as Nigeria, Uganda, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) to share your stories and leave a reply below about how the COVID-19 situation is affecting your families and friends