Written by Jake Sanders
Disease and pandemics are tightly woven into the fabric of human history. From the infamous ‘Black Death’ of the 14th century to lesser known outbreaks such as the ‘Plague of Justinian’ humanity has confronted wave after wave of diseases which have ravaged our population. Yet, with each disaster we have always managed to pick up the pieces and rebuild. With the added benefit of more advanced health care systems and a better understanding of medicine, it may seem as though modern society is on the cusp of conquering disease altogether. Scientists however, would staunchly disagree. On the other hand, climate change is an issue many feel less blasé about and consequentially it has received more international attention in recent decades. Despite this, the possible relationship between climate change and the increased risk of global disease appears to be largely ignored. The question is then, how seriously should we be taking the threat of such a curious concoction?
In recent years, scientists studying the spread of pathogens have discovered an alarming trend. Diseases which have normally been confined to exist within specific geographic regions are now rapidly expanding to areas outside their historic range. A key reason for this increased spread can be found in the rapid migration of disease-carrying insects to areas outside of equatorial regions currently undergoing abnormal warming due to climate change. Researchers such as Erin Mordecai at Stanford University have already modelled the potential future range of known disease-carriers such as mosquitos on a warmer Earth and the results should give us cause for concern. In one model, in which global greenhouse emissions have exceeded the declared limit of 1.5 °C established at the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, countries as far north as Canada and Russia could be exposed to outbreaks of Malaria or even the Zika Virus. Given increasingly warmer temperatures experienced across many parts of North America it is not inconceivable that cases of such previously ‘exotic’ diseases could begin to appear in great numbers in the future. Already a surge in cases of Lyme Disease in the United States, once thought to be mostly concentrated in the north-western regions of the country is a worrying development. Whether a direct consequence of climate change or not, fundamental changes and preparations in health systems are necessary to ensure that hospitals and health care workers are not overwhelmed by such potentially devastating future outbreaks.
Most unsettling of all however, is the concern among scientists that global temperature rise and climate change could ‘awaken’ previously dormant viruses and pathogens that have been undetected by humanity – leaving us completely unprotected against them. For example, a recent finding of a new species of Chlamydia in the Arctic Ocean stunned scientists and left them puzzled as to how it could have survived undetected for so long. But a deadly incident in Russia’s Yamal Peninsular, Siberia in 2016 has had scientists even more concerned. The emergence of an ‘awakened’ Anthrax pathogen in the region which killed one and hospitalised 20 others is thought to have occurred due to unusual warmer temperatures in the upper Northern Hemisphere releasing the previously dormant bacterium onto locals. The incident has rightly sent a shock wave through scientific circles and merits the attention of world leaders and citizens alike.
Thus, together with the issue of climate change, a global commitment to researching and thus uncovering the location of these hidden menaces is required immediately. Neglecting such an obligation leaves us more vulnerable to the dual threats of mysterious microorganisms and creeping climate change. So, the question must be asked, are we prepared to tackle this dual dilemma? To answer this, we only need to look at how the world is currently reacting to Covid-19. With much of the planet’s travel, economic and social interactions left paralysed by subsequent lockdowns on multiple continents, it is clear that even one un-encountered disease is enough to bring our society to a complete standstill. It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that, on a warmer Earth with multiple new pandemics emerging, that many parts of the globe would simply be overwhelmed by such a crisis.
What can we do then to help mitigate the full list of horrors to be found in the pandora’s box that is climate change? Firstly, a radical change in our collective mentality is required. If there is anything that Covid-19 has taught us it is that despite our civilisational achievements we are not yet the masters of our world, but rather, subjects of Mother Nature. Although diseases such as Spanish flu may appear as nothing more than a distant memory confined to grainy black and white photographs in textbooks, in reality we are just as vulnerable to the ravaging effects of a pandemic now as in the past. Secondly, it is vital that research attempting to highlight the reality of dormant and hidden diseases be taken more seriously and be treated with the same level of international focus as that of climate change. Crucially, the international community must use the global experience dealing with coronavirus to recognise just how truly devastating a global catastrophe can be. Both climate change and increased risk of pandemics in the future are crises that await us, but with global cooperation and preparation we can mitigate their worst effects - or in the case of climate change prevent them from occurring altogether. Finally, we as citizens must demand the immediate formulation and adoption of public policies which support the health sector. By pushing through legislation which provides monetary and logistically support we can better prepare our health systems for any future climate change-driven pandemic. The lethargic reaction of world governments during the first months of Covid-19 cannot be repeated. Above all, the glaring lack of life-saving medical equipment for healthcare workers and ventilators for patients was an un-acceptable mistake on the part of national governments and clear evidence for the lack of an achievable national plan for a pandemic in these countries. Governments must re-evaluate their emergency response plans to health crises in order to avert the same devastating losses and uncoordinated reactions unfortunately witnessed during this pandemic. Allowing our planet to succumb to climate change and become increasingly pandemic-prone results is a lose-lose situation for us humans. We must be bold and enact policy changes prioritise the health and security of our communities above all else.
Thus, in first few months of 2020 we as humans have come to realise that despite our ever-advancing society we are not as invincible as we would like to believe. Climate change and diseases don’t discriminate along political, racial or religious lines. Each one of us has a stake in preserving both our civilisation and our planet. Yet, with sparse political consideration given to understanding the ramifications of climate change upon global health and the prospect of halting irreversible climate change looking increasingly bleak, we are quickly running out of time. As the world scrambles to find a vaccine for the growing Covid-19 pandemic lessons have to be learned and new strategies developed. Hardcore nationalists will try to pin the blame for coronavirus on globalisation. Truthfully though, globalisation might just be the reason our civilisation survives. In the future we will require closer international cooperation and trust among states on the sharing of technology, resources and information if we are to overcome such intertwined issues as climate change and disease. Firstly though, we must consider how we treat these issues as well as each other. Attitudes must change, prejudices dropped. Throughout history we have risen to the challenge and achieved what was previously deemed impossible. Who’s to say we can’t surprise ourselves one more time?