COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis: Towards a Just Recovery

On April 24, President Rodrigo Duterte in a national address announced that the Philippine government will extend its enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) to May 15 in Metro Manila, CALABARZON, Central Luzon, and other high risk provinces in Luzon to combat the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV 2 virus, more popularly known as Covid-19, as local cases of infection and deaths continue to rise.

Cases of unusual pneumonia that did not respond to common treatment were first observed at the heart of Hubei Province in China, in a city home to approximately 11 million people. Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of the problem only on the last day of 2019, and the timing could not have been more unfortunate – millions were set to travel across and out of China for the new year. In just one day, hundreds of thousands had left Wuhan and thousands more had gone through it, the city being a transportation hub. Local and international travel continued as usual. By the time the novel coronavirus was identified and risks of human transmission determined, it was too late: outbreaks had already begun in cities across China and the globe.1

On March 11, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. As of April 24, it has found its way to almost every country and infected more than 2.6 million individuals. More than 182,000 have died.2

Economic Development and the Emergence of New Diseases

As devastating as the pandemic is, it is merely a symptom of a disease. In the past half a century, the occurrence and variety of infectious diseases in humans have seen a drastic rise globally. An analysis of infectious disease outbreaks from 1980 to 2013 found that 65% of diseases recorded were zoonoses, or illnesses transmitted by animals to humans. These in turn composed 56% of outbreaks.3 Scientists report that in every 10 diseases, 6 can be gotten from animals, and 3 in every 4 emerging illnesses are zoonotic.4 COVID-19, which is closely being linked to bats, is among these.5

This emerging trend is a challenge especially upon the medical community – not only must they address the growing need for treatment, they must also do so equipped with little knowledge on new diseases. The situation we are in today poses a pressing question – why is this rise occurring?

While the understanding that many diseases affecting humans originate from natural agents such as animals has long been common knowledge, assuming that natural ecosystems in themselves are threatening to human health is, it turns out, quite erroneous. In the past, naturally occurring barriers have prevented pathogens that cause today’s emerging diseases from crossing over to communities, with ecosystems containing the circulation of viruses and bacteria in the bodies of their natural hosts. However, as industrial activities crept into more territories and disturbed local biodiversities, these barriers have thinned dramatically.

Even as the world reels from the shock of its economic and social impacts, the emergence of COVID-19 did not necessarily come as a surprise for scientists. Two major epidemics in the recent past, SARS and MERS, were caused by coronaviruses occurring in bats, and experts predicted that it is only a matter of time before another widespread infection from the same family comes around.6 This year, it proved to be an accurate prediction. Now, scientists say that this is but the ‘tip of the iceberg’, with more pathogens simply waiting to be discovered as wildlife continues to be heavily disturbed.7

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, called the coronavirus pandemic “a clear warning shot” from nature. “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.”8 Today, the exploitation of the natural world is increasing through wildlife trade, logging, mining, drilling, and other extractive endeavors. The chase for resources, powered by a consumerist culture after infinite expansion in a world of finite resources, is creeping into both wildlife habitats and human communities often belonging to indigenous groups and marginalized sectors.

COVID-19 is thus but a symptom of a bigger disease that has long plagued our world: an idea of development that prioritizes economic growth over ecological integrity and human life. Worse, this has also given rise to other lethal symptoms, one of which has been called ‘the greatest health challenge of the 21st century’9 – the climate crisis.

Climate Crisis and Human Health

Reports on health issues relevant to climate change often pay attention to direct impacts of extreme weather events, with good reason. The European heat wave of summer 2019, for example, took the lives of nearly 1,500 individuals in France alone due to hyperthermia.10 In Australia, respiratory problems caused by smoke from the recent bushfires left 4,000 individuals in need of hospital care and killed 400.11 In the Philippines, the ‘Christmas day typhoon’ Ursula took the lives of at least 50 individuals, and caused physical injuries to over 140.12 The rising intensity and frequency of these events mean that more communities fall victim to their escalating threats to human health.

Today, the contributions of the climate crisis to the increasing occurrence and richness of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 is of great interest among experts. Ecological shifts borne from rising global temperatures such as changing precipitation patterns and extreme heat or cold affect the geographical scope, reproduction, survival, pathogen development, and vector activity, among other factors, of disease-carrying agents.13 As such, cases of both known and emerging diseases are appearing in areas where they have not yet been recorded previously, and new attributes of known pathogens are also emerging.

These and many more impacts of climate change to health are exacerbated by the same system that incited global temperature rise in the first place. For example, air pollution caused by fossil fuel dependence is perceived as the most direct link between climate and health degradation. Over 90% of the world’s urban population breathe air considered unsafe under WHO standards.14 In the Philippines, about 27,000 premature deaths per year are attributed to ailments caused by fossil fuel pollution.15 With COVID-19, this spells trouble: people who have breathed toxic air for long are among those most likely to be unable to fend off the disease due to existing respiratory conditions.16

Most unfortunately, these impacts are hitting the same communities that are most vulnerable to other climate impacts that compromise their immunity from disease and their ability to afford treatment, including undernutrition due to reduced food production, and repeated displacement from frequently occurring disasters.17 Such is the case for the Philippines.

The many facets linking climate and human health, on one hand, illustrate a dire global situation that is disastrous in the occurrence of pandemics like COVID-19. On the other hand, they help us understand that responding correctly to one problem also alleviates the other. Environmental protection, we realize, is a crucial form of healthcare; similarly, people’s health turns out to be an issue at the heart of addressing the climate emergency. Finding common solutions to these must thus be guided by the pressing need to overhaul the very system that brought them, as well as the pursuit for unfettered economic progress that sacrifices both our people and the planet we live in.

People First

As COVID-19 established itself as a highly contagious lethal threat, governments left and right implemented radical measures to contain its spread. A pandemic, it turns out, is an effective means of exposing the priorities held by authorities in possession of power.

Two and a half months after the cases of the new disease were first reported, President Rodrigo Duterte announced the decision to place Metro Manila, then the local hotspot of COVID-19, under ‘community quarantine.’ This was coupled with suspension of mass transportation, closure of establishments not providing essential services, and an appeal to the public to simply stay home. It was later expanded to the whole of Luzon, and parts of Visayas and Mindanao followed suit.

These measures, however, failed to consider the daily realities of the working class and marginalized sectors, and thus only gave rise to new dilemmas. With no clear guidelines for the lockdown, employees still required to report to work were either stranded or forced to find means of mobility for themselves, with some resorting to walking long distances. This was true even for healthcare and essential service sectors at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, who are doubly burdened by a shortage of basic medical supplies and equipment. Meanwhile, daily wage earners and informal sector members who now have no source of income wait for assistance from their local government units (LGUs), with mixed results. LGUs, scrambling to address both the rising cases of infected individuals in their municipalities and the many issues arising from extreme measures now being implemented in the country, experience their own difficulties. In a news interview, Reynaldo Alcala, a taxi driver barred from operating during the lockdown, could only lament: “Mahirap. Mahirap kapag mahirap…wala kang mapagkukuhanan.

These difficulties have been defended by public officials and supporters alike as the birthing pains of a recovery pathway. Such an argument not only fails to uphold government accountability in protecting public trust and welfare, it also provides no answers for concerns on actions and inactions made in response to the crisis. The refusal to ban flights from China and other COVID-19 hotspots in the interests of diplomatic relations, and the failure to secure more than 2,000 testing kits for 100 million Filipinos by the beginning of March, as examples, raise many questions, the biggest of which is: Was the welfare of Filipinos given priority? The lack of empathy and even threat of violence with which the government responded to our people’s plea for relief suggest that this is not so. 

In contrast, select territories around the world have been applauded for their exemplary response to the pandemic. One of the Philippines’ neighbors is of particular interest for having contained the spread of COVID-19 despite similarly limited resources. As soon as Wuhan reported its first 27 cases, Vietnam issued its first preventive measures, and implemented strict restrictions on travel to and from affected areas as early as January. By March, they had set up testing facilities and had begun producing and utilizing its locally developed testing kits. As of April 13, Vietnam has only 262 confirmed cases of the disease, of which 144 have recovered and none have died.18 A response model like Vietnam’s proves that a preventive approach to protect citizens from looming harms coupled with proactive response measures are both possible and effective in a time of crisis.

Meanwhile, policies and decisions that are blind and deaf to people’s concerns can never be a proper response to a crisis and can certainly never guide a just recovery in the aftermath. It is crucial that the Philippine government and authorities from the rest of the world take caution to ensure that misgivings in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic will not serve as precedents moving forward. Oxfam predicts that without proper action, as much as half of the world’s population would be living in poverty by the time the pandemic is over, effectively reversing decades of effort to assuage hunger and suffering among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. The creation of policies and response mechanisms centered on people’s welfare is thus an imperative, as these will shape the quality of billions of lives and the state of society in years to come.

New Normal

Obsessed with economic growth and development at all costs, however, countries around the world are already making financial19 and policy20 decisions to ensure the restoration of business-as-usual patterns even while the crisis has yet to be resolved. This is something that authorities truly seeking to protect their people’s welfare, as well as the public themselves, must be wary of. It was the normal consumption-oriented economy and operation of destructive industries that brought about both the climate crisis and rising health problems of the modern day. There is no reason to simply return to it.

Moreover, the coronavirus crisis offers much to be learned from the people themselves on radically improving quality of human life. For one, the clamor on clean air in urban areas around the globe which came as a consequence to the disruption of industrial activities proves how desperate citizens are for healthier air and a cleaner environment in their usually polluted cities. The difficulty of accessing and providing healthcare during a health crisis emphasizes as well as the dire need to end neglect towards a sector which in fact serves as a pillar of society.

New policies and decisions made in the country’s path to recovery must then provide direct aid to the people today and be geared towards a new normal that is just to both people and the environment in years or decades to come. 

As citizens reel from the lack of livelihood – with many remarking that hunger, more than COVID-19, is bringing death to their doorsteps – the government must prioritize a comprehensive program to provide food and other basic necessities to the people. 

As the pandemic lingers, this should extend to the need of aid in housing and job security, among others. It is also crucial that means to waive utility bills during this period are studied and implemented, as private utility firms are more than able to shoulder the expenses as a fair share of burdens of the ongoing crisis. 

Furthermore, the medical community must be provided with the resources it needs as it battles COVID-19 in a scale fitting a fundamental sector of society, which it has always been.  This means ramping up provisions for housing and transportation of healthcare and essential service workers, as well as securing sufficient protective and medical equipment to ease operations and ensure workers’ safety.  Healthcare must also be made accessible despite restricted mobility, not only for patients afflicted with COVID-19 and but also for the many more with other concerns.

Moving forward, achieving a new ‘normal’ entails a radical shift to sustainable practices and resources that no longer necessitate a systematic exploitation of the environment and disruption of biodiversity, nor pollution from industrial activities. It also calls for a massive shift from the prioritization of corporate interests to that of workers and communities.

As such, any stimulus package that the Philippine government would come up with must focus primarily on the financial stability of members of the workforce and small businesses rather than of meeting profit gaps of large corporations. Public funding should also be largely reserved for the recovery or development of industries that are beneficial to both people and the environment. 

Renewable energy, for example, is harmonious with the processes of nature and is already capable of allowing the Philippines at large to end its dependence on coal and other fossil fuels, which compromise the health of host communities. Unlike coal and other fossil fuels which today are badly hit by the sudden drop in demand globally, it is also much more immune to economic fluctuations. Moreover, it can provide more stable jobs than the fossil fuel sector ever will thanks to the reliance of its facilities on more manpower for maintenance and, more importantly, the ability of renewable energy projects to be implemented on the community level. This, and other efforts to decentralize the production and distribution of basic necessities, is also important in empowering Filipino communities to respond to crisis – be it a health problem like the coronavirus, or even the climate emergency – on the local level.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that there were roughly twelve years left to create radical changes in response to the climate crisis. More pandemics and global crises like COVID-19 are expected to occur during and even beyond it. Society at large is in bad shape, but if there is something that the panic-induced responses of governments to the coronavirus pandemic proved, it is that radical solutions are actually possible, as long as a will to push through with them is found. The public outcry against unjust responses to COVID-19, as well as the rising clamor for climate action and justice in recent years, are proof that people will make sure it will be.

  1.  “How the virus got out.” The New York Times, (March 2020).
  2.  “Timeline: How the new coronavirus spread.” Aljazeera, (April 2020).
  3.  Smith, K., Goldberg, M.,Rosenthal, S., et al. Global rise in human infectious disease outbreaks, (March 2014).
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zoonotic Diseases, (July 2017).
  5.  Zhou, P., Yang, X., Wang, X. et al. A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature, (2020).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Vidal, John. “Destroyed Habitat Creates the Perfect Conditions for Coronavirus to Emerge.” Scientific American, (March 2020).
  8. Carrington, Damian. “Coronavirus: ‘Nature is sending us a message’, says UN environment chief.” The Guardian, (March 2020).
  9. World Health Organization, COP 24 Special Report: Health and Climate Change, (2018).
  10.  “Summer heat killed nearly 1,500 in France, officials say.” BBC News, (September 2019).
  11. Pickrell, John. “Smoke from Australia’s bushfires killed far more people than the fires did, study says.” The Guardian, (March 2020).
  12. Gotinga, JC. “Typhoon Ursula death toll rises to 50.” Rappler, (December 2019).
  13. US Global Change Research Program, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, (2016); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (2007).
  14. World Health Organization, COP 24 Special Report: Health and Climate Change. (2018).
  15. Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Toxic air: the price of fossil fuels. (February 2020).
  16. Hopkins, Jamie. “A likely but hidden coronavirus risk factor: pollution.” Center for Public Integrity, (March 2020).
  17.  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Summary for Policymakers, (2014).
  18. Nortajuddin, Athira. “Vietnam’s exemplary response to COVID-19.” The ASEAN Times, (April 2020).
  19. “Governments are once again splurging to keep big companies afloat.” The Economist, (April 2020).
  20. Friedman, Lisa. “E.P.A., Citing Coronavirus, Drastically Relaxes Rules for Polluters.” The New York Times, (March 2020).