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Coronavirus: A glimmer of hope in the sea of tragedies

This post was written by Shujhat Khan, BSc, MBBS, a Junior doctor working in the NHS with interests in neurosurgery and global health and Areeb Mian, BSc, a medical student at Imperial College London

The coronavirus pandemic is set to result in mass mortality with an unprecedented demand on modern healthcare systems. This has led to enormous casualties across multiple continents, and the disastrous consequences of this pandemic are clearly evident.

Similar to the coronavirus, climate change is a global crisis, albeit progressing at a much slower rate. However, we should use the extra time that has been afforded to us to adopt drastic changes. An important lesson to take away from coronavirus pandemic is that our healthcare systems are woefully unprepared in the face of extreme demands. Global warming too will test hospital infrastructure in a similar way. Extreme weather can lead to severe shortages in hospital supplies, as well as directly increase morbidity rates. Furthermore, the increase in vector borne infectious disease will overload intensive care units, limit specialist hospital equipment, and stretch healthcare professionals, much like how the coronavirus has done. There is likely to be a forthcoming vaccine for this virus, and herd immunity will play a large role in limiting mortality until that moment. However, there won’t be a simple cure for the health effects of global warming.

It isn’t too late however to begin making changes. An unexpected positive of the pandemic has been the improvements seen in climate change. There has already been a significant decline in carbon monoxide, as individuals are staying indoors as a result of the enforced quarantine. Transportation has severely reduced; factories have temporarily closed; and global industries have come to a halt. All of this has ultimately led to a drastic reduction in fossil fuel usage and a drop of an estimated 40% nitrogen dioxide emission in some areas1,2. These changes are translating across to observable results. In notoriously high pollution areas such as China, Italy, New York, and Seattle to name but a few, the fog of pollution has disseminated. In Venice, the Grand Canal is strikingly clear, although one suspects that this is simply due to sediment allowing to settle. In Manila bay, human inactivity has allowed natural homeostasis to clear up the usual blackish waters in some areas. Clearly, however, once the pandemic is over, the acute reduction in carbon footprint isn’t going to be sustainable. It does nonetheless demonstrate that there is still hope.

This pandemic offers humanity a chance. A chance to restart and reform the way we lead and live our lives. At this moment, discussions of the coronavirus exit strategy have mainly been focused around the steps that could bring an end to the lockdown. However, the speed of the march to ‘normal’ is not what we should solely focus on. The manner in which we as a people move forward from this crisis can serve to lay the foundations of a greener and more environmentally conscious society. The world’s leaders must hold human welfare, the biosphere and the planet at the top of their list of priorities. Unfortunately, at his moment in time is too soon say what long term impact COVID-19 will have on the planet. But this crisis has indeed thrown a much-needed spotlight on man’s troubling relationship with their biosphere and the devastating impact their actions have had.

Furthermore, there have been huge political shifts underway in response to this crisis. This has been seen with traditional fiscally conservative governments such as Donald Trump’s Republican party in the United States and Boris Johnson’s conservative party in the United Kingdom both intervening in their respective economies in an unprecedented manner. This crisis has shown that in the face of impending doom man can change. Indeed, this renewed sense of vulnerability in the face of the coronavirus could ignite a societal willingness to tackle the climate emergency. 

Clinicians should be deeply concerned for the safety of the public. If governments don’t act now, the potential health ramifications may be much worse than what we are seeing with the coronavirus crisis. Whilst there will be an exist strategy for the coronavirus lockdown, our planet will not have one if we do not act now.

References

1.Beals, R. K. There’s a conditional upside from coronavirus: cleaner air. Market Watch (2020). Available at: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/theres-a-conditional-upside-from-coronavirus-cleaner-air-2020-03-18. (Accessed: 28th March 2020)

2.COVID-19: nitrogen dioxide over China. ESA (2020). Available at: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/Copernicus/Sentinel-5P/COVID-19_nitrogen_dioxide_over_China. (Accessed: 28th March 2020)

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