The Covid-19 epidemic has now spread beyond China, and is being transmitted even by infected individuals who are asymptomatic.
Chinese scientists sequenced the genome in weeks, and many countries have resorted to containment measures. The WHO has declared Covid-19 an emergency of international concern, stopping short of labeling it a pandemic.
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The virus continues to spread, highlighting our common vulnerability in understanding and responding to a crisis of this scale. It now appears that Covid-19 might have emerged as a seasonal disease, one that is likely to go global and stick around.
Containment of Covid-19 and longer-term measures to deal with future epidemics require us to look beyond this singular outbreak and to see human and animal health and indeed the entire ecosystem and integrally interconnected.
The Covid-19 epidemic may turn out to be the tip of the iceberg of the climate crisis. The geo-physical and socio-economic changes that the world is experiencing today will bring unprecedented challenges, including public health crises like this epidemic.
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Among the climate crisis’ many implications, the effect on public health has received relatively little attention, despite its broad scope from mental illness to cardiovascular, respiratory and infectious diseases. The most straightforward public health impact of climate change comes from the increase in diseases that peak in the warmer months: vector-borne infections such as malaria and dengue, and food-borne afflictions like salmonellosis. Between 2030 and 2050, WHO estimates climate change will cause approximately 250, 000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
Nepal is a real world example of a country already witnessing the public health impact of climate change. Dengue has moved to higher altitudes because of global warming. Nepal had its first reported dengue outbreak as late as 2006 in the Tarai, but fast forward to 2019, and 67 of Nepal’s 77 districts, including those at higher elevations, saw dengue epidemics. Last year, 14,000 Nepalis were diagnosed with dengue and six died, and some estimates put the number of infections closer to 140,000.
The other fear is that new viral epidemics will be released by the thawing of permafrost. The frozen soil in the earth’s polar regions and higher elevations binds microbes, methane, or poisonous mercury, but with global temperatures rising twice as fast in the Arctic and the Himalaya, permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate.
Some scientists estimate that 10% of permafrost has already melted since the 1990s, and the world might lose more of it even if nations adhere to cuts in carbon as per the 2015 Paris Agreement. In addition to the risk to public health, the dangers of melting permafrost include the release of sequestered carbon and methane, the compromising of infrastructure built on top of permafrost, and the impact of the melting on ecological balance.
Permafrost typically hosts up to one billion bacteria per gram of soil. The release of these pathogens could unleash deadly epidemics. The melting of Himalayan permafrost is of particular concern to Nepal, but it has received little research or media attention.
The 2016 Anthrax outbreak in Siberia is attributed to bacteria released from frozen reindeer carcasses exposed by thawed permafrost. But scientists are unclear about the magnitude, scale and type of risk posed by thawed bacteria.
Amidst all the uncertainty, what is clear is that the climate crisis is going to expose humanity to new epidemics. Politicising the global challenge of combating microbes that see no borders is both counterintuitive and detrimental. Instead of criticism of the Chinese government, what we need is an objective evaluation of the efficacy of policy measures used by that government in containing the Covid-19 epidemic.
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Global coordination and more investment in public health research are what is needed. Even so, the United States government is proposing to reduce funding for the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institute of Health (NIH) and foreign aid.
Although the Covid-19 epidemic itself might not be directly linked to environmental and climate change, it highlights the interconnectedness of human health with animals and with the ecosystem that supports all of us. Beijing’s ban on wildlife trade and consumption now needs to be emulated and enforced worldwide.
If China with its massive logistical capacity has struggled to come to grips with this epidemic, it is questionable how less-developed countries with weak health infrastructures, such as Nepal, may contain a possible future outbreak. International assistance in capacity building to reduce health vulnerability will be crucial.
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In preparing for extreme impacts of climate change on global public health, it is important to avoid doomsaying. It is urgent that the world come together and shift the narrative towards identifying solutions.
Rastraraj Bhandari is pursuing a Masters in Economics and China Studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing.