A Collision of Crises
COVID-19 and our ongoing climate catastrophe overlap in devastating, unfortunate ways.
As Texas faced a disastrous winter storm this week, braving power outages, water shortages, and unthinkable exposure to frigid temperatures, the White House delivered a candid message: “Climate change is real and it’s happening now, and we’re not adequately prepared for it,” said homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. FEMA sent 60 generators and fuel for hospitals and other essential facilities, while drinking water, food, and blankets were readied for distribution. Making matters worse, Texas food banks — already overrun because of the increase in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic — have become inundated. “It feels like the pandemic all over again,” the chief executive officer of Feeding Texas, a network of food banks, told The New York Times.
There are many eerie intersections between COVID-19 and climate change, says Dr. Amy Collins, an emergency medicine doctor and the leader of Health Care Without Harm’s Physician Network. HCWH, an organization “leading the global movement for environmentally responsible health care,” has been pushing the medical field to examine its own carbon footprint and sustainability practices. But 2020 demonstrated that there is also an urgent need for education on just how deeply climate change affects our global health.
“Climate change is a threat multiplier,” Dr. Collins explains. On a logistical level, extreme weather events caused by climate change (much like what’s happening in Texas) impact healthcare delivery, access, and supply chains. Dr. Collins points to the recent hospital evacuations during the California wildfires and the closure of operating rooms at NYU Langone after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as examples of how care is compromised due to climate disaster—particularly when access to emergency health services are needed the most.
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, she adds, two of the biggest manufacturers of saline IV fluid bags were destroyed, thus impacting crucial supplies in hospitals all over the United States. While all extreme weather disasters limit the impacted community’s access to care, Hurricane Maria illustrates how these events also have the ability to jeopardize quality of care all over the world.
And then, there’s how climate change affects the length of Earth’s seasons and fluctuations in temperatures, thus altering our ecosystem. “It’s changing the patterns of the insects and their associated insect-borne illnesses. We’re going to see an increased prevalence and distribution of things like Lyme disease, malaria, West Nile Virus,” Dr. Collins says. (Early reports that COVID-19 is linked to bats have still not been confirmed or properly investigated by the WHO.)
The most obvious correlation between the climate crisis and our ongoing pandemic is how they converge in matters of public health. “Climate change has broad health impacts on cardiovascular and pulmonary health, increased incidents and distribution of insect-borne illnesses, mental health impacts and injuries due to extreme weather, impacts to our water and food supplies, and increased allergens,” Dr. Collins says. “This is a climate health crisis.”
Unfortunately, climate change (much like COVID-19) follows a particularly cruel pattern. While we will all undoubtedly feel the impacts of our ongoing climate catastrophe, there is no question as to who will feel it first and the worst. In a Washington Post piece called “Climate Change Is Also a Racial Justice Problem,” Sarah Kaplan writes:
“One study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found that Black and Hispanic communities in the U.S. are exposed to far more air pollution than they produce...By contrast, white Americans experience better air quality than the national average, even though their activities are the source of most pollutants. Another paper in the journal Science found that climate change will cause the most economic harm in the nation’s poorest counties; many of those places, like Zavala County, Texas and Wilkinson County, Mississippi, are home to mostly people of color.”
Those with the resources to escape the immediate effects of climate change will most likely be able to relocate when their environment becomes uncomfortable or uninhabitable. See: Senator Ted Cruz escaping Texas with his family for a weekend in Cancún, while his constituents suffered without power or drinking water. The people who cannot afford such luxuries will, for all intents and purposes, be left in the dark.
“COVID-19 has already shown us how climate change and environmental racism work together to leave communities more vulnerable,” says Dr. Ofole Mgbako, an internal medicine physician and infectious disease fellow. “We now understand that exposure to more toxic waste and air pollution is associated with a higher prevalence of respiratory disease, heart disease, and high blood pressure in a community. So the racial and ethnic disparities we see in different medical conditions like asthma can be explained in part to environmental exposure.”
It has become a common refrain that Black, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous people are “more likely to die of COVID-19,” but this over-simplified statement conceals a much more insidious truth: systemic and environmental racism play a significant role in the quality of health of people of color. It isn’t just a pandemic that is killing these people — it’s racism. “People who live in communities where there is significant air pollution can have increased respiratory and cardiovascular health [issues], and those people have worse outcomes from COVID,” Dr. Collins confirms.
The CDC publishes the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), revealing which communities are the most vulnerable in public health emergencies. The index uses “15 U.S. Census variables” to help identify the people who would be the most in need of help—yet another reason why the disgraced former President Trump’s attempts to politicize the census by removing undocumented immigrants from the count was troubling and dangerous.
“The maps [from the SVI] show that the communities most vulnerable are also the ones with the worst COVID-19 outcomes,” Dr. Mgbako says. “So we know which communities are most at risk. It’s the political will and infrastructure that’s missing.”
It’s easy to look at what’s happening in Texas and think that it can’t get any worse: a record-breaking winter storm in the middle of a global pandemic, where resources for vulnerable people are already stretched thin, and crowding together in emergency shelters is unsafe and ill-advised. Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario is very quickly becoming a new normal that we must be prepared for.
“These are colliding crises,” Dr. Collins says. “The root causes of climate change increase the risk of pandemics.”
At this point, every decision made about climate change and public health by people in power is a matter of life or death — at scale. As Dr. Mgbako puts it, “The unequal ways in which our society is organized and structured in part dictates who lives and who dies.”
For information on how you can help people in Texas, see this list of local organizations.