No quick fixes: Defining a new normal that is pandemic-ready and climate-resilient

Response and recovery to prevent climate-health system chaos
May 22, 2020
Mga Usaping Klima
June 18, 2020
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  • Our fight against COVID-19 won’t be over soon and climate-related hazards will continue to complicate things in the coming months. 
  • As most places transition out of / ease up lockdown regulations, this is an opportune time to rethink our ways and transition to a more pandemic-ready and climate-resilient world. 
  • If we are to adequately address the impacts of multiple threats occurring simultaneously, we need to adopt a more systemic and holistic approach in building long-term resilience.
  • We have seen drastic behavioral changes that have a positive impact on the climate in the long-run. The challenge now is making those changes last. 

Where are we now and where are we headed

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014), climate change affects human health, disease and death by exacerbating pre-existing health problems. The largest impacts will occur in poorer and vulnerable populations and communities where climate-sensitive illnesses, such as malnutrition and diarrhea, are already high. Among the direct impacts of climate change on health include cardiovascular and respiratory diseases due to extreme temperatures, increased risk of diarrheal and water-borne diseases due mainly to lack of good water supply and quality, and increased risk of vector-borne diseases due to flooding and other extreme weather events. There is evidence to show that this is also true in the Philippines (Philippine Climate Change Assessment Report, Working Group 2 (PhilCCA WG2)). In addition, based on World Health Organization (WHO, 2018) estimates, climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths annually due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress between 2030 and 2050. The potential effects of future pandemics after COVID-19 are yet to be accounted for. 

While there is no evidence that climate (change) played any direct role in the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change affects the “social and environmental determinants of health, such as clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and safe shelter” (WHO, 2018 ). Extreme weather events, like typhoons and floods, and other climate-related hazards, such as sea level rise, will destroy houses, health facilities, roads and ports, and other essential services; and will disrupt the flow of essential goods like food and water. As we have seen with Typhoon Ambo, extreme weather events and climate-related hazards have a compounding effect during a pandemic (or any crisis for that matter). Other parts of the world have also seen such an effect, such as with Cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh, with Typhoon Harold in Vanuatu, with tornadoes in the US, and with an earthquake in Croatia. These recent events did not just further highlight our vulnerabilities, but they also showed our inability to handle multiple crises at once. 

As countries start to open up their borders, revive economies, and loosen lockdown restrictions, we are faced with two profoundly different possible futures. One in which we go back to business-as-usual (or maybe worse-than-usual), and one where everyone takes the hard, necessary steps to build a pandemic-ready and climate-resilient world.

What the Experts Say

If we are to prepare for and reduce the impacts of multiple threats occurring simultaneously like what we have seen with COVID-19, extreme weather events such as Typhoon Ambo, and additional stresses brought about by climate change, we need to adopt a comprehensive approach and build resilience more holistically.

Dr. Rodel Lasco, scientist, IPCC Author, National Academy of Science and Technology member, Climate Change Commission National Panel of Technical Experts member, and OML Center Executive Director said:  “Now more than ever, we need to think more holistically or with a systems perspective. The confluence of the pandemic and the typhoon season is a wake-up call that resilience-building cannot be done in silos. Our policymakers and scientists must work together to ensure that actions to address one hazard (e.g. COVID-19) should not lead to maladaptation to another hazard (e.g. climate change).”

We asked Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, former Undersecretary of the Department of Health and Director-General of the Food and Drug Administration, now professor at the Asian Institute of Management, and a trustee of the OML Center, what it will take to develop a more resilient health system in the midst of a pandemic and the climate crisis.

“Good governance will improve not only public health systems but also overall resilience. A resilient population will not need the government to come to its aid during disasters because people will have the capacity to take care of themselves.

Prioritize community preparedness. During crises, a community able to take care of itself need not wait for help and may ease the pressure on government resources. But community preparedness necessitates forward planning and much of the preparation takes place during crisis-free periods.    

Invest in infrastructure and health finance. If houses are built to withstand natural hazards, there may be no need to evacuate people when hazards hit. If funding for healthcare is available before it is needed, there may be no cause to interrupt health services in times of crisis.

Build redundancies into the system. In multi-crisis situations, each crisis should be handled by its own team. Having only one team to handle different crises will not only deplete the energies and resources of that team, it will also require that team to work effectively under vastly different circumstances.

Be willing to change the paradigm.  Innovation may not require more resources but only changing the way we do things and realigning existing resources accordingly. In this time of COVID, it may be safer to deploy mobile health teams to conduct house calls instead of requiring people to go to the health center or hospital for treatment. Telemedicine and telehealth are using technology that is already available to extend the reach of medical services.”

What more can we do

In the context of building resilience more holistically, we believe that the scientific community, government, businesses / private sector, civil society and individuals have very important roles to play.

Role of science

Much is yet to be uncovered in understanding the link between climate (change), health, and pandemics. We believe that the first step is to understand the interconnected nature of the risks brought about by these. There is a need to learn more about the relationship of climate change with the transmission patterns of infectious diseases (WHO) and with other risks associated with the spread of a disease, as this is compounded by climate-related hazards and extreme weather events. This will help us in building models that will predict and plan for future occurrence and compounded impacts, i.e., identifying communities and sectors most at risk. Specific impacts of climate change on health in the Philippines is also an area that needs further attention (more on this here: PhilCCA WG2). There is also a need for us to increase our ability to understand systemic and compounding risks by looking at multiple hazards and understanding interdependencies. (See Part 2 of this series.)

More proactively, science can also discover solutions and interventions not only in terms of vaccines or medications, but also in terms of more sustainable and essential evidence-based behavioral and societal changes that will have economic, political and even cultural consequences. Nowadays, the call for a “new normal” has been largely depicted in lifestyle changes, such as wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping safe distances from others. Better information on the nature of transmission will help illuminate the efficacy of such practices especially in the midst of a tropical cyclone season when wind, rain and flood may render these measures ineffective. This is but scratching the surface. 

Role of governance and policy

While science plays a role in understanding the situation, policy and governance are critical in making informed decisions and policies in the most timely manner. Governments were caught unprepared to respond to COVID-19 (Djalante et al 2020) and some even delayed critical preventive actions due to the potential economic impacts. This is highly parallel to the world’s response to climate change. 

Governments are now crafting ways to jumpstart and sustain economic recovery from COVID-19, but are challenged with ensuring that doing so will not entail huge setbacks to our climate goals. While the COVID-19 pandemic caused a dramatic decrease in CO2 emissions in the past three months, there is an anticipated recoil of an equally dramatic increase of emissions, or even more, when old ways return. In the flurry to produce more masks and other protective equipment and disinfectants, we must also keep in mind the resulting waste and demand on water, among other things, that this new normal will entail. Now may be the time to take a second look at circular economies not only as a low-carbon strategy but also as a pandemic-ready approach.

Although the decrease in CO2 emissions brought about by the quarantines and lockdowns is cautioned to be a mere quick win and short-term success, what must be highlighted is that such an outcome is an unmistakable illustration of what drastic and bold action looks like and that it is possible. It is unfortunate that such outcomes often happen at the precipice of life and death scenarios. The nature of our humanity is still domestic in scale. If we are to be truly global citizens, perhaps we must begin to scale up life and death in global terms.

Role of business and private sector

This pandemic is opening up opportunities for businesses to transition to less carbon-intensive investments as they try to recover from revenue / income losses in the past few months. Businesses and the private sector can also take this time to make their supply chains and operations more resilient and sustainable to protect against future health-related shocks such as pandemics and a wider range of climate-related hazards, such as reducing unnecessary business travels and investing more in digital transformations (e.g. video-conferencing platform), climate-proofing infrastructure and assets, and improving efficiencies in processing and operations.

More importantly, certain trades and industries are now coming under scrutiny as goods and services undergo a new categorization of essentiality, resulting in a new “hierarchy” of industries. We are already seeing a shift in trade as non-essential businesses shift to essential ones. Innovation does not end here as new forms of trade shall surely emerge. Once again, the challenge will be to explore lines and models of business that can strengthen our resilience to both a pandemic and climate change. The current pandemic is presenting a moment of decision for climate-responsive action, and businesses will do well to respond to this moment.

Role of civil society

For civil society organizations, this is also an opportune time to raise awareness on the impacts of different risks and invest in building capacities of communities in responding to these risks, saving lives and protecting livelihoods. This pandemic has shown that individual action is where the fight for resilience begins. Many doubted that the climate crisis could be solved by households, that actions had to be at the scale of industries and governments. This pandemic has reminded us that individuals make up governments and run economies. Now, more than ever, civil society can show their power to influence decisions, policies and societal behavior.

What can you do

In the past three months, we have seen drastic behavioural changes that can have an impact on climate in the long-run. The challenge for all of us as individuals is to build upon these new mindset and lifestyle shifts that we have made as a response to COVID-19 and ensure that they will persist even after, in the hopes that, collectively, this will have a long-lasting impact on our fight against climate change. 

We have listed some examples of these behavioral changes here and how they have the twin benefit of being climate responsive:

  • Working from home and limiting travels to essentials only – Reduced transport to and from work or other places has reduced our emissions. We must now be conscious of our increased use of electricity as we spend most of our time at home.
Traffic cones dot the road to separate cyclists from motorists as the MMDA Bike Lanes Office together with different cycling organizations led by the Firefly Brigade hold a bike lane pilot test on EDSA from White Plains to Santolan Road on Sunday, in preparation for the World Bicycle Day on June 3. Different cycling organizations urge local authorities to keep the streets safe as more workers travel by bikes amid the continuing suspension of public transportation under the modified enhanced community quarantine guidelines for Metro Manila.
Source: “Bike-friendly EDSA”, Jire Carreon, ABS-CBN News, 24 May 2020
  • Biking / cycling / walking – Modes of transportation that do not run on fuel ensures low to zero emissions. These also help in keeping fit and healthy.

A man hauls stacks of vegetables in a makeshift market for fresh produce, February 2020.  File Photo from Reuters
Source: “DA eyes ‘large food markets’ in Metro Manila to stabilize prices, help farmers”, ABS-CBN News, 22 May 2020

  • Supporting local produce – Going local minimizes the need for transport logistics, and therefore keeps the product’s (and your) carbon footprint low. It also helps in revitalizing local economies and supporting the livelihoods of many. 
  • Growing home and community gardens – Reducing our overall consumption triggers a web of low-carbon outcomes: less products to manufacture means less use of resources and electricity; less products means less waste.
  • Stockpiling (just enough) essentials like food, water and medicine – Preparedness has long been a strategy for climate resilience. It has also become a resilient strategy in preparing for and living through a pandemic.
  • Family preparedness, health and safety rituals – As a family, planning and making decisions that will protect the household during a natural disaster (typhoons, earthquakes, floods, etc.) is a priority. Revisiting communication and evacuation plans to include that of health emergencies like COVID-19 is also a good practice. 

Residents during their morning exercises at the Camillus Medhaven in Marikina. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News
Source: “Homes for the aged adjust to ‘new normal’ amid coronavirus pandemic”, ABS-CBN News, 13 May 2020

  • Taking extra care of highly vulnerable individuals – The “traditional” vulnerable groups, e.g. elderly, persons with disabilities and children, continue to be regarded as vulnerable, but new dimensions of vulnerabilities are coming into better light: pre-existing health conditions do not only pertain to the elderly; no-pay-no-work livelihoods affect workers across industries; limited access to information and services affect not only disabled groups. 
  • Bayanihan / community involvement – Collective action, by every sector and corner of society, is what it will take to overcome a crisis like a pandemic and climate change. Just as health workers are not the only frontliners in the battle against COVID-19, so are businesses and governments not the only warriors in the fight against climate change. Everyone must do their part.
  • Physical distancing – Keeping safe distances is calling us to examine how highly congested our urban areas have become. Public transport is left with no choice but to reduce passenger capacities by at least half but it may be showing a better quality of commuting experience. The design of tight living spaces, such as condos, may have been a profitable way to maximize limited real estate, but the pandemic is showing that it may not be a sustainable and healthy way to live.
  • Staying attuned and building awareness – The value of evidence-based information and knowledge have never been more critical than now. Like climate change, information on COVID-19 abound online. Exercising discernment and weeding out the untested and unverified from the scientific and evidence-based can spell the difference between the failure and success of our efforts.

What lifestyle changes or coping strategies have you made, discovered or started since the quarantine? We want to hear from you, and we can let you know if they are also helping respond to the climate crisis. As we have emphasized throughout this health-climate series, responding in more systemic ways is the way to go, so that none of our efforts undermine others, and go to waste.

From this series

Read Part 1 of this series: “Typhon Ambo threatens COVID-weary communities, modifications to current response strategies required”.

Read Part 2 of this series: Response and recovery to prevent climate-health system chaos”.

Stream “Mga Kwento ng Klima” on the ABS-CBN News YouTube channel: Part 1: Intro and “Hinagupit ng Bagyo”, Part 2: “Nilamon ng Tubig”, Part 3: “Sinukol ng Gutom”, Part 4: “Enerhiya at Kalikasan”, and Part 5: “Binuhay ng Pagasa”. Produced in partnership with ABS-CBN DocuCentral, “Mga Kwento ng Klima” chronicles the story of the changing climate in the context of the Filipino experience and the ongoing story of Filipino resilience amidst ever increasing vulnerabilities.

Download The Philippine Climate Change Assessment reports, which synthesize scientific information from international and local literature in order to provide an assessment of climate change for the Philippines and guide strategic decision-making. The reports are divided into working groups on the physical science basis; impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and mitigation of climate change.

Download the State of the Philippine Climate, an annual report that summarizes observations of the country’s climate and climate-related disasters. Weather and climate trends in 2015 to 2018 are available.

Download the Philippine Climate Almanac, which highlights the record-breaking and other significant statistics of climate-related variables, extreme events and disasters across seven decades through data visualizations.

Read previously published advisories: “Achieving a level of preparedness for disasters” and “Rhythm of the falling rain”.