Lessons from COVID pandemic must be harnessed to face climate change, says PAHO

PAHO?WHO staff in the filed

Washington, D.C. October 27, 2021 (PAHO) - As leaders head to Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit this week, Pan American Health Organization Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa warned that countries must build on the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to prepare for the impact of climate change and prevent future crises.

With 800,000 new COVID infections and 18,000 COVID-related deaths reported in the Americas last week, “the pandemic has offered a snapshot of how unprepared we are for such a disruptive event,” Dr. Barbosa said during a weekly media briefing on COVID-19.

Many of the region’s health systems have struggled under the impact of COVID-19. Countries must now take urgent action to prepare for the health implications of a potentially more protracted, climate crisis.

High temperatures, extreme weather events and pollution have led to an increase in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as a rise in vector-borne diseases like Zika and Chagas. The Dengue season has also increased due to the warmer, wetter weather. 

An increase in the scale and frequency of wildfires and droughts in the region is also threatening livelihoods and leading to increased food insecurity.

Scientists have long warned us that, left unaddressed, climate change would transform our environment, our food systems, and our living conditions, all of which have potentially devastating consequences for our health,” Dr Barbosa said.

“Today we have an opportunity to build on the lessons from the COVID pandemic to prevent future crises and to strengthen our ability to respond to them when they arrive,” he added, welcoming the focus on health at this year’s 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, known as COP26.

Ahead of the summit, PAHO has launched an Agenda for the Americas on Health, Environment, and Climate Change, to provide countries with a plan of action to address the risks posed by climate change to the health of the Americas.

The plan outlines three lines of action, all of which build on lessons learned from the region’s pandemic response:

  • The health, sociopolitical and economic sectors must work together to build integrated preparedness plans that address the health impacts of climate emergencies.
  • Countries must invest in their health systems to ensure they have the staff, training and resources to face future climate risks.
  • The health sector itself must be part of the solution by addressing its own contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This can be achieved by building greener facilities and reducing emissions at production facilities, transportation and at health facilities themselves.

In the last week, COVID infections and deaths decreased across much of North, Central and South America, with the exception of Paraguay, which saw a spike in COVID cases, and Belize which reported a sharp jump in deaths.

Downward trends were also seen in larger islands of the Caribbean, including Cuba, but smaller islands, including Saint Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Anguilla and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, reported increases in infections and deaths.

While 44% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are now fully vaccinated, Dr. Barbosa highlighted persisting inequity, with vaccination rates in some countries still below 20%.

“While our region has done a great job at accelerating immunization coverage over just a few months, more than half of people in Latin America and the Caribbean remain unprotected,” he said, welcoming the upcoming delivery of three million doses through COVAX this week.

In the meantime, he urged countries to continue to implement public health measures to bring outbreaks under control.