COVID-19 shows how no one is immune from converging health crises

In a cartoon, a woman stands in front of a factory with boxes of air pollution effects around her.

Each year, the Lancet Countdown tracks more than 40 indicators on links between health and climate change, and this year presents the most worrying outlook to date as key trends worsen. However, the latest report, released December 3, finds that with climate action, the lives of millions can be improved and saved.

Examining how climate change, air quality and COVID-19 worsen health inequities for Black, Indigenous and people of color, the Policy Brief for the United States of America makes clear that these challenges cannot be treated in isolation. Report authors advocate for a holistic response to these converging crises, stressing that integrated solutions can deliver better public health, a sustainable economy, environmental protection and a more equitable society.

No country remains immune from the health impacts of worsening climate change today, according to the global 2020 Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate, published in The Lancet. The project is a collaboration of more than 100 experts from 35 global institutions including the World Health Organization, World Bank, University College London and Tsinghua University.

Top findings on the converging crises from this year’s U.S. Policy Brief include:

  • Air pollution is killing Americans. More than 68,000 people died prematurely in the U.S. from air pollution in 2018. Nearly 25,000 of those deaths are from particulate (PM 2.5) pollution generated by agriculture and transportation.
  • Your zip code determines your health. The Brief examines how climate change further exacerbates existing racial health inequalities that exist because of ongoing discriminatory practices. Early research suggests that exposure to air pollution may make people more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19, and thus could be part of the reason more BIPOC people are dying from the virus than white people.
  • In addition to air pollution, heat also creates deadly conditions: In 2019, the U.S. experienced over 102 million more days of heatwave exposure (compared with a 1986-2005 baseline) affecting older persons (adults over 65). In the past two decades, heat has killed twice as many older people, reaching a record high 19,000 deaths in 2018. The U.S. saw 2 billion potential hours of labor lost due to extreme heat across the service, manufacturing, agricultural, and construction sectors in 2019.
  • Wildfire risk is increasing. Individuals in the U.S. experienced 1.85 billion more person-days (one person experiencing one day) of exposure to high wildfire risk in 2016-2019 compared to 2001-2004.
  • Life-threatening bacteria is increasing in coastal waters. The suitability of coastal waters for growth of Vibrio bacteria has increased by as much as 99% in the Northeast over the past five years.

The Biden Transition Team needs these Lancet Countdown results ASAP as a roadmap to, not only build back better in the U.S., but to do so using human health as the clear rationale for a clean energy economy,” says Jonathan Patz, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute and a member of the U.S. Working Group. “A rapid departure from fossil fuels offers enormous health and economic benefits, especially from widespread chronic diseases.”

Without urgent action to tackle climate change, the Global Report’s 120 health and climate academics and clinicians, and the 70 U.S. institutions, organizations and centers supporting the U.S. Brief, warn that an ever-hotter world will likely produce shocks which threaten global health, disrupt lives and livelihoods and overwhelm healthcare systems. This is especially dangerous when healthcare crises like COVID converge with climate change.

ABOUT THE LANCET COUNTDOWN

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is a comprehensive yearly global analysis tracking the impact of climate change on human health across 41 key indicators. The report also projects the health benefits that would come from meeting the Paris Agreement targets, and the health harms of business as usual. The project is a collaboration of more than 100 experts from 35 global institutions including the World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank, University College London, and Tsinghua University.

The 41 indicators are organized across five categories: 1) climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerabilities; 2) adaptation planning and resilience for health; 3) mitigation actions and health co-benefits; 4) economics and finance; and 5) public and political engagement.