The coronavirus pandemic is laying bare the enormous inequities facing tens of millions of people in our society. School closures have highlighted how many children rely on the free or reduced-price meals they receive at school. The closing of restaurants, bars and other businesses have left workers who don’t have paid sick leave or any savings struggling to feed their families and remain in their homes. Forty-four million Americans don't have health insurance, and up to 35 million Americans stand to lose their health insurance due to job loss during the pandemic. Millions more have deductibles that discourage them from getting tested for the coronavirus or seeking medical attention at all. We are learning — in real-time — powerful lessons about the massive cracks in our safety net systems.

In many ways, the coronavirus is also a wake-up call for the climate crisis, which is accelerating all around us. The challenges facing Americans in the midst of this pandemic, and the ways in which our communities are responding, highlight a number of important lessons we need to carry through our response to the coming storms and shocks related to climate disruption. 


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We must recognize the centrality of the public health and health care systems in addressing an existential threat. Health care professionals are on the front lines in a community crisis. We must prioritize the protection of our most essential health care workers, rather than requiring them to sacrifice themselves in order to save others. Going forward, anticipating and meeting the needs of health care professionals and other essential workers will be crucial to building the resilient systems we need to manage the next public health threat. 

The same kind of community vulnerability assessment needed in the face of the coronavirus is also what is needed for climate preparedness. The extreme weather events, worsening air quality, and disruption to our supply chains that are predicted to come as a result of our changing climate will pose similar health and logistical challenges we’re facing as we grapple with the coronavirus. It’s important to identify our most vulnerable community members, and the proactive steps we can take to ensure that we have adequate medicines, equipment and staff for dramatic influxes of patients, while also ensuring that our health care infrastructure is resilient in the face of extreme events.

Despite the challenges facing our communities, we have been inspired by the response of health care workers and scientists on the front lines and are hopeful that we can put the lessons learned throughout this crisis to use. In a matter of three months, health institutions in over 150 countries have mobilized to educate the public about a health threat that challenges all of humanity. Significant public and private funds have been mobilized to address this threat and scientists across the world are collaborating on a vaccine. The speed of this mobilization is exactly what is needed in the face of the climate crisis.


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We are being offered a chance to redefine the meaning of community resilience in light of this crisis. The health care sector has the opportunity to lead society on a path towards individual and community health built on local economies that create health and stability and prepare us for a world that will be increasingly challenged on both fronts. Health care is often the largest employer in our communities and also the largest purchaser of goods and services. Hospitals and clinics can become economic anchors, using their purchasing power to support community-owned businesses, local food producers and more localized renewable energy sources. These are all core dimensions of community and planetary resilience, especially in a world where global supply chains will continue to be disrupted.

The threats of coronavirus and climate disruption are pointing us to a new civilizational goal where individual, community and planetary health is our central aim. Our policies, our investments, our commerce need to be anchored around this goal as we realize that our well-being depends on all others on the planet. This mindset and approach offers us the greatest hope for redemption on the other side of this global trauma. 

Gary Cohen has been a pioneer in the environmental health movement for more than 30 years, founding Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth, and Greenhealth Exchange. He serves on several boards, including Health Leads and Coming Clean. A MacArthur Fellow, Cohen has been recognized by the White House, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Skoll Foundation, the Huffington Post, and many more for his efforts to transform the health sector to become environmentally sustainable.


Published on May 12, 2020