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OPINION: Healthy lives depend on a healthy planet

by Howard Catton | International Council of Nurses
Tuesday, 26 May 2020 07:44 GMT

Healthcare workers, nurses and doctors, unified under the movement called "Take Care of Care" and wearing face masks, protest against the Belgian authorities' management of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis, at the MontLegia CHC Hospital in Liege, Belgium, May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, people deserve a green recovery that improves their life chances

The devastating potential of an unfettered coronavirus pandemic has forced governments to lock down their populations in a bid to halt the spread of the infection and save countless lives. Nurses have been on the frontline against the virus for months now, and as they treat those worst affected, many are themselves contracting the virus, and sadly, hundreds of them have died.

We are seeing this pandemic bringing economies to a grinding halt, eclipsing the global financial crisis of 2008. As we deal with the traumatic impact of the virus on our patients and their loved ones, one thing is clear - that healthy lives are dependent on a healthy planet. 

While we are seeing lower pollution levels in many major towns and cities, and a drastic drop in global carbon emissions from the same time last year, many experts warn that this total halt to activity is unsustainable.

The pandemic is also disproportionately affecting poorer communities and those living in cities with high levels of air pollution. People who lack access to clean water and sanitation are not able to undertake even the most basic handwashing and other hygiene measures that could keep them safe.

The pandemic has exposed the gaping inequalities in society, with those in cramped housing and low-paid frontline jobs much more likely to fall victim to the virus. Many commentators believe such inequalities had already been exacerbated by the austerity programmes which followed the financial crisis of 2008 and will be made worse still by the current crisis unless we respond very differently this time.

The evidence is clear, and it points to the need for a considered approach to the way the world recovers from the scourge of the infection, an approach that could signal a brighter future for everyone on the planet.

Right now, governments are rightly preoccupied with the pandemic: those at the beginning of the process are working out how to control its spread, while others, coming out the other side, are working out how to ease lockdowns and get things back to normal.

As the global economy is rebuilt, we should not return to ‘business as usual’. Continuing to subsidise polluting industries will lead to more of the same: more air pollution, more dangerous airborne particulates, more greenhouse gases and more climate change.

We need a green recovery, a healthy recovery, one that makes our planet sustainable and improves the lives and life-chances of everyone on it. The $7.3 trillion earmarked by G20 countries is largely being targeted at short-term rescue measures only. What is needed during this enforced interregnum is a moment of calm but urgent reflection from all governments, an opportunity to consider the health and wellbeing of every person on the Earth.


As countries went into lockdown, we saw reports of blue skies and cleaner rivers, and nature thriving. Scientists agree that preserving intact ecosystems and their biodiversity generally reduces the prevalence of pandemics and disease. The way we farm, use our soils, protect coastal ecosystems and treat our forests will make or break our future but it can also help us be healthier, live longer and have more choice.

As cities emerge from lockdown in various parts of the world, leaders must ensure that urban planning prioritises pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. The mayors of London and Milan have put into place ambitious plans supporting these measures, and other cities are following in their footsteps in advocating a low-carbon post-lockdown future. 

The healthcare sector also has a big impact on global warming and many health providers are getting more involved in climate solutions. The International Council of Nurses’ position statement on climate change and health identified global warming as the biggest threat to global development, with the potential to undermine 50 years of public health gains.

Health workers are on the frontlines of pandemics like this one and are taking action to build climate-resilient models of care. As nurses, we often tell our patients that prevention is better than cure. The rapid, debilitating spread of this pandemic caught many people off-guard, and we are now working tirelessly to cure this global malaise.

Governments were ill-prepared and ill-equipped, and we must learn from the mistakes that got us here. We can prevent many future shocks, and make sure we're well-positioned to cure others when they hit.

Faced with a climate crisis and pandemic, governments must enact measures to move to a green economy, making communities more resilient. That is why we ask that G20 leaders take into consideration public health and the advice of their chief nursing officers and chief medical officers while drawing up economic recovery packages.

The health of the planet mirrors the health of the people on it, and world leaders need to reflect on their policies and decide to do what is best, not just for the short-term, but for generations to come.

 Howard Catton is chief executive officer of the International Council of Nurses.