THE COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures to control it have caused extraordinary disruption across the world — economic, social and cultural.

While Australia has, to date, successfully flattened the epidemic curve and avoided overwhelming our hospitals and health care system more generally, other sectors have not fared so well.

The pandemic arrived in Australia just as the unprecedented Black Summer bushfires were doused by rain. This climate change-fueled bushfire crisis claimed 34 lives directly, and the associated extreme air pollution event caused over 400 premature deaths and sent almost 4000 people to hospital. It also devastated communities and livelihoods across south-eastern Australia.

With Australia now enduring its first economic recession in nearly three decades, and many people losing work, we are rightly seeing huge spending by all levels of government in order to help stimulate the economy and protect, and create, jobs.

As governments reach deep into the public purse, there is a growing conversation, both in Australia and around the world, for government spending to “build back better”, or in other words, ensure government decisions and spending now do not reinforce the deep structural failings that limit our nation’s advancement towards a healthy, just and sustainable future.

What does this mean for Australia, and why is it needed?

The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered many inequities that were previously hidden from view. This includes, for example, the precarious nature of casual work which has trapped so many people, particularly young people, in insecure jobs, and forced them to accept inadequate wages and working conditions.

Another example is our dependence on global supply chains, including for vital medical equipment such as personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals.

Add in a cycle of “panic and neglect” in funding for medical research which has undermined this workforce and its capacity — and our ability to develop a vaccine and new treatments for novel diseases such as COVID-19.

It’s not just medical research we are failing to fund. Australia has failed to invest in research, innovation and development initiatives that could build a secure future for highly skilled knowledge workers, who could lead the transformation of our economy to renewably powered manufacturing industries, and a circular economy through advanced material cycling initiatives.

As we invest for the post-COVID-19 economic recovery, we should also address the climate health emergency in ways that secure livelihoods, our struggling natural ecosystems, and human health.

This call was recently echoed by over 200 organisations around the world, including the World Medical Association representing over 40 million health and medical professionals, in a letter to G20 leaders in support of a “healthy recovery” from the pandemic. These health voices called for government stimulus packages to prioritise tackling climate change, deforestation and air pollution, along with investing in public health systems.

Early signs suggest there is a risk Australia will invest in high emissions infrastructure, with members of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission with mining and fossil fuel interests pushing for expansion of gas projects.

This is not the right path forward.

We have the opportunity to invest in a healthy, green and fair recovery to tackle inequality, contribute our fair share of the global task of tackling climate change, and secure population health and wellbeing.

A health-led economic recovery in Australia would:

Governments should also invest in other sustainable health care measures and realise economic savings in health budgets in the areas of food, transport and waste.

These savings can facilitate larger investments in providing quality health care to people who need it, while reducing the public health harms associated with a high emissions health care sector that produces large volumes of waste.

Efforts are already underway through the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals network, with its Australia and New Zealand arm now boasting more than 85 institutional members, representing over 1500 hospitals and health care service providers, part of a global community of practice working to support the health sector to become more sustainable and climate resilient.

With the right investment and support, this network could provide desirable jobs at the cutting edge of the low carbon economy and realise substantial reductions in the health sector’s emissions and broader environmental footprint. This is just one example of how strategies to tackle climate change can also deliver health benefits.

Ultimately, a health-led economic recovery is a risk management strategy. Our major goal for this recovery should be to future-proof our economy and society from further pandemics and the dangers of a warming climate.

We can take action now to reduce these threats by responding to the climate crisis, investing in renewable energy and environmental protection, and investing in public health.

The question is, will we?

Fiona Armstrong is the Founder and Executive Director of the Climate and Health Alliance, a national coalition of health groups, and an Honorary Associate in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University.

Tony Capon directs the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and holds a chair in planetary health in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University. He is a member of the MJA Editorial Advisory Group.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

9 thoughts on “Beyond COVID-19: a healthier, greener, fairer world is possible

  1. Dr Malcolm Brown says:

    “Solar farms asked to reduce output as uptake challenges remote West Murray power grid stability”

  2. Dr Malcolm Brown says:

    Most of your comments are incorrect eg: “Virtually all solar and wind farms built to date (approx 17GW) in Australia have not required any transmission lines to be built.”

    Western Victoria transmission network project slammed by farmers, mayor calls for consultation”
    The Western Victoria Transmission Network project proposes a high-voltage powerline to run nearly 200 kilometres through properties in Melton to a wind farm at Bulgana, north of Ararat.

    Please provide independent verified data showing that wind + solar + transmission lines + storage are cheaper than existing gas or coal.

  3. S. Cooke says:

    Great article. Sensible steps such as those suggested are still being impeded by the unshakeable ideology of the old boys club, and old data, as seen in some of the comments as well as in the National Covid-19 Recovery Coordination Commission. Keep up the great work.

  4. Prof Tim Florin says:

    It is certainly sensible to wisely prioritise investments when reopening the economy. It is also important to be real and to avoid virtue signaling and mostly unuseful and even harmful priorities .I refer in particular to the wish to avoid investment in conventional energy sources. By all means research the more sustainable intermittent energy sources but let’s not be fooled into believing that the answer is wholesale adoption of the current intermittent weak energy sources. These have resulted in the most expensive national energy costs without exception. (For background to this assertion see e.g., Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans for a popular account, or for more scientific background Shellenberger, M. Why renewables can’t save the planet. TEDxDanubia 1/2019) The widespread adoption of weak intermittent baseload energy continues to facilitate a huge shift of manufacturing to, and dependency on, those countries that are still building lots of new coal mines.

  5. Magdalena Simonis says:

    This is an excellent article! A clear roadmap that acknowledges the potential for the negative economic and health consequences of COVID19, along with a need to drive new industry that brings jobs, positive change to reliance on clean renewables that stimulates an industry which to date, governments have not fully supported. It’s full of hope. Thank you.

  6. Fiona Armstrong says:

    Hi Dr Malcolm Brown,
    I think what you are trying to say is $100/MWh, rather than $100 kWh, otherwise you are out by a factor of 1,000 in your assertion of costs. The cost data in your link is now three years old and no longer applicable. Solar and wind are competitive with existing coal, and cheaper than new coal.
    If the health damages from coal and gas were factored into the cost of electricity, it would be evident that renewable energy is ultimately much cheaper.
    Also, your assertion that the sun and wind are “mostly away from existing transmission lines“ is puzzling. Solar and wind resources are abundant and occur in all parts of Australia. They are predictable, and in a distributed energy system (built across a wide range of geographical areas) provide reliable power.
    Virtually all solar and wind farms built to date (approx 17GW) in Australia have not required any transmission lines to be built.
    The latest report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (who manages Australia’s electricity system) has made it very clear that the future of energy is renewable and 75% of Australia’s electricity could be provided by wind and solar by 2025. This would offer a energy system which is cheaper in the long term, does not contribute to global warming and will be healthier for all.
    Best wishes,

  7. Dr Malcolm Brown says:

    Solar and wind are unreliable and mostly away from existing transmission lines. So the cost of the panels and wind turbines needs to be added together with the cost of new transmission lines and storage for all those still nights. Even enthusiasts admit the cost then gets close to $100/kWh – twice the price of coal fired electricity. So prices of everything goes up, and the poor suffer most. Not a good idea.

  8. Max says:

    Climate activism is caught in a bit of a cleft stick.
    The move to renewables in recent years was always going to deny the poorer countries of the world the cheap power in order for them to lift their people out of poverty that fossil fuels provide. Activists having for so long been prepared to throw those existing populations under a bus for the sake of future generations, now find out – in the age of COVID – that existing populations (even quite old members of which) are actually thought to be quite valuable; in fact valuable enough to shut down the entire world economy in the here and now for their sakes. No more throwing anybody under a bus.
    If so-called ‘decarbonisation’ of the world economy was financially tenuous before, in a world crippled by the response to COVID-19, such a project is itself now on life support. The world will need reinvigorating through as much economic activity – with as much cheap power – as it can get, and pie-in-the-sky renewable projects are likely to be cast aside, with cheap gas and even a return to coal a priority.
    Within healthcare, part of the increasing move to disposables has always been because of the cost of re-using. If the energy to power a laundry now costs as much as 4 times what it did in earlier times – and it will never be acceptable for wages to decrease – then again, expecting to a move back to recycling drapes, gowns and all manner of other items (powered by intermittent renewables) is simply in the land of dreaming, even before considering the emerging paradigms of infection risk and sterility issues.
    In the new order of priorities, climate change has lost all immediacy and relevance.
    Get back to us in a couple of decades.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Excellent article, thanks! We need a sustainable economic emergence from this pandemic, with major investment in renewables and social ‘connectedness’ , buying local etc .
    No more fossil fuel subsidies and how about no political donations at all- perhaps that would level the playing field a bit?

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