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:
- Prioritise investment in decarbonisation initiatives by both federal and state governments, offering the opportunity for economic benefits while acting on the climate crisis, ensuring environmental sustainability and safeguarding Australia’s future food security.
- Provide Industry stimulus packages that include requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and assure decent wages and conditions for workers. A new report released this week shows there are three times as many jobs in a renewable energy stimulus than in fossil fuels. Policies to support the rapid expansion of manufacturing for renewable energy and electric vehicles could create many secure jobs across metropolitan and regional settings.
- Help retain the things that people have enjoyed rediscovering in lockdown: local parks, community connection, walking and cycling, and growing food, as long term community assets.
- Prioritise the restoration of our natural ecosystems, by expanding our national parks and wilderness areas, and substantially increasing tree planting initiatives across the country. This includes in our cities where, as well as employment, it could provide for cooler cities, cleaner air and many associated public health, mental health, health promotion, social connection and empowerment benefits.
- Prioritise supporting hospitals and health care providers to make the switch to renewable energy and, where possible, directly install solar and other forms of renewable energy generation, as is occurring in Victoria, for example.
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.