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The Coronavirus Pandemic & Climate Change: the Indisputable Link


Over the past weeks many have seen some of the positive environmental stories that have been the result of the currently raging COVID-19 crisis. Examples include the canals of Venice being fully clear for the first time in decades and reports of drastically reduced levels of carbon pollution in our air due the collapse of air traffic. However, the relationship between the environment and pandemics is not one-sided.


Specifically, there is clear evidence that our decades of global environmental disregard and the resulting climate change are contributing to an increase in the amount and severity of global pandemics. Scientists have also found multiple direct connections between climate change and the spread of global pandemics.




SO HOW IS THE ENVIRONMENT RELATED TO THE SPREAD OF DISEASES?



1. Urbanization

The rapid urbanization of many countries like Indonesia represents a major issue in terms of the spread of disease among a population. Due to a variety of economic and environmental factors, large portions of the rural population are increasingly moving to large cities.


Increasing population density generally results in [1,2,3]:

  • Diseases being transmitted more quickly

  • There being more people in an acute area of an outbreak (that can become infected)

  • An increase in the exposure of traditional disease-carrying animals such as rats and mosquitos



2. Climate Change & Mosquitos


Rising temperatures → more mosquitos → more diseases


Climate change is increasing the global mosquito population by increasing their available breeding ground. Higher temperatures mean that mosquitos are able to live in more areas than they could previously, and reproduce quicker in areas they are already present in [2,5].


Our ever-growing cities are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes as there are countless water sources in which they can breed like water pipes, ponds, pools and drains and also a near infinite supply of blood for nourishment. Climate change is also resulting in increased levels of precipitation, which further increases the amount of short-term water sources, like puddles, in which mosquitoes can reproduce [2,5].


While mosquitos are not a carrier of COVID-19 specifically, they still spread diseases (such as malaria and dengue) much more efficiently and in larger parts of the world [7]. If not treated properly, these diseases lead to severe illnesses or even death. For example, WHO estimated the number of malaria deaths to be 405,000 in 2018 [8].





3. Climate Change & Pathogens


Rising temperatures → more resistant pathogens → our bodies cannot fight it as efficiently


Another issue with rising temperatures due to climate change is the fact that this will result in more resistant pathogens. A pathogen is an organism that causes diseases, they are classified as viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites [9].


One of the ways our bodies fight diseases is by raising our body temperatures (fever). However, the warmer the surface temperature of the earth is, the more pathogens will be resistant to this function of our bodies and therefore increase the danger posed [4].


This threat is furthered by the fact that some animals known for carrying and spreading diseases, like bats, are able to regulate their body temperatures much higher than humans, meaning that they won’t be affected by the increasingly resistant pathogens [7].


Therefore, while the human fatality rate of pandemics will increase, the fatality rate of these animals will not, resulting in them being able to carry and spread increasingly dangerous pathogens over a long period of time [7].



4. Increase in Natural Disasters


Extreme weather conditions more natural disasters governments cannot respond effectively to pandemics


The increase in natural disasters due to climate change is another factor worth discussing. Climate change is generally believed by scientists to result in longer dry periods, followed by much more extreme, but less frequent, rains. This results in an increase in droughts and wildfires as land is without rain for longer, and therefore much dryer. The following, stronger, rains then threaten to cause flooding as very dry ground needs much longer to absorb rain. Further, scientists have found that changing weather patterns under climate change likely mean that extreme storms, including hurricanes and cyclones will increase both in terms of quantity and power [10].


Researchers have found that an increase in natural disasters decreases a countries ability to respond effectively to pandemics and increases infection rates [5].


For one, natural disasters increase rates of urbanization as rural communities are often destroyed by these events, giving the population no choice but to move to the cities in order to find safety and employment. Further, natural disasters also destroy infrastructure needed during pandemic responses including road, hospitals and other health related infrastructure [5].




Naturally, the reasons for increased spreads of pandemics are complex and cannot simply be explained with climate change. However, researchers have demonstrated that there is a clear link between the two. Finally, we think it’s important to say that this research showed us how varied the effects of our deteriorating climate really are.


Climate change won’t just affect animal populations, it won’t just affect people in fifty years, it won’t just affect certain populations of people in specifically vulnerable areas, it's going to affect all of us.

We from Project Planet hope you are all safe and doing well during this time of crisis. Please stay inside as much as possible and don’t forget to wash your hands!



Co-contributor: Tobias Ehrlich


Sources:

[1] https://www.dhakatribune.com/world/2020/03/22/coronavirus-first-of-many-pandemics-environmentalists-warn

[2] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4614-4496-1_4

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525302/

[4] https://biomedicalsciences.unimelb.edu.au/news-and-events/pandemics,-pathogens-and-the-environment

[5] https://www.swissre.com/dam/jcr:552d59b2-76c6-4626-a91a-75b0ed58927e/Pandemics_in_a_changing_climate_Full_report_FINAL.pdf

[6] https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/12/eaau5294.full

[7] https://time.com/5779156/wuhan-coronavirus-climate-change/

[8] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malaria

[9] https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-a-pathogen#types



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