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Issues Of The Environment: Connections Between Climate Crisis, COVID-19, And Systemic Racism

Jul 15, 2020

Dr. Marie O'Neill, professor of epidemiology and environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health.
Credit University of Michigan School of Public Health / sph.umich.edu

On its surface, there may not appear to be many connections between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate change crisis.  You don’t, however, have to dig very deep to find the parallels and the impacts on people of color.  Dr. Marie O‘Neill is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, and her work has put her in the path of that intersection.  Dr. O’Neill joined WEMU’s David Fair this week to help connect the dots on this week’s "Issues of the Environment."


Overview

  • There are many parallels between the global public health threat of COVID-19 and climate change.  While the relevance of COVID-19 to human health is through infection with a virus, climate change can affect people’s health through multiple pathways.  
  • Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate how globally connected we are.  Actions taken by one community or country to address these crises affect everyone else on the planet, and taking individual responsibility is an act of generosity and selflessness that can benefit many other people.
  • While many uncertainties exist, there is good news in that preventive actions can be taken that reduce the health toll of both.  For example, social distancing and other societal actions can clearly "flatten the curve" of the incidence of COVID-19 cases.  Similarly, although climate change is already occurring, efforts to reduce energy use can result in less extreme changes in future temperatures and weather events than would otherwise be the case.   
  • Failure to heed early warnings from epidemiologists about COVID-19 led to an exponentially greater public health emergency, and scientists have been calling out warnings about the potential for climate change to alter the global environment in ways that are even more devastating.  
  • Dr. Marie O’Neill, U-M Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Epidemiology, says, “I see the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change as both being phenomena of tremendous importance to global public health.”  She says, “COVID-19 and climate change both magnify the inequalities in our society and the continuing disadvantage experienced by many communities of color as a result of structural racism.  Evidence that climate change most affects the health of those who live in communities with the fewest resources abound.  Solutions to enhance the resilience of such communities can be developed in equal partnership with members of such communities.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu