The implications of the unprecedented societal and economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic are not easy to foresee. The seminar that we held on 4 May explored the priorities in the near-term for protecting health in the face of societal changes due directly to the pandemic and indirectly through our response to it.
The session was hosted by Robert Barouki, who is specialized in the effects environmental pollutants have on human health at INSERM (Paris), and is also the leader of the Health Environment Research Agenda (HERA) European program.
For this interesting seminar, we had the opportunity to listen to an intruduction by Manolis Kogevinas, Scientific Director of the Severo Ochoa distinction at ISGlobal; to Joel Kaufman, professor, physician and apidemiologist at the University of Washington (Seattle, USA); Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, director of ISGlobal’s Urban Planning, Environment and Health iniciative; and Elisa Sicuri, economist and assistant research professor at ISGlobal .
According to Manolis Kogevinas’ presentation, even if there is a complex connection and there are many theories on how this pandemic occurred, the destruction of the ecosystem is surely linked to the appearance of new infections. The question is: how do we use this situation to promote, after the pandemic, a more egalitarian and sustainable society?
In Joel Kaufman’s words, the observations now show that the decrease of human activity has resulted in reduction of anthropogenic emissions, improving air quality and decreased emissions of greenhouse gasses.
Clearly, there is evidence that reduced emissions, particularly in traffic, are possible, so there is a window into a more sustainable future where citizens could move towards sustainable energy resources. This would help improving not only the planet, but also people’s health: in many areas, health facilities have found themselves strangely quiet of other diseases other than COVID-19.
Historically, there is a perceived conflict between the perception of a trade-off between economic development/prosperity and environmental protections that emphasize public health and quality of life. This is a persistent narrative, which, however, is not supported by the evidence.
Societal behavioral changes are possible. We have seen that.
According to Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, because of the physical distancing measures, cities have started thinking how to make changes. So, how should the available space be used? In a city like Barcelona, 60% of the public space is used by cars. Using a car is good for physical distancing, but it’s not possible to have more cars coming into the city as it would lead to many problems. Major cities want to keep cars out. i.e. Paris wants to keep car out and introduce more space for pedestrian and cycling lanes. Milan is also trying to change its public space for encouraging walking and cycling. Greenspaces are very important and beneficial but are also generally lacking in cities.
Systemic approaches addressing different problems are needed: health, liveability, sustainability, climate change and equity. Nowadays, also COVID-19 should be included. This will cost money and it should be spent it in a good way to save lives in the long term creating more agreeable spaces and sustainable societies. Is it possible? Mark gave some examples to explain why he believes it is. Seoul, Liverpool are cities which have undergone big changes in the last years.
The economist Elisa Sicuri shared that both high income countries (HIC) and LMIC share a common situation relative to COVID-19: high risk of infections, no vaccines, no treatment, high proportion of severe cases and quite high mortality. However, it is true that both COVID-19 and public health measures to avoid infection transmission of infection (lockdown, social distancing) are disproportionately affecting the poorest.
What is the likely economic situation in LMIC due to COVID-19? There is some evidence from the US and Britain which states the indirect impact of COVID-19 is especially concentrated in specific ethnic minorities. If these people have lost their job, these remittances will not be sent to Sub Saharan Africa, causing impoverishment also there. In the short-term, activating any time of safety net is needed: cash transfers, sick leaves, subsidies healthcare… this is something that should be already in place, beyond the COVID-19, even though, and unfortunately, is still not done.
Questions and answers
Mark Nieuwenhuijsen (ISGlobal) answered some of the questions asked by the public before and during the session.