Public Health Post: What was your focus of work before the Covid-19 pandemic?
Mona Sarfaty: I was working to inform the public and policymakers about the health harms of climate change and the health benefits of climate solutions. I was giving presentations to encourage my colleagues in medical associations around the country to use their trusted voices to speak out about the urgency of addressing climate change. Because they are trusted, they can convey the message that climate change is harming people all over the country from extreme heat, wildfires, powerful storms, flooding, intense allergy seasons, infections caused by mosquitoes and ticks, and mental health impacts due to displacement from their homes. Everyone is at risk, but some are at greater risk, including children, elders, pregnant women, people of color, and people with underlying chronic health conditions. We know what we need to do to stop the damage to our climate; we need to make a speedy transition to an economy based on clean renewable energy and energy efficiency.
What is a lesson learned during the response to Covid-19 that will inform your future work?
Public health is the foundation for our social, cultural, and economic lives, and when the foundations are threatened, everyone must act. The spread of coronavirus day-to-day may be rapid, while climate change has unfolded over decades, but both problems will cause hundreds of thousands to millions of deaths worldwide unless urgent action is taken. Covid-19 and its lethal impacts are a wake-up call to pay attention to scientists’ warnings on climate change. Strengthening public health must be a priority to protect against emerging health threats, climate and Covid-19 alike. Our government failed to maintain the public health capacity required to properly respond to Covid-19. This is going to be a recurring problem unless more support goes to local health departments that are confronting climate-related heat events, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and infectious diseases.
Both climate change and Covid-19 are global in nature and thus require cooperative action. None must be left behind in any health emergency, as the health of the world’s haves and have-nots are intertwined. Climate action will save millions of lives each year by cleaning our air and water and by reducing heart and lung disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and obesity.
A final point is that we must demand that governments, business, and the media take heed of what climate and health experts are telling us: We need transformative energy, transportation, and public health policies that will protect our health and safety in the era of climate change.
In which ways can we allocate adequate resources to address climate change during a pandemic?
It is of the utmost importance that Congress use the massive investments of the coronavirus response legislation wisely to build resilience in the face of climate-related public health threats. Warming and wildfires increase ozone and particulate matter pollution, and early evidence suggests that consistent air pollution exposure may make people more susceptible to the symptoms of Covid-19. The Covid-19 crisis is already impeding wildfire preparedness efforts and could place so much stress on our health system that it will hamper the health response required for wildfire and flood emergencies.
Using the Policy Action Agenda, we must quickly provide local and state health departments with the funding needed to identify, prepare for, monitor, and respond to emerging threats, whether pandemics or climate change. We must jumpstart the needed transformation of our energy, transportation, and agriculture systems to mitigate climate change to protect our health now and for the future. Now is the time to double down on policies that favor renewable energy and energy efficiency; build electrification and weatherization; and invest in public transit and active transportation infrastructure, like zero-emission trucks, buses, and cars. This will make a difference in the short, medium, and long term.
Editor’s note: This is part seven in a series of Profiles exploring the coronavirus pandemic with thought leaders in public health. You can read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and eight here.
Photo courtesy of Mona Sarfaty