Could the public health benefits of reduced pollution be a ‘chink of light’ in COVID-19?

Nurses can help create a better, healthier ‘normal’ after the trauma of the pandemic

Picture: iStock

At this year's World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting, which was held virtually in May, World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus used his opening speech to praise nurses for the work they do.

His remarks reflect the esteem in which Dr Adhanom Ghebreyesus holds the entire nursing profession.

COVID-19 has taught us that we need to be better prepared

He knows the impact nurses have on healthcare and recognises that all countries need to invest more in nursing and follow the road map set out in the State of the World’s Nursing report. This was his message when he addressed the International Council of Nurses’ (ICN) recent online board of directors meeting.

The WHA is WHO’s governing body and ICN took the opportunity to intervene at the assembly with a letter calling on governments to collect data about the number of nurses who contract COVID-19 and how many have sadly died.

We also asked for action on the increased violence and aggression that nurses have faced since the start of the pandemic. Such acts stem from ignorance and fear, and it is down to governments to deal with them appropriately, combat misinformation and provide proper public health messages for their populations.

‘COVID-19 has shown how important it will be in the future for countries to be better prepared for events that will challenge our healthcare systems’

Meanwhile, the calamitous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to roll around the globe, with tens of thousands of people still in hospital and thousands of lives still being lost.

The pandemic has shown that countries that took quick, decisive action have been rewarded with less severe outbreaks, and fewer cases and deaths. And unfortunately, the reverse is also true – slower, less-effective lockdowns seem to have resulted in larger outbreaks and more deaths.

The terrible loss of life and the suffering of people separated for months from their loved ones are the most important aspects of this whole awful experience and lessons must be learned to improve our responses next time.

COVID-19 has also shown us how important it will be in the future for countries to be better prepared for other events that will challenge our healthcare systems in ways we have not yet experienced.

A chance to establish an ongoing positive effect on the environment

But despite the carnage of COVID-19, a small chink of light has appeared from all the tragedy and gloom in the form of a marked reduction in levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

We know that climate change, with its potential to cause significant rises in average temperatures and sea levels is, at least as far as we know, the single biggest threat to human existence.

‘We have a unique, once-in-a-generation chance to use this lull in proceedings to change the world for the better’

But as governments have shut down their countries’ economies, transport and commerce in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the world has taken a breather: the emission of harmful pollutants has reduced and the global environment has become marginally cleaner and healthier.

While everyone tries to anticipate what the ‘new normal’ will be, it is clear that the reduction in pollution over the past few months shows that the seemingly inexorable rise in global average temperatures could be reversible.

If that is the case, there is no doubt that there will be tangible benefits in terms of public health right around the globe.

Wherever they are, nurses see the impact of pollution and the effects of climate change on the health of the people they serve: respiratory conditions are on the increase, a lack of clean water is damaging people's health, and natural disasters linked to global warming, such as droughts and fires, are compromising people’s physical and mental health.

Our recovery needs to focus on health in its broadest sense

We have a unique, once-in-a-generation chance to use this lull in proceedings to change the world for the better.

What is needed is a recovery that focuses on the health of the public in the broadest terms by reducing pollution and countering global warming.

To this end, ICN recently joined with other healthcare professional organisations in writing a letter to the leaders of the G20 group of nations asking them to plan for a healthy recovery from COVID-19.

ICN’s own position statement on Nurses, Climate Change and Health calls on governments to reduce activities that increase the rate of climate change and create health systems that are resistant to it.

It also calls on nurses to do their bit to help individuals, families and communities to build their resilience, so that future generations will be able to live happy, healthy and productive lives.

The pandemic has shown the world what nurses are capable of: while the people are watching and listening, let’s raise our 20 million voices to make sure that we can provide a future for our children that is as healthy and safe as it can be.        

View our COVID-19 resources centre

    Howard Catton is chief executive of the International Council of Nurses



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