To the Editor: In Australia, 2020 began with raging bushfires, and we now confront the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) pandemic. While health protection is currently at the top of the public policy agenda, can we rise from these huge ruptures and “build back better”?
The full health costs of the bushfires, including the mental health toll, are yet to be quantified. No sooner had the bushfires abated than the battle against the COVID‐19 pandemic began. The immediate public health response has been well managed in Australia.1 Although Victoria is currently grappling with a second wave of infections, by international comparisons the number of cases and deaths around the country has remained low.2 Government leaders have listened to health experts and acted on evidence, including the need for strict physical distancing in the absence of a vaccine, supplemented by universal masking in Victoria.
As governments move to revitalise the economy with financial stimulus, what guidance can health experts provide to inform this stimulus?
One clear priority is that stimulus accelerates the decarbonisation of the Australian economy. Climate change is a recognised health issue. Published as the bushfires erupted, the 2019 MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change report3 found that Australia is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on health. There are also health co‐benefits from action on climate change. The clearest example is the transition to renewable energy generation. Globally, in 2015 alone, more than 460 000 preventable deaths were attributable to coal burning.4 An urgent transition to renewable energy would be an evidence‐based public policy response to these deaths and assist a global green recovery from the pandemic which is called for by the World Health Organization.5
Australia is well placed to lead such a recovery as indicated in a recent report by ClimateWorks Australia,6 which provides a blueprint to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 through accelerated uptake of mature zero emission technologies and the rapid development and commercialisation of emerging zero emission technologies in harder to abate sectors (Box).
Beyond stimulus for decarbonisation, investments in affordable housing, mass transit infrastructure, safe routes for walking and cycling, regeneration of degraded ecosystems and infrastructure to support working from home would also benefit health through reduced homelessness, improved levels of physical activity, and improved urban air quality.
Australia has, thus far, avoided the high COVID‐19 case numbers and death rates seen in some other countries because of evidence‐based decision making. It is essential that decisions about the stimulus for economic recovery are similarly grounded in evidence. The health and wellbeing of current and future generations of Australians depend on it.
- 1. Coghlan B, Majumdar SS, Pedrana A, et al. A strategic framework to ease community‐wide COVID‐19 suppression measures [preprint]. Med J Aust 2020. https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2020/strategic-framework-ease-community-wide-covid-19-suppression-measures
- 2. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID‐19) situation report 204 (11 Aug 2020). https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200811-covid-19-sitrep-204.pdf?sfvrsn=1f4383dd_2 (viewed Aug 2020).
- 3. Zhang Y, Beggs PJ, Bambrick H, et al. The MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Australian policy inaction threatens lives. Med J Aust 2018; 209: 474. https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2018/209/11/mja-lancet-countdown-health-and-climate-change-australian-policy-inaction
- 4. Watts N, Amann M, Arnell N, et al. The 2018 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: shaping the health of nations for centuries to come. Lancet 2018; 392: 2479–2514.
- 5. World Health Organization. WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID‐19: prescriptions for a healthy and green recovery from COVID‐19. WHO, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-manifesto-for-a-healthy-recovery-from-covid-19 (viewed Aug 2020).
- 6. ClimateWorks Australia. Decarbonisation Futures: solutions, actions and benchmarks for a net zero emissions Australia. Melbourne: ClimateWorks Australia, 2020. https://www.climateworksaustralia.org/resource/decarbonisation-futures-solutions-actions-and-benchmarks-for-a-net-zero-emissions-australia/ (viewed June 2020).
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