CLIMATE CHANGE, DISASTERS AND DISEASE

by Gunnar Eigener

Between 2013 and 2016, the Ebola virus raged through western Africa, killing over 11,000 people. A lack of preparedness, underfunding for health facilities and the stigmatization of infected individuals led to the spreading and an inability to combat the virus sooner. Nevertheless, it managed to be contained. Now, however, it risks spreading again, this time reappearing in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moving towards Uganda. Having already claimed more than 1,500 lives, the promise by world leaders that this would not happen again is ringing hollow. The actions that were supposed to speak louder than words have failed to materialise and once again, the rest of the world looks on while Africans die.

This time, there is a difference. Until recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had refused to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, thereby ensuring that developed countries do not have to provide assistance. The WHO went cap in hand, begging for the money needed to build the health clinics. The White House refused to let the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) send its Ebola experts. The political instability of the region may well justify this; over a hundred different rebel groups vie for control of the region and its mineral-rich resources. Doctors Without Borders shutdown their facility in February after a spate of attacks. An experimental vaccine, considered more than 95% effective, will not be used, as health workers are unable to identify those who need it most. 

 

A 2006 study…noted that Ebola outbreaks would become more frequent due to global warming.

 

That this was predicted is perhaps the most frustrating aspect. A 2006 study in the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’ journal noted that Ebola outbreaks would become more frequent due to global warming. A similar study, published in 2008, reiterated the same concerns. Deforestation has led to the barriers between human society and wildlife disappearing. Droughts, landslides, heat waves, flooding; these are all responsible for changing wildlife migration patterns. Climate change also affects food security, meaning communities are forced to change to lower quality food sources when their usual source has declined significantly. The result can be the consumption of infected meat coming  from land mammals that have been in contact with the virus, as ebola can live for years in animal populations without harming them. These changes affect poorer communities who lack the resources to source anything other than bush meat; forced to do so by deforestation and having to move away from their traditional lands. 

Cyclone Idai devastated the east coast of Africa, leaving Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in chaos. The warmer and unsanitary water became a breeding ground for cholera. As the oceans continue to absorb more carbon dioxide and become warmer, the potential for disease to be transported increases. Vast coastal cities with below standard sanitation and water outlets will be at risk from quick outbreaks, especially in urban areas that are overpopulated.  

The resistance to teaching climate science in schools is an addition to this growing problem. That many US citizens refuse to acknowledge the links between climate change and human activity is proving particularly troublesome, especially with an administration that has continued to decimate environmental laws and has enabled the further exploration and drilling of public lands that are increasingly handed over to oil and gas corporations. With Ebola happening in what the US President, Donald Trump, has referred to as ‘shithole’ countries, public support for assistance is not as high as it should be, empathy is severely lacking and human life continues to be rated in terms of profit and loss. As a result, climate change is still regarded as not having any real effect of any concern. 

 

…follow the evidence far enough and climate change is connected to almost every facet of life.

 

Climate change is not directly responsible for these diseases and viruses but it does enable them to have a further reach. It is changing the seasons, weather patterns, generating food shortages and drought. Critics may say there is no scientific connection but look deep enough and the connections are there, scientific or not. Climate change is not just whether it is hot or cold; follow the evidence far enough and climate change is connected to almost every facet of life. The effects of climate change remain most tangible in poorer countries, places that are not visible to most accept through the media, which largely decides what the public should or should not see. 

As horrific as Ebola is, the number it kills is a fraction of the likes of cholera, malaria and dengue fever. While in themselves, these diseases have terrible potential to cause devastation, it is really the problem of deforestation and lack of sanitation that is enabling them to grow. Deforestation is carried out for a multitude of reasons but mostly occurs to make way for land to grow crops, usually soy that can be used to make cattle feed and palm oil, which appears in dozens and dozens of products. While poor communities in the global south are forced to exploit whatever natural resources they have in order to feed and clothe themselves, it is the demands of the West and the growing wealth in Asia that are leading to this exploitation, and in turn contributing to the creation of room for disease. We can start making a difference by consuming less meat and using sustainable products that do not contain palm oil or at least palm oil from a sustainable source. We must also encourage our politicians to ensure foreign aid goes to providing health support instead of using it as a bargaining chip. 

As climate change progresses, diseases and viruses are going to become more likely to spread. They are going to strike in places most affected by climate change and extreme weather patterns. How this is presented in the media becomes very important too. The causes should not be glossed over; time should be taken to explain why such horrific phenomena happen, not just report on the grim details. Until we get in the habit of understanding the causes as well as the consequences, progress is going to be slow and we simply do not have the time for that.

Featured image credit: Martine Perret (UN Photo), Flickr


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