Public health leadership needed to build a just and sustainable SA, post Covid-19
By Sheree Bega
Johannesburg - The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges that South Africa will face as the climate crisis grows.
And while the country fights today’s Covid-19 battles, "it must also look ahead to building a just and sustainable post-Covid-19 country," wrote James Irlam, the chairperson of the climate, energy and health special interest group of the Public Health Association of South Africa (PHASA), in a letter to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize this week.
It was copied to the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe and sent to the Presidency.
The letter calls for their "leadership in building a post-Covid-19 South Africa".
The pandemic, wrote Irlam, is an opportunity to build the institutions and social solidarity "that can dismantle the current unjust order".
A Just Recovery report released this week calls for a people-centred recovery from the pandemic to overcome existing inequalities.
A well-funded public healthcare sector and a low-carbon energy system are seen as essential to the first of the five principles of a just recovery, Irlam wrote.
"We reiterate that the Presidential Climate Change Commission is integral in driving this just transition/just recovery in South Africa.
"We have been informed that Minister Creecy advised a group of climate change stakeholders during a meeting on June 1 that the terms of reference for this Commission were being finalised."
Irlam wrote that the special interest group repeats its plea for the commission to "begin in earnest" and requests a copy of the terms of reference to consider ways in which it can support the departments and the commission’s work.
"As a group with a special interest in the links between climate and energy systems and public health, in a national association of public health professionals and advocates, and in a country both historically responsible for, and increasingly vulnerable to, climate change, we call for your strong leadership on finding shared solutions to the converging crises of the immediate pandemic, and the growing pandemic of climate-health impacts in SA.
"We align ourselves with international and national efforts ... to lay the foundations of a new economy that lives within the planet's natural limits and emphasises human health and the wellbeing of our life-support system."
Climate change and pandemics interact in multiple ways to worsen the impact of each.
Irlam described how air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is already killing millions of people from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and air pollution is linked to higher coronavirus mortality, particularly among those with pre-existing morbidity.
"Sadly, air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld, in particular, is among the worst in the world due to the concentration of our coal-fired power stations and weak enforcement of both the air quality standards and the air quality management plan for the area."
Air pollution is driving global heating via the ‘greenhouse effect’, "with catastrophic consequences for environmental and human health, such as extreme weather, heatwaves, droughts, floods and sea level rise.
"We appreciate that South Africa is still very much in the midst of the Covid-19 storm, imposing an enormous strain on our national, provincial and local public health resources."
Health workers have been justly praised for their essential role on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic response "and they have no less a role to play in protecting public health from the slower developing but more harmful crisis of climate change.
"It is for this reason that, while fighting today’s Covid-19 battles, we must also look ahead to building a just and sustainable post-Covid-19 South Africa.
"In its recently issued ‘Manifesto for a healthy recovery from Covid-19’, the WHO has warned that we cannot afford repeated disasters on the scale of Covid-19, whether they are triggered by the next pandemic, or from mounting environmental damage and climate change."
South Africa cannot go back to "normal", he wrote.
Government decisions in the coming months must avoid locking SA into economic development patterns that will do permanent and escalating damage to the ecological systems that sustain all human health and livelihoods."
The letter urges Cabinet to heed the following:
- a July 2020 resolution by the World Federation of Public Health Associations demanding that governments stop the opening of all new coal mines worldwide, accelerate the closure of existing coal mines and accelerate the transition to clean renewable energy and secure a just transition for affected workers and communities;
- an open call from health workers to G20 leaders for a ‘#HealthyRecovery’ from the coronavirus pandemic;
- demands from youth representatives in SA calling on government to ensure that economic recovery from Covid-19 is just, green, inclusive and youth and gender-responsive;
- the WHO’s urgent prescriptions for the above-mentioned healthy recovery, which includes investing in essential basic services, ensuring a quick healthy energy transition, and ending taxation-based fossil fuel subsidies.
Irlam said there has been no acknowledgement or response from the recipients to a letter sent to the same recipients by the special interest group in December, emphasising that health is the bottom line of the climate crisis and that the injustice of “climate apartheid” in South Africa demands action from the health sector.
Creecy's office acknowledged receipt of the latest letter on Thursday.