Featured, Opinions
Leave a comment

Medical Students Call to Flatten the Curve on Climate Change: Lessons from COVID-19

While Americans grapple with the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, many ask how they can support their cherished communities and those risking their lives on the frontlines. Along with organizing PPE drives and providing mutual aid, there is something else we all can do to prevent our communities from facing crises like the one before us: organize to address climate change.  

As medical students, we are embarking on a career to join our mentors and colleagues to protect health. While the toll of this pandemic has rendered it difficult to think about the climate crisis, now, more than ever we are reminded that our planet is sick. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we must reflect on the lessons from COVID-19 and how they can equip us to tackle what the World Health Organization has called “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” Honoring our oath to “first, do no harm,” we must safeguard the health of our planet and communities. We implore Americans to vote for leaders who champion ambitious climate policies.

The Present: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Despite warnings of an impending outbreak, we were unprepared for COVID-19, leaving our health system overwhelmed and patients vulnerable. Beyond our hospitals, COVID-19 is exposing unsightly health inequities. Older adults, people with chronic conditions and communities of color suffer from higher rates of mortality from this virus. Our current system of employer-based health insurance leaves those who are unemployed without health insurance. Simultaneously, lack of paid sick leave renders many low-wage essential workers unprotected. The added strain of these systemic inequities is stretching even our modern health system beyond capacity and perpetuating great and avoidable suffering.

The Future: Healing in a Time of Climate Change

Like COVID-19, climate change is a major global threat and health emergency. We have already seen increases in lethal heat waves, massive flooding in the Midwest and raging fires on the West Coast, all of which have harmed patients, health centers and economies. Climate change is already increasing the global burden of disease, including increased hospitalizations for people with COPD, asthma and heart failure, and increased rates of birth defects, cancer and psychiatric disorders. Additionally, due to human activity and climate factors, three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are zoonotic in origin, meaning they originate in animals and jump to humans.

Like COVID-19, climate change will overwhelm already strained health systems and essential services. Researchers are increasingly worried about how first responders will continue to fight COVID-19 amidst predictions of flooding in 23 states by the end of May, a hyperactive hurricane season this summer and more wildfires in the West. If we do not prepare, these compounding crises will debilitate our workforce, global supply chain and health care system. These situations, once unfathomable, feel all too real in the current pandemic.

Like COVID-19, climate change will exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequities. Without equal access to clean water, air, food, housing and health insurance, historically marginalized and vulnerable populations will bear the initial brunt of the health consequences of climate change. Extreme weather events will disrupt health care delivery, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality for people with acute and chronic illnesses. Furthermore, 88% of the burden of climate change will fall on children as they are particularly susceptible to compromised environments.

As we build a healthy future, these important consequences must be considered.

Call to Action

The nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic offers a view of what climate change will impose on our future health system and communities if uncontrolled. As future doctors, on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day we raise our voices in unison to draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis.

We are moved by the solidarity of communities as they innovate and collaborate to tackle this pandemic. In the coming weeks and months, our government and society have the opportunity to recalibrate and rebuild for a more equitable, healthy future.

We urgently call on our elected officials to uphold their oath to protect the American people. We need more than adequate pandemic preparedness. We need a systematic transformation with the capacity to respond to the increasing number of health crises before us. Policies like universal health coverage, the Green New Deal and the Paris Agreement will protect our communities and health systems, paving the way for a future of economic prosperity and justice.

In honor of all those risking and adapting their lives during this pandemic, we urge our fellow Americans to vote for candidates who support climate action. We have the tools we need to combat the climate crisis and protect health. Now, we need the political will to use them.

Together, let’s vote to flatten the curve on climate change.

Watch our video below to learn more.

Image credit: courtesy of Medical Students for a Sustainable Future.

Sarah Hsu (0 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University

Sarah is a second year medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, RI, class of 2022. In 2017, she graduated from Brown University with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and is currently getting her concurrent Masters in population medicine. She enjoys teaching dance, reading contemporary fiction, and promoting menstrual cups in her free time. After graduating medical school, Sarah would like to pursue a career in Emergency Medicine.

Natasha Sood Natasha Sood (0 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Penn State College of Medicine

Natasha is a third year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania Class of 2022. In 2016, she graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Science in environmental science. In 2018, she graduated from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health with a Master of Public Health in environmental science with a specialization in climate change and health. She enjoys yoga, running, and hanging out with friends & family. In the future, Natasha would like to pursue a career in the intersection of climate and health.

Harleen Marwah (0 Posts)

Contributing Writer

George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Harleen is a rising fourth-year medical student at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Prior to medical school, Harleen earned her M.S. in Global Medicine and B.S. in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention from the University of Southern California. Harleen recognizes the need for clinicians and medical students to drive solutions and advocate for communities. She founded Medical Students for a Sustainable Future in 2019 to bring together medical students for a collaborative effort to act on climate for health.

Ellen Townley Ellen Townley (0 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Creighton University School of Medicine

Ellen Townley is a first-year medical student at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska. She is the Advocacy Co-chair for Medical Students for a Sustainable Future and is passionate about the intersection of climate change, health, and social justice.

Sarah Schear Sarah Schear (0 Posts)

Contributing Writer

University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine

Sarah is a fourth-year medical student at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine in the Class of 2021. She is Co-Chair of Advocacy for Medical Students for a Sustainable Future. In 2017, She graduated from the UC Berkeley - UCSF Joint Medical Program with an MS in Health and Medical Sciences. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Amherst College, and before entering medicine, she was a Fulbright-Nehru Research Fellow in India and helped run community mental health programs at Project Horseshoe Farm in Alabama. In her free time, she enjoys serenading friends on her guitar and spending time in nature. Sarah plans to pursue a career in Pediatrics and advocacy for children's and planetary health.

Medical Students for a Sustainable Future (1 Posts)

Medical Students for a Sustainable Future is a network of medical students who recognize climate change as an urgent threat to health and social justice. Motivated to protect our future patients and communities we love, we catalyze action to prevent and address the health harms of climate change.