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The impact of climate change on the coronavirus pandemic

While it's certainly not the cause, experts say it could be making things worse.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Climate change is not the cause of the COVID-19 coronavirus; however, it may cause a virus like COVID-19 to become worse, according to a webinar hosted today by the Harvard Center for Climate Heath & Global Environment (C-CHANGE).

Although it is too early to tell what direct impacts Climate Change has had on the spread of the coronavirus, evidence supports that climate change could indirectly impact the spread of the illness, infectious diseases, and other immerging viruses with flu-like symptoms across the globe.

According to Wednesday's webinar from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the continuous burning of fossil fuels causes air pollution and climate change, and an increase in air pollution is the cause of many respiratory issues especially in underserved, low-income, urban communities with little access to healthcare. This increase in air pollution leads to a decrease in lung health, and a decrease in lung health allows for bacterial and viral pathogens (a bacteria, virus or microorganism that can cause disease) such as COVID-19 to thrive and become worse.

Many cases of pneumonia around the world are caused by air pollution; pneumonia is one of the symptoms of COVID-19 and could be exacerbated by poor lung health due to air pollution. Exposure to air pollution leads to a higher risk of respiratory infections, and the higher your respiratory infection risk, the higher your chances are of becoming infected with a respiratory virus like COVID-19.

"Climate change solutions are pandemic solutions," officials in the webinar stated. There is a complex interaction between our global environment, climate change, and our health. This is why international relations dealing with our global and physical health are paramount.

Another topic that brought up was the concern that different animals (such as bats—linked to the current pandemic) and insects that carry diseases are now more suitable to live and thrive in ever warming areas of our planet. Animals and insects that were once contained to warm climates are able to migrate, reproduce, and mature well beyond their previous thermal boundaries due to climate change. This, in turn, exposes more of the human population to these disease/virus-carrying organisms. 

During the webinar, the panel of experts agreed that climate change could indirectly impact the spread of infectious diseases and other immerging viruses across the globe. The panel included:

  • Dr. Aaron Bernstein: Director of Harvard C-CHANGE, pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School
  • Dr. Georges C. Benjamin: Executive Director of American Public Health Association
  • Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Professor and Director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center

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