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Trevor Hancock: Toward a healthy economic recovery

That there will be some sort of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is not in doubt.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization

That there will be some sort of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is not in doubt. But the fight that is shaping up is between those who want to go roaring back to the past by promoting fossil fuels and ditching environmental protections and those who want to use this opportunity to bounce forward instead to a green, just and healthy recovery.

So what would the economic recovery look like if health mattered? The director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, has some ideas. In an address to the World Health Assembly in mid-May, he discussed the need for a healthy and green recovery, noting that “going back to ‘normal’ is not good enough.”

Governments are committing trillions of dollars to support people during the pandemic, he said, and to “eventually resuscitate economy activity.”

The ways in which these vast sums are allocated “have the potential to shape the way we live our lives, work and consume for years to come.” But there is a danger we will “lock in economic-development patterns that will do permanent and escalating damage to the ecological systems that sustain all human health.”

So he called on governments to instead “promote a healthier, fairer, and greener world” and identified a six-part prescription for a healthy, green recovery. The first is to protect and preserve nature, which is “the source of human health.” Second, governments need to invest in essential services, in particular water and sanitation.

Third, he said, we need to ensure a quick transition to a healthy energy system, not only because fossil fuel combustion causes climate change, but because it also causes two-thirds of outdoor air pollution.

Around the world, “over 90 per cent of people breathe outdoor air with pollution levels exceeding WHO air quality guideline values.”

The transition to a clean-energy system would “improve air quality to such an extent that the resulting health gains would repay the cost of the investment twice over.”

Linked to this is the sixth element of the prescription: “Stop using taxpayers’ money to fund pollution.”

He is referring here to the amount spent subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry, about $400 billion US every year. But added to that are the costs of the harm to health and the environment caused by fossil-fuel use, which he pegs at more than $5 trillion US every year.

These costs are not included in the price of fossil fuels, amounting to a hidden subsidy greater than the amount all governments in the world spend on health care.

Rounding off the prescription for a healthy and green future are recommendations to promote healthy, sustainable food systems and build healthy, liveable cities.

Transitioning to a diet that meets the WHO healthy diet guidelines “would save millions of lives, reduce disease risks, and bring major reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions,” while cities need to be designed for public transport, walking and cycling, rather than the private car.

Ghebreyesus is not alone in his views. Last week, a letter went to the G20 leaders calling for a healthy recovery in line with his prescription.

The letter came from more than 350 organizations representing more than 40 million health professionals and more than 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 different countries.

It stated “a truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation.”

In addition, the letter added, we must look after the vulnerable, and ensure workers are well paid.

Among the 18 organizations in Canada that signed the letter are the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as organizations one would expect, such as Canadian Nurses for the Environment and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

The latter has also sent a petition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for a healthy recovery in Canada.

We need to push our elected leaders to pay heed to this health advice, ensuring that the recovery from the recession induced by our response to COVID-19 is a healthy, green and just recovery.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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