The Lancet: Can Climate Change Worsen India’s Public Health?

Health News
5 min read

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change released its fifth annual report on the relationship between public health and climate change, and unfortunately, India does not fare too well.

The annual report tracks 40+ indicators on links between health and climate change, and this year's data reveals the most worrisome trends yet. “Healthcare systems are ill-prepared as extreme heat leads to fast-rising mortality worldwide and threatens livelihoods of millions,” reads the report.

Dr Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown adds,

“The pandemic has shown us that when health is threatened on a global scale, our economies and ways of life can come to a standstill. The threats to human health are multiplying and intensifying due to climate change, and unless we change course our healthcare systems are at risk of being overwhelmed in the future.”
Dr Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown

How Does India Fare?


The Lancet report says that, “No country – whether rich or poor – is immune from the health impacts of worsening climate change.”

While this may be true, low and middle-income countries tend to fare worse. India is no stranger to terrible air pollution - one of the main drivers of climate change in our country - and according to the report, our country sees “nearly half a million deaths a year” due to hazardous and toxic air quality. Coal combustion by households, power plants and industries which are responsible for almost 100,000 of these half a million deaths.

FIT recently reported on the gendered effects of indoor air pollution, as women who cook with the chula are at increased risk of lung cancer and many other lung diseases.

Certain populations, like the elderly, are more vulnerable to the heat-related effects of climate change. For example, the report states that, “In 2019 India saw a record number of above-baseline days of heatwave exposure affecting its elderly population, at almost 775 million. Heat-related deaths in the over-65s have more than doubled since the early 2000s to more than 31,000 in 2018.”

“Climate change drives a cruel wedge which widens existing health inequalities between and within countries. Our report shows that - just as for COVID-19 – older people are particularly vulnerable, and those with a range of pre-existing conditions including asthma and diabetes are at even greater risk.”
Professor Hugh Montgomery, Lancet Countdown co-chair and an intensive care doctor, UniversityCollege London

In a glimpse of positive news, the report finds that our spending on health has marginally increased, “India’s per capita spend on health adaptation is just $0.80, but has risen from $0.60 per capita in 2015/16.”

A worrying finding for India is the effect of climate change on food security. The report found that, “global food security is threatened by rising temperatures and increases in the frequency of extreme weather events; yield potential for the world’s major crops has declined by 1.8 – 5.6% from 1981 to the present day.”

COVID-19 and Climate Change

Has climate change worsened COVID-19? It may be too early to tell, although there are reports of high levels of pollution in states like Delhi causing complications in people with COVID-19, but the causation has not been proven.

Still, the report warns that COVID-19 may not be the last pandemic we see if we let climate change go unchecked.

“Climate change and zoonotic pandemic risk share common drivers, making them inextricably entwined so that they must be handled together. 
The Lancet Report

It adds, “Climate change and its drivers damage the environment through urbanisation, intensive agriculture and unsustainable food systems, air travel and tourism, trade, and lifestyles powered by fossil fuels, in turn creating conditions that encourage zoonoses.”

“If we wish to reduce the risk of future pandemics, we must prioritise action on the climate crisis – one of the most powerful forces driving zoonoses today. Now is the time for us all to take the environmental determinants of health more seriously – we must address the climate emergency, protect biodiversity, and strengthen the natural systems on which our civilisation depends. This is a moment we cannot afford to ignore. Just as we have seen with COVID-19, delayed action will cause avoidable deaths.”
Dr Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet

Can We Reverse the Effects of Climate Change?

In a word- YES!

While the report is damning, there is still time to help reverse climate change.

“By limiting temperature increases to well below 2C, and aligning climate and pandemic recovery, the world can deliver near-term and long-term health benefits. Health gains could in turn deliver many billions in economic benefit, which could more than pay for the costs of mitigation and bolster the case for green stimulus measures..”
The Lancet

Dr Maria Neira, director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization, added “With trillions being invested globally in economic support and stimulus there is a genuine opportunity to align the responses to the pandemic and climate change to deliver a triple win – one that improves public health, creates a sustainable economy and protects the environment.”

But time is short, and we must recognise the risks to global health and act now. Dr Neira warns, “ Failure to tackle these converging crises in tandem will lock in huge amounts of fossil fuels, moving the world’s 1.5C target out of reach and condemning the world to a future of climate-induced health shocks.”

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