The planetary health pandemic

The new coronavirus pandemic has been shown as one of the consequences caused by the deterioration of the planet’s global health. According to Jordi Sunyer, director of the Childhood and Environment Program of the Barcelona Institute of Global Health (ISGlobal), “We have created such a huge imbalance in the world, that right now the planet can no longer maintain or guarantee human health”. The loss of biodiversity, added to the high rates of air pollution, are key factors to understand the reason for the spread and the incidence of this type of virus now, in a context of total globalization, and not in other times of our recent history.

The presence of viruses on Earth is not strange or new. There are tens of thousands, but the contact of human species with them is only a minority. The fact that they are in remote ecosystems and difficult to access, has limited its interaction with people until now. A situation that, as the activist and biologist from “Ecologistas en Acción” Jaume Grau points out, “has changed as a result of the expansion of global capitalism, that seeks to expand the extractive frontiers around the planet”.

In fact, it is a matter that the same heads of the World Health Organization (WHO) were already warning about. Its CEO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated in 2019 that “the threat of a flu pandemic remains. The risk of a new flu virus spreading from animals to human beings and causing a pandemic it is constant and real. The question is not knowing if there will be a new flu pandemic, but when it will happen”.

The current reality is not the result of one day. Jaume Grau remembers that “the degradation of nature causes ecological relationships between species to become increasingly simple, increasing the risk and the possibilities of being in contact with viruses that we do not know. Therefore, this dilution effect that biodiversity has, is lost”.

Beyond the degradation of biodiversity as one of the causes of the current pandemic, air pollution stands out as one of its amplifiers.

The activist and biologist points Europe as an example, where as a whole “vertebrates have reduced their populations by 60% over the last 30 years. Instead, what else? More humans and more factory farming.” A situation that Grau himself links with “the economic dogma of growing, by which the rulers have ignored the reality, they have tried to set aside and kick the ball forward, leading us to a suicidal race to abyss”.

Beyond the degradation of biodiversity as one of the causes of the current pandemic, air pollution stands out as one of its amplifiers. According to a research from Harvard University TH Chan, “someone who lives for decades in a territory with high levels of fine particle pollution —known as PM10 and PM2.5— is 15% more likely to die from covid-19 than someone who lives in a region that has only one less unit of said contamination”.

The researcher from ISGlobal Jordi Sunyer, who is cautious about it, says that “we still do not know for sure. In the end, what has happened is that many of the cases occur in situations where we had the best air quality conditions in decades”. At the same time, and speaking of Barcelona, he reaffirms that “the pollution increases cardiovascular diseases and it is true that the people with cardiovascular diseases have a higher risk of mortality with the specific effects of covid-19.”

The Harvard University study, which has a total of more than 3.000 samples from different regions from the United States, suggests that “the long term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe outcomes of covid-19”. A situation that can be extrapolated to the catalonian capital and its metropolitan area, where according to the latest data from the Health Department from the “Generalitat de Catalunya”, 88.516 positive cases of covid-19 have been counted, being 84% of the total of the Catalan territory.

Although population density is another key factor, it should be remembered that Barcelona is within the most polluted cities in Europe, with daily levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentration higher than recommended by the European Union, coming mostly from private transport vehicles. According to the 2019 report from the European Environment Agency, the annual average of 40 micrograms per cubic meter should not be exceeded, and the figures of Barcelona widely exceed the barrier of 50.

Jaume Grau: “We have the chance to revert the ecological crisis, to reconvert the economy, to improve the quality of life of society and to slow down and completely stop the loss of species, but not with green capitalism”

Having marked its historical lows of air pollution in the harsh months of the lockdown, at the end of June, Barcelona city already had levels of pollution that were close to those prior to the closure of economic activity, but mobility did not even reach 70% of the total prior to the beginning of the pandemic. Mercè Rius, General Director of Environmental Quality and Climate Change of the Generalitat de Catalunya, said at the time that “the date we fear the most is the 15th of September. If the school year is resumed with certain normality, we will have schools, universities, and people going back to work at the same time. If public transport is not used out of fear, which we started seeing, we could find values higher than those prior to the pandemic”.

At the same time, Rius highlights that the department wants to promote a radical change in mobility, saying that “what is clear and what has been seen, just as there were who sometimes doubted it, is that the impact of mobility on the air quality in Barcelona is really important”. Though, on the contrary, the Generalitat itself, left on hold at the beginning of the lockdown one of the few control measures they have started: the tax on emissions of old vehicles that had to go into effect this 2020. The General Director of Environmental Quality and Climate Change alludes that “it was impossible to carry on said measure due to the paralysis of the entire organization chart caused by the situation of the pandemic”.

It seems clear that the constant harassment of biodiversity and air pollution increases our vulnerability, what is not so obvious is that drastic solutions are sought or applied to change the course. From “Ecologistas en Acción”, Jaume Grau says that “We have the chance to revert the ecological crisis, to reconvert the economy, to improve the quality of life of society and to slow down and completely stop the loss of species, but not with green capitalism”. To which he adds that “before anything else, we fight so that humanity continues to live on the planet with quality of life and for a matter of social justice. Therefore, electric cars, an emblem of green capitalism, are not the solution, what we think is that much more structural changes are needed and that they are focused on solutions of collective mobility and regulations that help local consumption”.

Finally, the researcher Jordi Sunyer from ISGlobal insists on the matter that “we have pushed so far to the limit the acceleration of the planet that human health can no longer be independent of planetary health”. Whereupon, and with certain pessimism, recalls that “now we see again how there is a strong dogma, as is the economy, and feeble dogmas, as are the ecology, sustainability or health”.

The changes, despite the obvious climate emergency and therefore sanitary, seem that they will not be immediate and will only arrive with “the whacks that we will receive from the planet, not by political will”, states the biologist Jaume Grau.