My Say: Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 6, 2022 - June 12, 2022.
My Say: Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency
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As we observe World Environment Day on June 6, with the theme “Only One Earth”, I would like to point out that now is the time for collective transformative action, as the curtain on humanity’s only stage could come to a close sooner than many would like to imagine.

#OnlyOneEarth puts the spotlight on the triple planetary emergency that the Earth is facing: the climate is heating up too quickly for us and nature to adapt; habitat loss has threatened an estimated one million species with extinction; and pollution continues to poison our air, land and water.

What we are facing today is just the beginning of many other challenges we will face, both in the humanitarian and health sectors, in the years to come.

So, if I may put it bluntly, Covid-19 is just a dress rehearsal. This pandemic is not something we should have been surprised by. It was a matter of when, not if, and certainly pandemics and epidemics don’t appear out of the blue. Viruses from animals infect human beings when they have an opportunity to do so. Unrestricted development has taken place at the cost of the environment and the degradation of biodiversity. Deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade have allowed wildlife to come into close proximity to us.

Ebola, the bird flu, HIV, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Nipah virus, the West Nile virus, the Zika virus and the Rift Valley fever all point to how zoonotic transfers (the transmission of diseases from animals to humans) have often been the result of our own doing.

Every year, we lose ecosystem services worth more than 10% of our global economic output. Imagine adding to this toll the impact of crises like the pandemic. 

To date, Covid-19 has claimed more than 6.3 million lives and infected more than 539 million people globally. Malaysia had recorded 4,454,113 cases of the disease and 35,569 deaths as at May 5, 2022.

According to Statista, global GDP declined 6.7% in 2020 due to the pandemic and the forecast growth for 2022 is 4.5%. Global GDP for 2022 was estimated at about US$84.54 trillion in 2020, meaning that a 4.5% drop in economic growth results in almost US$2.96 trillion of lost economic output.

The Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida) reported that the value of losses incurred on Malaysia’s GDP, relative to projections in 2020 is around RM38 billion to RM102 billion. Industrial output during the lockdown reduced to between 40% and 70%, and Malaysia’s unemployment rate in May 2021 hit 5.3%, the highest in more than three decades.

Economically and socially, there has been a huge impact from toying with nature. This evidence should challenge us to quickly shift our character from being harmers to healers. The planet is exhausted as it is and yet, we cannot dismiss the possibility of being hit by another pandemic sooner than we think.

Even today, thousands of viruses and microbes are being released from melting glaciers, resulting from a hotter earth. In one example, scientists studying 15,000-year-old ice from the Tibetan Plateau in China found genetic codes for 33 viruses, of which 28 were novel, meaning there are no vaccines or antidotes for them yet.

But pandemics will not be the only thing that will weigh us down. Floods, cyclones and other disasters will also ravage our towns and cities even as we attempt to stymie an outbreak.

So, how do we manage these colliding threats that are going to hit us, and can we really afford to wait? How do we reduce our vulnerability? How do we look at the complexity of our situation now on Earth and how do we prepare for future shocks together?

These questions need answers and it can no longer be done by just the government, or a community, or a non-governmental organisation, or academia. It calls for us all, as humans, to connect at every layer of society to do our part to shift the tide.

Planetary health: You reap what you sow

The term “planetary health” first appeared in medical journal  in 2014, which called for a movement that recognised that the health of people, wildlife and domesticated animals, and natural ecosystems are all interconnected.

The UN’s environment chief Inger Andersen recently said humanity was placing too many pressures on the environment with damaging consequences, and warned that failing to care for our planet equals to not taking care of ourselves.

The more the planet degrades, the more our health and lives are in jeopardy. This is because the conditions in which we live, work, learn and age contribute to 80% of our health. Only 20% is directly related to medical complications.

Exposure to air, water and land pollution in the environment impacts health adversely. In fact, air pollution alone contributes to about seven million premature deaths annually — one in nine of all deaths. Therefore, human health does not exist apart from the planet’s health. The heavy toll on our lives and livelihoods have arisen from deforestation, environmental degradation and a warming Earth.

Stop the boundary crossing: No nature, no future

The Stockholm Resilience Centre outlines nine planetary boundaries. They encompass the nine processes that scientists say regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth’s system. This framework, initiated by environmental scientists in 2009, set nine thresholds within which it is still possible for humanity to survive and thrive. It also defines which lines, if crossed by human activities, would result in irreversible planetary changes.

Unfortunately, we have already crossed five thresholds, through climate change and biodiversity integrity loss. Rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps and animal extinction (estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate) are irreversible damages.

The global climate change goal is to limit the Earth’s warming to 1.5°C. To prevent this from happening, we need to halve annual global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. If we don’t get our act together now, there is a 50% chance that global warming will exceed 1.5°C in the next two decades. This could lead to 70% to 90% of coral reefs dying worldwide. At 2°C of warming, 99% will be gone. There will be extreme weather events that kill or displace thousands of people and economic losses measured in the trillions. We need to also remember that the buildings, roads and storm drains we see today were built for the weather of our past, and these are not likely to withstand the climate of the future.

As we celebrate World Environment Day, let’s remember that we have only one liveable planet in this galaxy, and as the most consequential presence on it, every one of us needs to consider what we can do to make it more safe and liveable for ourselves and for generations to come.

This is the first of a two-part article to mark World Environment Day


Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood is a 2015 Merdeka Award Laureate. She is a humanitarian and was the founder and driving force behind MERCY Malaysia from 1999 to 2009. In 2011, she joined the UN and headed the humanitarian branch of the UN Population Fund and later led the UN World Humanitarian Summit secretariat. She then served as under-secretary-general for partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) from January 2016 to 2020. She served as a special adviser on public health to then prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin from March 2020 to August 2021. She currently serves as pro-chancellor of the Heriot-Watt University Malaysia (since September 2021), professor and executive director of Sunway Centre for Planetary Health (since August 2021) and senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

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