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Joint letter from Medicos urging act on climate change as part of the COVID-19 economic response

Australia’s peak medical groups, representing around 90,000 or 75% of the nation’s doctors have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison urging him to act on climate change as part of the COVID-19 pandemic economic response, in order to better invest in Australians’ health. 

Coordinated by Doctors for the Environment Australia, the signatories to the letter represent the nation’s GPs, emergency room doctors, physicians, obstetricians, psychiatrists and other disciplines. Many of these professionals are on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The letter is signed by Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), the Australian Medical Association (AMA), The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM), The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM), College of Intensive Care Medicine (CICM), and Australian Medical Students' Association (AMSA). 

The letter states, in part: 

The world is in the middle of two global health emergencies: the viral pandemic and climate change. As we continue efforts to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we must ensure that we also have a whole-of-government approach towards addressing climate change, which also has potentially catastrophic health impacts. Carbon pollution and associated global warming will have profound consequences on the fundamentals of human health: clean air, water, access to food and a safe climate. 

The letter highlights this year’s unprecedented summer of bushfires and associated smoke pollution which together claimed more than 400 lives, and resulted in the hospitalisation of more than 3000 people for heart and lung problems. The letter also notes the psychological health impacts that are likely to be present for decades. 

 To reduce carbon emissions, which also worsens air pollution, the letter calls for: 

• a transition away from fossil fuels -both coal and gas- to renewable energy. 

• investment in projects and technologies that preserve our natural environment 

 • investment in green infrastructure and public transport, which would have the additional benefits of promoting physical activity that would reduce diseases such as obesity and diabetes, and substantially improve air quality. 

The letter concludes: 

Australia has an unparalleled opportunity to act on climate change and invest in a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous future. We urge the Australian government to ensure that health remains a central focus of all aspects of the COVID-19 economic recovery and to support a healthy transition to a climate resilient economy. ******************************************************************

South Coast doctor, Michelle Hamrosi has written to the editor of the Beagle saying : It is more than six months since last summer's apocalyptic bushfires, but the memories continue to haunt me.

I am a general practitioner at Surf Beach, a little coastal town just south of Batemans Bay, one of so many parts of eastern Australia hit by the unprecedented bushfire season that saw thick plumes of smoke settle across the country for weeks.

A week into the new year I drove to work, the bush all around me as black as the asphalt road.

At the surgery that day, we had no power, phones or internet.

I saw psychologically distressed people, some in borrowed clothing, needing basic medical care and a sympathetic ear.

Many people, suffering from significant smoke exposure, were seeking medical advice for coughs, chest pains, sore throats, sore eyes, and difficulty breathing.

My colleague and I, with head torches for light, wrote notes and scripts by hand, listening, counselling and reassuring.

I will never forget my patients' stories of near misses, of desperately escaping the flames with their kids in tow.

Stories of recently completed dream homes burnt to the ground, of properties established over decades and precious animals, wildlife, orchards, businesses and special places, all gone.

As I drove home that day I cried, overwhelmed by the destruction, suffering and loss.

There is no denying that the task ahead is enormous. But COVID-19 has taught us many salient lessons. Respect science. Focus on prevention. Unite our communities. Work together.

Since then the recovery has been slow, and complicated by COVID-19.

The pandemic has many people in my community feeling even more vulnerable and socially isolated, while still more Australians have come to know the special fear that comes from having their health and wellbeing constantly threatened by external forces.

Climate change, like COVID-19, lays bare the underlying health inequalities that exist within our current systems, with the poorer and more marginalised being disproportionately impacted.

Intersecting crises multiply the impact further still.

The bushfire crisis was preceded by the devastating NSW drought.

Since the bushfires, we have had heavy rain and storms, causing flooding, erosion, fallen trees, landslides and polluted waterways.

And as I write this piece, my nearest town is facing evacuation from rising flood waters.

It is now clear to me and to my medical colleagues across Australia that we are amid two global health emergencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world and created untold disruption and misery, while climate change, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, is driving more and more frequent and dangerous droughts, floods, storms and bushfires.

That is why every dollar the Australian government spends to stimulate the economy and get unemployed Australians back into work must also build individual and community resilience, tackle climate change and reduce social inequalities.