Public health, social justice and sustainability must be “at the heart of Ireland’s path out of the pandemic” alongside collective action to urgently address the climate and biodiversity crisis, a group of Irish doctors has said.
Irish Doctors for the Environment, a group representing more than 800 doctors and health professionals across Ireland, has called on the Government to approach the pandemic as "an opportunity for change" and a chance to build a "healthier, more just world".
In a letter sent to Government officials on Thursday to mark Earth Day 2021, the group underlined the urgent need to build a more equitable world with a functioning health system, a more secure energy supply from renewable resources and a stronger focus on the eradication of poverty, urban regeneration and liveable cities that promote social connection.
If policy makers do not prioritise these measures and instead return to business as usual another pandemic will inevitably happen in the near future, warns the group.
The letter writes that the pandemic was not a surprise and had been predicted by doctors for decades. “Pandemics arise when humans encroach on nature by changing patterns of agriculture, trade, exploitation of resources. Make no mistake, Covid is a messenger from an unhealthy planet. It has brought home to everyone how vital health is, and that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Prioritising health and social justice also makes economic sense, notes the group, which highlighted that the cost of preventing a pandemic would be less than 5 per cent of what it could take to respond to another health crisis of this scale.
“Every decision made now will have lasting consequences for the health and lives of future generations.”
The group’s letter was delivered to Dáil Éireann while deputies debated the second stage of the Climate Action Bill inside Dublin’s Convention Centre. Six doctors dressed in masks and scrubs gathered outside the centre where they handed a copy of the letter to Independent TD Thomas Pringle who agreed to pass it on to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport, Climate and Environment.
Dr Derek Cawley, a spine surgeon at the Mater Private Hospital, who presented the letter to Mr Pringle, said scientific data shows an increasing number of vector-bourne diseases are spreading as a result of human intrusion in the wild. “This is threatening our ecosystem and threatening the human race,” he told The Irish Times.
“We’re at a crossroads in terms of decision-making going forward and a central part of our recovery needs to prioritise the health of our people. We are sending this message to the Government because we feel it is incumbent on us as doctors to advocate for our patients.”
Dr Callum Swift, an emergency medicine registrar at Tallaght University Hospital, said the State's emergence from the pandemic should be treated as "a catalyst for change".
“We don’t want to emerge from this crisis and return to the old ways, and sadly that appears to be what the world is going for. It looks like we’re returning to the old normal and that’s what got us into this problem.”
Dr Swift called on all TDs to support the Climate Action Bill so as to ensure “transformative change across all sectors of society”.
“When the coronavirus hit it was national news bulletins on a daily basis, there was collective action. We all realised the importance of doing our part and social distancing. That same level of urgency is required to address the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis.”