Climate, Health and COVID-19 in British Columbia

Vancouver, Canada - June 29,2020: People are crossing road with face masks on due to COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Margarita-Young from iStock Images.

“Like COVID-19, climate change is a risk multiplier, posing direct, indirect, and intersecting threats to human health and exacerbating existing health and social inequities.”

That is a key takeaway from the PICS report Climate, Health and COVID-19 in British Columbia produced by public health policy researchers from Simon Fraser University (SFU) and released in January 2022.

The research team set out to identify lessons from the current COVID-19 pandemic that could help the province better prepare for the likely health impacts on peoples’ physical and mental well-being due to climate change.

The PICS report drills down in the projected climate impacts across the province ranging from increased extreme weather events to more severe wildfires, pointing out how these changes will cut across BC’s regional health authority boundaries, and will require coordination and collaborative planning to address.

Fig.1 Regional Health Authorities in BC. Click figure to enlarge
Table 1: Projected Climate Changes by Health Authority Under a High Emissions Pathway (Median Projected Change from 1961-1990 Baseline to 2040-2069).  Click table to Enlarge.

Taking a public health perspective, the team also unpack the major disruptions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdowns, social restrictions, economic disruptions, supply chain issues, and loss of life.  The report produces a set of recommendations on three areas of health and healthcare delivery that have garnered broad public attention over the course of the pandemic, and are likely to also be affected by climate change:

1. Telemedicine: Telemedicine presents an opportunity to expand health care services to British Columbians while reducing carbon emissions by avoiding unnecessary travel and bringing health services to people where they live. Developing a provincial strategy for telemedicine will create consistency and promote standardization for all six health authorities, while ensuring equity and sustainability are front and centre across both public and private initiatives.

2. Green infrastructure: Green spaces have been an important part of people’s health and wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing opportunities for exercise, social connection, and solace. Green infrastructure also has the potential to reduce exposure to extreme heat, improve air quality, and support mental health in a changing climate. Ensuring equitable access to green spaces and the health benefits they provide could lessen other intersecting economic and structural health inequities, particularly in urban and low-income settings.

3. Food security: Food security relies on complex networks of people, communities, and resources that exist within social, cultural, and ecological contexts. Climate change has the potential to disrupt any and all of these connections, creating food insecurity and inequities in access to safe, affordable, and abundant food sources. Planning for sustainable food systems under climate change will require attention to the production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food. Among other things, this will mean preparing for the effects of climate change on growing seasons and preparing for the health impacts climate change will have on agricultural workers.

Other opportunities to prepare for climate change identified in the report include:

  • Mapping climate projections, health impacts and vulnerability across the province to inform coordinated health and equity planning for climate change across health authority boundaries.
  • Developing processes that embed health equity in the design and implementation of low carbon, climate mitigation solutions in all sectors.

“The disruption COVID-19 has caused at every level of society has given us pause to re-assess our priorities, and highlighted the fragility of our current social, political, economic, and healthcare systems. It has also provided an opportunity to reimagine our future.” - Climate, Health and COVID-19 in British Columbia

Read the full report written by Sally Maguet (Master of Public Health), Sally McBride (MPH), Michael Friesen (MPH) and SFU Professor Tim Takaro, Faculty of Health Sciences.