Health in the Time of Disaster.

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Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, and is set to make landfall in the United States. A hurricane, in itself not extraordinary during this time of year, that has undoubtedly increased in ferocity due to the changing climate. Humanitarian crises and disasters like these will only increase in frequency as well as intensity as time goes on. As we reckon with what the consequences of a planet heating beyond repair would mean, the question of what it will mean for our human rights, and in particular the human right to health, remains under-explored.

Perhaps the most obvious consequence of the increase and violence of natural disasters, is the fact that it will be more and more difficult to physically reach the people affected, affecting their accessibility to healthcare. Indeed, an increase in humanitarian crises will mean that more people will have difficulty accessing clean water, food, and medicines,  and will be more at risk of developing infectious diseases. Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable and poorest populations, both within countries and between countries with the Global South more affected than the Global North in this respect, will be hardest hit when disaster strikes. The vulnerable and poorest being hardest hit means that they will be likeliest to need medical assistance, and simultaneously means that it will be harder to reach these communities. This is a bind that most, if not all, healthcare systems are likely not sufficiently prepared to tackle, but it is already a reality for many people around the world.

As briefly mentioned in the above paragraph, another consequence of a global rise in temperature is the increase in infectious diseases and parasites. The global rise in temperatures will likely make previously uninhabitable parts of the world for parasites more attractive to them, and they will increasingly appear where they would normally not be found.  In addition, water scarcity as a result of drought can lead to poor sanitation which will increase the incidence of diseases such as cholera. Again, unsurprisingly the people bearing the brunt of these issues are poorer communities in the Global South. 

Beyond communicable diseases, mental health issues are an under appreciated consequence of the global climate emergency. ‘Ecological grief‘, a sense of grief borne out of the changing ecological landscape, and a loss of a way of living, seems to be particularly felt by people who live in synchrony with nature. Indeed, indigenous communities, like the Greenlandic Inuit, have increased mental health issues related to a loss of their way of life, their ability to live with nature and off of nature. Voices of many indigenous communities who have been losing their land, their livelihoods, and their ability to live in synchrony with their ancestral lands are rarely heard, but the climate catastrophe has dire consequences on their mental health. Ecological grief, ties together the climate crisis, mental health, and indigenous rights. In general, a sense of climate despair seems to be affecting people’s mental health across the world, making many people question the point of existence as a sense of hopelessness about the situation takes over. Whether our mental health services, especially in a world where there are not an awful lot of mental health professionals, are capable of rising up to this challenge remains uncertain.

Health, whether physical or mental, communicable or non-communicable, is a fundamental human right that is under pressure in a changing world.

The United Nations rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, has said that human rights might be threatened due to climate change. The world’s wealthiest might be able to escape the worst of climate change’s effects whilst the world’s poorest will have their right to housing, food, life, safety and, as I outlined here, health, threatened. When it comes to human rights, and particularly the gains we have made in health and the precariousness of these gains, it is imperative that we keep them at the heart of our climate policy and the societal debates we are having on what best to do to tackle the climate crisis. Health, whether physical or mental, communicable or non-communicable, is a fundamental human right that is under pressure in a changing world. The potential repercussions of that are dire if our policymakers and health systems do not adapt to these realities quickly. Conversations surrounding ambitious policy proposals like the Green New Deal ought to centre human rights in general, however the right to health should not be underestimated or kept on the back burner. At the end of the day, vulnerable, poor, and indigenous communities will bear the brunt of our complacency, and we cannot afford to let that happen.

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