COVID-19: A Global Health Challenge

What is global health and how does it relate to pandemics? What do scientists tell us about the causes of the Covid-19 pandemic and its outbreak? How does the pandemic relate to climate change and what are the future challenges we will have to face? The third session of the cycle of virtual debates about the impact of Covid-19, promoted by the Centre for Contemporary Studies in collaboration with CADS and the Department of the Vice Presidency, Economy and Finance, analysed the crisis of the coronavirus from the perspective of global health through the insight of experts from the scientific world. The speakers highlighted the need to rethink the way in which health is thought and to conceive it from the perspective of global health. They also spoke of the interdisciplinary nature of epidemiological and climatic phenomena, and stressed the need to apply scientific knowledge politically and to maintain the criteria of rigour and independence of science.

The President of the Advisory Council for Sustainable Development (CADS), Ramon Roca Enrich, opened the debate by pointing out that we are facing a global health challenge and emphasizing the importance of investing in social policies. He also stressed that the Objectives for Sustainable Development (OSD) will be essential in the post-Covid-19 world. The Director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Pere Almeda, presented the rest of the sessions in the cycle, which will deal with the impact of the pandemic on democracy, citizens’ rights, the climate crisis and the geopolitical context. Arnau Queralt-Bassa, director of the Advisory Council for Sustainable Development (CADS) and president of the EEAC network (European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils) was in charge of moderating the session, which began with the formulation of some initial questions from which the speakers developed their interventions.

Systemic crisis

During his speech, Josep M. Antó, leading researcher at ISGlobal and Professor of Medicine at Pompeu Fabra University, defined global health as the coincidence between what is good for human health and what is good for the planet, and emphasized the need to rethink health systems at a time when, in his own words, “the climate crisis is an existential risk for our society”. Dr. Antó highlighted the systemic nature of the current crisis and its link with the characteristics of the Anthropocene. The expert warned that, if a correlation is to be established between Covid-19 and planetary health that allows for an understanding of the situation, a systemic perspective combining multisectoriality and interdisciplinarity must be adopted. “This pandemic is not a random crisis; it reveals a global context of negligence,” he said.

Marta Guadalupe Rivera Ferre, Director of the Chair of Agroecology and Food Systems at the University of Vic, analysed the current situation of food systems, pointing out the need to adopt an analytical perspective that not only takes into account respect for the biophysical planetary limits that make possible to guarantee life, but also stressed the need to cover social aspects that enable to link the health of people and that of the planet. According to the speaker, “the food system is directly related to climate change and the emergence of pandemics”, given that phenomena such as deforestation, the fragmentation of habitats, the intensification of agriculture, increased globalisation and the loss of biodiversity contribute to the processes of zoonoses that give rise to pandemics such as Covid-19.

A matter of probability

Jordi Serra Cobo, associate professor at the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Barcelona and researcher at the Institute for Research on Biodiversity (IRBio), stated that there will be new epidemics in the coming years. “Why do pandemics appear? Because of the odds. The difference between previous epidemics in the history of humanity and the present moment is that we are now changing the probabilities, we are increasing them and, therefore, we are exposing ourselves to new pathogens that we did not know before”. According to Serra Cobo, pathogens are always there and will always be there, but what makes animal reservoirs pass to humans are factors such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity or consumption of wild animals, among others. “With deforestation, many animals that lose their habitat tend to live in human structures and dwellings, and this is how the chances of viruses jumping to people increase. Furthermore, according to the expert, increased human mobility and the intensification of the food system mean that pandemics are spreading rapidly.

Governance and independence of Science

During the exchange of views, the experts deepened the ideas that had been emerging, such as the idea of interdisciplinarity in the understanding of epidemics, and also addressed other issues. One of the key topics was the state of scientific research today and its relationship to governance. Josep M. Antó stressed that the independence of science must be preserved in order to maintain its potential, as well as the need to respect its rhythms and to succeed in generating mechanisms for synthesising scientific knowledge. Marta G. Rivera Ferre pointed out the need to maintain an independent political power that is guided by scientific criteria and acts proactively, and Jordi Serra Cobo highlighted the importance of education in achieving a generational change.

When asked whether the current situation and the political measures that are being adopted could lead to a “new world”, the speakers were reluctant to predict a radical and immediate change, but they did foresee that the coronavirus crisis and the future shocks that may come could serve to gradually change the paradigm, since there will be no other choice. “In recent years we have learned what challenges we face. Agenda 2030 and the IPCC report of 2018 lead the way. In Europe, the Green Deal is a potential paradigm shift. We have defined our objectives; the challenge is governance,” stressed Josep M. Antó.

Marta G. Rivera Ferre, however, also wanted to point out the difficulties in implementing the available knowledge. “If the political power, with all the information that there is on climate change, is not responding in a courageous way because of the pressures of economic power, we find that we are making decisions in a reactive way”. “Seeing the history of humanity and our behaviour as a species, we are moving forward by leaps and bounds. I think this is a strong first shock, and more will come, because we usually never learn at once”, concluded Jordi Serra Cobo.

Speakers’ notes

Please note that the following documents provided by the speakers are in Catalan and Spanish.

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