Mum, doctor and campaigner, Jenny Harper-Gow on the Coronavirus and climate crisis.
I was looking forward to Mother’s Day, not for the lie in and breakfast in bed, but because I had planned to join a Mother’s Day march to Downing Street to demand urgent climate action. Little did I know, as I spent hours late into the evening working with a team of mums to plan the event, that a global public health crisis would put a stop to it all.
I have just returned to work as a doctor after maternity leave and it’s a daunting time. Medical professionals are accustomed to infectious disease but the Coronavirus feels different. I have to admit that some of us are frightened. There are chilling stories emerging from Italy and elsewhere – of services stretched beyond breaking point, or of doctors being forced to deny care to those who are least likely to recover. Medics have always had to ration resources but never with such desperate consequences. There is a huge operation underway to get the NHS ready for the worst. Isolation wards with separate entrances and specially designated lifts are been organised for confirmed cases of the virus, medical staff across all disciplines are being readied to respond should they be needed. But what will really make a difference are the actions of the public.
Fortunately, there is much to be celebrated in the public response to this crisis. We have seen panic, especially in the supermarket aisles, but we have also witnessed the best of human nature. The spontaneous sing-alongs from the balconies in Italy and China, the front line medical staff who are risking their own health to care for others, the millions of people who have willingly isolated themselves to slow the spread of the virus, and the communities organising to support the most vulnerable – from corner shop owners in Scotland who have spent £2000 of their own money on face masks and hand sanitiser for older customers, to the legions of people across the country who are shopping for friends and checking in on neighbours. When the risks are clear, most people seem more than willing to pull together and make the changes that are needed to keep our wider community safe, no matter what the disruption may be to their own lives.
The same could be true of the other great public health emergency of our time – the climate crisis. The climate crisis has built over decades rather then weeks but it no less damaging. According to the World Health Organisation air pollution kills 7 million people every year. Heatwaves caused more than 70,000 additional deaths in Europe in the summer of 2003. Poor countries with poor health systems are even more vulnerable. When hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by cyclones in Southern Africa a year ago, the lack of access to clean water or sanitation quickly led to outbreaks of cholera. On a more personal level, I have heard from many Mothers Rise Up supporters who have experienced the anxiety that comes with being repeatedly forced from their homes by floods.
Coming clean about the climate emergency – the risk to our health, our food and water supplies, and our homes – is critical if we are to get the public on-board for the fundamental changes that are needed to prevent a catastrophic rise in temperatures. We should also shout louder about the huge benefits many of these changes will bring – the clean air, healthier lifestyles, green jobs and most importantly a safe and secure future for our children.
While the Coronavirus will eventually be brought under control, we cannot develop immunity to the climate crisis. Yet, just like the corona virus, the longer we carry on with business as usual, the more lives will be lost.
In the coming months much of the machinery of government will need to be focused on tackling the virus. However, we must not lose sight of the pressing need to tackle the climate crisis as we plan our recovery. We will want to get our lives back to normal – to get people back into work and to get our economies back on track – but it is critical we rebuild in a way that dramatically cuts our emissions, and helps our communities face up to the next big challenge.
In the months ahead I’ll be doing everything I can to support the fight against the Coronavirus and I will continue to press for climate action. It feels better to turn my anxiety for my children’s future into action; it feels comforting to stand with other parents; it feels right to demand those in power take responsibility for the millions of lives that will be lost if we continue on our current path.
As for Mother’s Day? I will stand outside in the rain or sunshine and cherish all that we are risk losing and picture the world I know is possible. The world we can create for all the children handing cards to their mothers today.