America can and must better prepare for future disasters

Maurice A. Bloem and Jasmine Huggins | May 11, 2020

Djerry Jean works in his field in Haiti. The nation is facing multiple crises, including political instability, food shortages and now coronavirus. Photo: Paul Jeffrey / ACT Alliance

This is a crosspost from

Coronavirus and climate change are simultaneously playing out in real-time. While addressing the human, public health, and economic consequences of coronavirus must be our immediate priority, both will have a long-lasting impact on the environment and the economy; both will disproportionately damage economically weak countries and marginalized vulnerable communities.

But none of this should have surprised us. Long before the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, epidemiologists were unanimous that it was only a matter of time before a new, major disease emerged.

In his 2011 book, Gezond [Healthy] Prof. Ivan Wolffers explains how new diseases develop: the disappearance of rainforests in several parts of the world caused the thin layer of fertile soil to deteriorate and the climate to change, and also forced many disease vectors to lose natural hosts. This means that because of climate change, parasitic diseases that were once controlled are now infecting the vulnerable people forced to work on the newly cultivated land, in areas without adequate medical care and treatment.

Tragically, the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded exactly as epidemiologists predicted. In the United States and abroad, it is poor and marginalized people who are disproportionately suffering from this disease.

As a global humanitarian organization that works in the United States and more than 30 countries around the world, we see these disparities in our programs fighting hunger, poverty, and displacement at home and around the globe. We have seen these factors come together as a perfect storm in Haiti, where climate change has exacerbated growing food insecurity, access to basic hygiene necessities–soap and water–are extremely limited, and healthcare is almost nonexistent.
When the first coronavirus cases were registered in Haiti, CWS partners faced the challenges head-on. How do you spread information without the internet or even electricity? Use megaphones to walk around and spread the word.

Planting season is generally between February and April in the Northwest, but the climate crisis is shifting rain patterns and causing recurrent and prolonged periods of drought. Farmers are now eating the seeds that had been reserved for planting. Frequent hand washing is impossible when there is a lack of water. The fledgling economy has come to a halt while both local products and imports are scarce, while prices keep rising. Families are hungry.

Haiti’s problems are not only domestic. Just this week, the United States has deported at least five Haitians who recently tested positive for COVID-19 to Port-au-Prince, further complicating the struggling nation’s response.

Pandemics require global solutions and our leaders must make better, more informed choices:

Congressional policy must be led by science. Denial and dismissal of science have been the hallmark of this administration, from its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, systematic rollbacks of environmental protections, and most recently the egregious closure of the National Security Council’s pandemic office. Had they been allowed to remain intact, America may have better prepared for this pandemic.

Policies must be negotiated early to avoid the tragedy of wasted time. US policy on energy, infrastructure, and environment has been taken over by unresolved ideological battles, instead of innovative problem solving. This has prevented the emergence of bipartisan solutions to long-standing, well-known problems. We can now see the ramifications of Congressional, state vs federal disagreements play out, daily, in the fractious governmental responses to the coronavirus. If the painstaking process of agreeing to regulatory and legislative compromises has not occurred before a crisis occurs, it can hardly happen as the emergency unfolds.

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave global leaders a 10-year timeline for urgent action on climate change. There is still time for the United States to scale up investment in climate mitigation, adaptation and finance strategies, and to work through policy differences. Scientific modeling already exists which can forecast where the hot spots are likely to emerge. By acting in a timely fashion, the U.S. Government can avoid the chaotic policymaking process recently witnessed in its response to the coronavirus.

The present pandemic results from unsustainable, selfish practices and systems. We are now required to reset how we live with and treat each other and take care of our planet. Science has long taught us that it needs to inform our policies and practices. This is the only way we can and will assure that we preserve Mother Earth for future generations.

For almost 75 years, CWS and its partners have been working to strengthen community resilience and advocate for just, sustainable solutions. This March, we joined 80 other major organizations in signing InterAction’s Climate Compact which pledges unified and urgent action on climate change.

At CWS we are watchful, and still hopeful, if indeed well-informed actions are taken.

Maurice A. Bloem is the Executive in Charge at CWS. Jasmine Huggins is the Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer.