By Andrea Hurtado Epstein
“Climate change is one of our biggest health threats – humanity faces a staggering toll unless we act”, warns a recently published op-ed co-authored by the COP28 President, the Director General of the World Health Organization and the Special Envoy for Climate Change and Health. After years of fighting a devastating pandemic, the health sector worldwide – but especially in the Global South – is still struggling to recover, and make up for profound setbacks in its efforts to achieve Universal Health Coverage and other key global health commitments. But there has been no respite for health systems and facilities, as they have simultaneously been faced with a series of unprecedented climate impacts, ever increasing in frequency and severity. The WHO estimates that more than 12.5 million people die each year from diseases associated with environmental hazards, including those related to climate change. That is one in every four deaths. It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is a health crisis, one that will dwarf what we saw with COVID-19.
Fortunately, the health community is rising up to the challenge. Over the past few years, the global movement for climate and health justice has achieved significant wins. COP26 became the first to identify health as a priority of the Presidency, leading to the adoption of the COP26 Health Programme, launched jointly by the UK government, WHO and Race to Zero partner, Health Care Without Harm. Under this initiative, more than 75 countries have committed to developing climate-resilient, low-emissions and sustainable health systems, and WHO is supporting their implementation efforts through the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH), established in June 2022. These, and many other achievements, provide evidence of a growing momentum for healthcare climate action.
Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have been an integral part of this movement. As the most unequal region in the world, the compounding social, climate and health challenges it faces require increasingly complex solutions. Nonetheless, in the midst of the pandemic, 10 LAC countries joined the COP26 Health Programme (Argentina, Bahamas, Belize, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Panama and Peru), with two more joining since (Brazil and Ecuador).