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Pandemics and the Environment: Modelling the Broader Picture 

Pandemic preparedness and response measures are not always designed with the environment in mind, focusing instead on lives saved. As such, short-term mitigation measures during pandemics can worsen long-term environmental and ecological problems.   

We, therefore, need to approach pandemics in a way that thinks about the world and not just the people in it, underlining and incorporating the long-term impacts of interventions.  

COVID-19 has proven that the rippling effects of a pandemic are far-reaching, impacting both people and the planet alike. For instance,  recent studies have shown that the increased use of single-use plastics, as a way to mitigate the spread of the virus, has produced more than eight million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste, most of it entering water streams and oceans.   

The COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, and its spotlight on the complexities of climate change, is a reminder that conversations about pandemics are  also in many ways conversations about the environment.   

Trilateral Research is creating tools and models to forecast and prepare responses to pandemics as part of the STAMINA project. We work with our partners to create models for the health crises, not in isolation but by adopting a holistic approach; looking at these may also be applied to and have an impact on the climate crisis. 

   

THE PANDEMIC AND THE ENVIRONMENT   

Further accumulation of plastic waste  

The pandemic has demonstrated that environmental problems are not a future problem or a far-off issue.   

A clear example is how the COVID-19 crisis sharply aggravated the global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE). The  World Health Organization estimated that 89 million masks and 76 million gloves were required each month to meet the global demand in the first wave of the crisis. The mass production, use, and disposal of single-use plastics have presented  new challenges to waste management, as PPE is often dumped in natural spaces.  

Oceans often withstand the worst of plastic pollution. Marine animals risk ingesting microplastics or being entangled in gloves or facemasks. The longevity of PPE, and therefore its potential to cause repeated harm, has prompted concerns that oceans will soon house  ‘more masks than jellyfish.’ 

Plastic pollution not just affects the oceans and marine life, it also has implications for human health. Ocean pollution contaminates the seafood that we eat and exposes us to toxic chemicals. Depleting ocean health also means the ocean’s function as the world’s  ‘carbon sink’ in regulating greenhouse gases has deteriorated further.   

 

ADDRESSING THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF COVID-19 

Forecasting Future Impacts 

The pandemic offers, potentially, a novel perspective on forecasting risk and impacts.  

Models are regularly drawn upon by pandemic and environmental decision-makers alike to predict the impact of crises and their interventions. By feeding the model with data, we can perform single or comparative analyses of approaches to a problem to help identify the best course of action.   

Although they cannot predict the future, models are a useful tool to explore how an intervention may play out and provide valuable insights for decision-makers. Indeed, projects like the EU-funded STAMINA regularly include models within its toolkit, trying to both design more accurate and effective models while at the same time better understanding how models can support and enrich crisis decision-making processes.   

Developing models often encourages a better understanding of the broader system in which decisions are made, actions are taken, and what impact these choices may have.     

Asking the Right Questions 

However, models can only provide answers to the questions we ask. Climate change and pandemics both carry the challenge of slow and uncertain change. This kind of change is hard to communicate with the public, hard to anticipate in advance what data you need, or information will be valuable, and hard to see far enough into the future to envision how things could be.  

That is why it is crucial that the questions we ask recognise the physical impact of resources, sustainable practices, and ecological concerns so that they are made visible to the public and decision-makers alike.   

This will help incorporate such issues into pandemic planning and public action, ensuring that long-term effects are not forgotten in the urgency that health crises require.   

Decision-making for a better future  

We know more pandemics will come. We know climate change is happening.   

If the long-term environmental and ecological agenda were addressed alongside the immediate needs of a pandemic, solutions could be made that address both urgent health concerns and pressing environmental issues.   

The accumulation of plastic waste and its implications for human health is one of many problems that make up the climate crisis. COP26 made small progress in reaching climate goals but, it was critical in reigniting climate conversations in showing that there is so much more to be done.   

In addressing the climate crisis that concerns us all, STAMINA models, data, and the questions that frame these issues prompt us to look at the world in specific ways. STAMINA models enable international, regional, and local actors to make decisions with a fuller understanding of what response measures can mean for both the pandemic and the climate crisis.   

 

THE STAMINA PROJECT

The STAMINA project is unique in designing models that provide improved decision-making technology to pandemic crisis management practitioners at the national, regional, and European levels. Models developed by STAMINA have highlighted a gap in pandemic response, unveiling the need to consider the impact of the pandemic on the climate crisis.  

For more information and updates visit the project website and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 883441.

 

Susannah Copson

Susannah Copson is Research Analyst at Trilateral Research.

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