Kevin Bürchler is Head of Key Accounts at the SIP Medical Family Office®, Switzerland.
It is abundantly clear that climate change and global warming are among the most significant challenges the world faces today. The continuous shift towards more extreme short- and long-term weather patterns may have a devastating impact on the global population to varying degrees, including the health of residents of countries that are most exposed to climate change risks.
It has been estimated that the world may see an increase in temperature ranging from 1.5° C to 4° C in the coming years, which could lead to high-rainfall areas becoming wetter and dry regions becoming drier until it may become unbearable to reside in some regions and countries. For example, it is estimated that soon it may not be possible to reasonably live in Kuwait as average temperatures become too high. The increase in temperature, rising carbon dioxide levels, and changes in humidity and cloud cover have significant direct and indirect effects on people’s quality of life and wellbeing. Because of alterations in vegetation, scarcity of nutrient-rich food, accessibility of clean water, and as we have experienced most recently — the distribution of disease-transmitting organisms, are all factors to consider. The direct and indirect effects of climate change also lead to an increased risk of transmission of pathogens, such as Covid-19, in some countries.
The association between climate change and the transmission of infection is not something many are aware of. However, an increasing number of studies being published on Covid-19 demonstrate that there is a connection. High density locations foster the spread of infectious diseases. Climate change has caused rising sea levels in some regions and drought and famine in others, forcing their inhabitants to mobilize and move to more climate resilient places. The movement of the global population to safer locations is leading to higher concentrations of people in close proximity, accelerating the global trend of urbanization. Whether these locations are looked at in terms of being continents, countries, or regions, the agglomeration of the world’s population in smaller spaces and their closer proximity increases the risk of infectious diseases spreading. This has been demonstrated by records showing that the spread of Covid-19 in China was driven by population density. While not yet proven, based on recent pandemic experiences, we can expect that when there are high volumes of infectious diseases in highly concentrated populations the healthcare system is likely be overburdened and may even collapse. The long-term effects of overcrowded hospitals, postponed doctors’ visits, and delayed surgeries owing to the current pandemic are yet to be revealed in the coming months and years.
Another factor linked to climate change that accelerates the spread of infectious diseases is the ability of infection-causing particles to survive longer in higher-temperature environments because the increased temperature, humidity, and pollution allow them to remain suspended in the air for longer and, in turn, infect more individuals.
Climate change is also responsible for food scarcity in much of the developing world. For example, increased floods, droughts, and unfavorable temperature changes make growing high-quality, nutrient-rich crops difficult. Food accessibility and quality are among the most essential, if not the most important, building blocks for a healthy life. Being repeatedly exposed to suboptimal nutrition negatively affects one’s immunity and makes one more vulnerable to diseases.
Although climate change has an impact on a global level, the degree to which it affects individuals and populations depends on many factors and varies from country to country. As the Investment Migration Climate Resilience Index confirms, less developed countries are likely to be impacted the most by climate change and its consequences. The lack of resources and infrastructure (including medical) required to cope with the often catastrophic effects of environmental changes exposes their citizens’ wellbeing.
Climate change will no doubt directly or indirectly affect every citizen worldwide. Those who are fortunate enough to have the means can carefully select where they establish their homes and lives to secure long-term resilience against climate change-induced health risks and ensure access to top-level health services. In increasing numbers, individuals from exposed countries are opting for opportunities to access more favorable circumstances than their original home countries are able to provide, including alternative residence rights, additional citizenship, increased personal mobility and security, but also — and not least — the level of medical services available.