Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

In Dubai, where COP28 is taking place, our special correspondent Étienne Leblanc met Maria Neira, the big boss of the climate and human health file at the World Organization for health (WHO).

« Our health systems are not prepared » | COP28: climate summit in Dubai

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Maria Neira is a Spanish doctor who works at the World Health Organization.

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Maria Neira impresses. Tall and elegant, this Spanish doctor speaks several languages ​​fluently, including perfect French. Despite a prime ministerial schedule at COP28, she never gives the impression of being in a hurry, which is the case for many people at these major summits.

His arrival as head of WHO's Environment, Public Health and Climate Change department in 2005 coincided with the coverage of my very first COP, COP11 in Montreal.

I have interviewed her several times over the years. I could see that she never forgot her experience on the ground as a doctor in the countries of the South. There is nothing UN about his approach, on the contrary. Interview.

COP28: climate summit in Dubai

Consult the full file

COP28: climate summit in Dubai

Consult the complete file

FollowFollow< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">Maria Neira It’s a fairly logical trajectory [in a way]. I was trained as a doctor and I continue to be very vocational. Afterwards, I did endocrinology in Paris. Then, I made the decision to leave for six months with Médecins sans frontières, just before starting my clinical work at the hospital. And that changed my life. Completely. I was in refugee camps in Africa and Central America. I remember, we had lots of cases of asthma. We also had to see in what conditions people cooked. The air pollution inside the small houses from burning wood was crazy. I ended up going to work in Africa for five years. This is where my passion for public health was born. I wanted to do more than heal: I wanted to understand the cause of what’s happening to us. And now, for me, climate change is really THE cause. It risks destroying all the pillars that we have built to protect our health, which are now shaking and collapsing.

M.N. The one that scares the most is air pollution, which is most of the time an effect of the burning of fossil fuels, and it is linked to our dependence on fossil fuels. It pollutes the air we breathe and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. And that's where we have a problem, because every year, we have seven million premature deaths because of poor air quality. This is an absolutely unacceptable figure.

M.N. It really is getting worse and worse. We have gained awareness and the science is very clear and very powerful. For example, with climate change, where there was no malaria, mosquitoes now find perfect conditions to reproduce. The same is true for dengue fever in Asia, where a 35% increase in prevalence of dengue cases is predicted in the region. And that’s terrifying. These are issues of mental health, chronic illnesses, malnutrition, mass displacement, etc. It will force us to change, to adapt, and we must do it very quickly.

M.N. I believe that the more recurring respiratory problems have given us the opportunity to communicate better with the population, because people may have difficulty seeing the links between climate change and health, but they understand this very well. what it means to breathe in a polluted environment, how it can irritate the eyes or throat when you start to have a cough. The disease goes directly to the lungs. And that’s for the population in big cities. But for almost half of the world's population, it is pollution from wood or charcoal from an open fire in the kitchen. Inhaling fine particles causes lung cancer, neuronal problems, diseases that affect intelligence and heart disease. We can't continue like this, it's absurd.

M.N. Canada still ranks among the best for air quality. But with the fires, the situation became dramatic. It's not like in cities, where people are exposed for long periods of time like in cities in Asia, but extreme weather events are going to increase [in number] and, from a health perspective, that worries us greatly. The effects on respiratory health will be acute. There will also be effects on mental health.

M.N. Absolutely. We are 100% convinced that it is health that will ultimately wake everyone up. It's a matter of survival for humans. The health argument causes a very important trigger which will completely change the ambition and speed of climate actions.

M.N. Because it affects us all. When you tell a family: Your child is going to have asthma, there is nothing more motivating for a person than to protect their children's health immediately. It’s clear that this is the most powerful reason to react. Because in the end, it is the environment that gives us food, water, protection, breathing, medicine. If we continue to destroy nature, how do we imagine that we will survive?

M.N. < strong>–Already, there is what we call climate anxiety, people who, with climate change, see that it is their generation who will have to live with this reality and who are very anxious. There are also heat waves, which have direct links to mental health. When there's this terrible heat, you can't hide somewhere. Not everyone can have access to air conditioning in buildings that reflect light. But as temperatures rise, it's going to be very difficult to hide, to protect yourself, and it's going to control even the smallest conditions for human survival.

M.N. We must first work on the causes of these problems. CIt is clear that we must insist on all these negotiators who are here at COP28 and remind them that they are not only here to negotiate percentages of greenhouse gas emissions or initiatives here and there: they are negotiating over our health. We must make an energy transition with clean, renewable energy sources and move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And above all, we must make our health systems more resilient. We need funding so health systems can adapt and prepare. You should know that in big cities, we are going to have heat waves, so we will have to have climate shelters. You need to know that we are going to have more frequent weather phenomena, so we need to work much more with meteorological information sources [and] surveillance systems for epidemic diseases. [There is] a whole range of interventions that need to be done. And then, as citizens, each of us can do something. Above all, we must use our vote as citizens in the right direction.

M.N. You have to adapt, yes. Do not resign yourself, but adapt. And health systems are not prepared for everything that comes and everything that will fall on us. And you have to prepare them. And that's why financial resources are needed to prepare and strengthen these health systems to respond to the negative effects that climate change is having. That means having an epidemiological surveillance system for diseases that we didn't really have but that we will have more and more, or emergency systems to better move populations in the event of extreme phenomena. And [it also means] better care for people's mental health.

M.N. As a doctor, I am happy with this COP28 where, for the first time, we had a day [devoted] to health. As a citizen, it is often frustrating, because COP28 means that for 28 COPs, we have discussed the same question – which is supposed to be one of the most urgent questions in our society – without much success. Imagine if it wasn't urgent: what would we have done? Whereas for us, for health people, when we have an urgent question, we take a day. When we are in the hospital, we take a few minutes to make decisions. The sense of urgency is different depending on whether we are talking about the environment or human health. But yet, the two are linked.

M.N. Be demanding of your politicians. The least we can ask for is the right to breathe air that will not kill you, water that will not contaminate you and oceans that are not not full of millions of tons of plastic. So protect what gives you food, water and breath. Without it, you're not going to be happy.

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