Learning from Front-line Health Workers in the Climate Change Era

Learning from Frontline Health Workers in the Climate Change Era

Reda SadkiGlobal health, Writing

By Julie Jacobson, Alan Brooks, Charlotte Mbuh, and Reda Sadki

The escalating threats of climate change cast long shadows over global health, including increases in disease epidemics, profound impacts on mental health, disruptions to health infrastructure, and alterations in the severity and geographical distribution of diseases.

Mitigating the impact of such shadows on communities will test the resilience of health infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and especially challenge frontline health workers. The need for effective and cost-efficient public health interventions, such as immunization, will evolve and grow.

Health workers, approximately 70% of which are women, that provide immunization and other health services will be trusted local resources to the communities they serve, further amplifying their centrality in resilient health systems.

Listening to and building upon the experiences and insights of frontline health workers as they live with and increasingly work to address the manifestations of climate change on health is pivotal to the collective, global response today and in the years to come.

We imagine a future of health workers connected to each other, learning directly from the successes and challenges of others by choosing to engage in digital, peer-supported, peer-learning networks regardless of the remoteness or location of their communities. Success will lie in a nimbleness and ability to quickly see new emerging patterns and respond to evolving needs of individuals and communities.

Such a future shines a light on the importance of new ways of thinking about global health, leadership, who should have a “voice”, starting from a position of equity not hierarchy, and the value that peers ascribe to each other. The hyperlocal impact of climate change on health cannot be mitigated only through global pronouncements and national policies. It requires local knowledge and understanding.

Recognizing this unique position of health workers, Bridges to Development and The Geneva Learning Foundation, two Swiss non-profits, are supporting this first-ever, large peer-learning event for frontline health workers to share their experiences and insights on climate change and health.

More than 1,100 health workers have already shared their observations of changes in climate and health affecting the communities they serve in over 60 countries. They will be sharing their stories and insights at the Special Event: From community to planet: Health professionals on the frontlines of climate change, but you can already read short summaries from Guatemala; India and Mongolia; Bénin, Gambia, and Kenya.

Starting from a Call to Action shared through the Movement for Immunization Agenda (IA2030), the call has “gone viral” through local communities and districts: over 4,500 people – most of them government workers involved in primary health care services in LMICs – registered to participate and contribute.

Almost every health worker responding says that they are very worried about climate change, and that, for them, it is already a grave threat to the health of the communities they serve.

Taken together, their observations, while imperfect, paint a daunting picture. This picture, consistent with global statistics and other data, helps to bring to life global pronouncements of the dire implications of climate change for health in LMICs.

Amid this immense and dire challenge lies an opportunity to shift from a rigid, academically-dominated approach to a decentralized, democratized recognition and learning about the health impacts of climate change. This shift underscores the importance of amplifying insights from those who are bearing the brunt of the consequences of climate change, and recognizing the special role of health service workers as bridges between their communities and those working elsewhere to address similar challenges.

This perspective requires those of us working at the global level to critically evaluate and challenge our biases and assumptions. The notion that only climate or health specialists can offer meaningful insights or credible solutions should be questioned. The understanding of climate change’s impact on epidemiology of disease, mental health and other manifestations – and the strategies employed to mitigate them – can be substantially enriched and sharpened by welcoming the voices of those on the frontlines. By doing so, we can foster a more comprehensive, inclusive, equitable and effective response to the challenges posed by climate change.

The thousands of members of the Movement for the Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030) and others who have initiated this global dialogue around climate and health may be forging a new path, showing the feasibility and value of the global health community listening to and supporting the potential of frontline health workers to shine the brightest of lights into the shadow cast worldwide by climate change.

This editorial is a contribution to the Special Event: From community to planet: Health professionals on the frontlines of climate change.

About the authors

Julie Jacobson and Alan Brooks are co-founders and managing partners of Bridges to Development. Jacobson was the president of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) in 2020-2021. Bridges to Development, a nonprofit founded in 2018 based in Europe and the US, strives to build on the world’s significant progress to date towards a stronger and more resilient future.

Reda Sadki and Charlotte Mbuh lead the Geneva Learning Foundation (TGLF). The Geneva Learning Foundation (TGLF) is a non-profit implementing its vision to catalyze transformation through large scale peer and mentoring networks led by frontline actors facing critical threats to our societies. Learn more: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7316466.

Illustration: The Geneva Learning Foundation Collection © 2023. All rights reserved.