With more than 80 years of combined experience caring for patients and managing health-care systems, we have followed the COVID-19 pandemic with a sense of foreboding. We feel sadness for the lost lives, broken families and economic hardships to come. Our sorrow is deepened by the realization that this tragic respiratory-disease crisis is magnified by an acute shortage of medical personnel, specialized equipment, caregivers and basic testing tools that threaten to overwhelm the health-care system.
Pandemics are estimated to have killed 300 million to 500 million people over human history. Many of the most lethal, like COVID-19, have targeted our respiratory system. Severe respiratory illness has a unique impact on the health-care system because survival of the sickest patients requires sophisticated, multidisciplinary teams of clinicians and staff to manage critically ill patients who require highly technical machinery such as ventilators to support breathing.
As reported April 7 in The Seattle Times, there is a strong link between air pollution and risk of death from COVID-19. A correlation between air pollution and increased respiratory illness is well known. The World Health Organization notes that globally, air pollution accounts for 43% of death and illness due to chronic lung disease and is also responsible for 4.2 million premature deaths from all causes.
People with preexisting respiratory disease are at increased risk of death from pandemics that attack the respiratory system. Given that air-pollution related illness is greatest in economically disadvantaged and black communities, the disparity in death from COVID-19 should come as no surprise.
The COVID-19 pandemic will end, yet future pandemics are inevitable, as is chronic lung disease due to air pollution. Left unattended, pandemics and air pollution will conspire again to wreak socioeconomic havoc and overwhelm our health-care system’s capacities to care for people. Just as we depend on effective vaccines to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases like COVID-19 from threatening public health, we must depend on effective legislation to be the vaccine for air pollution. The major causes of air pollution are greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and fine particulate matter, so legislation that effectively reduces and ultimately dispenses with GHG emissions and particulate matter is critical.
Such a bill is now being considered in Congress, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, (HR763). The bill is designed to encourage innovation in clean-energy technologies and in so doing reduce air pollution that Americans breath and thereby create a healthier nation for future generations. It places a fee on carbon-based fuels that escalates year over year until GHG emissions targets are met. The fee collected is returned directly to families as a monthly cash dividend. HR763 will create millions of new jobs, reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 40% in 10 years and 90% by 2050, and protect businesses from unfair competition; all without growing government. The world’s leading climate scientists and more than 3,500 economists, including 27 Nobel Prize recipients, support similar policy as the best next step to fight pollution.
We must learn from our experiences with destructive phenomena or suffer them again. Pandemics and air pollution are two massive global realities that act synergistically to negatively impact human health. Thus, reducing one stands to significantly impede the impact of the other. While we cannot predict the cause of the next respiratory pandemic we can blunt its impact by effective federal legislation that lessens chronic lung disease due to air pollution. Thousands more people who contract COVID-19 will die during the current pandemic than should have because they have chronic lung disease due to air pollution. Make no mistake: The same will hold true with the next respiratory pandemic unless effective legislation to reduce air pollution is enacted. Please join us in supporting the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act and in doing all we can to save thousands of lives that will otherwise be needlessly lost during the next respiratory pandemic.