Health Workers: Living at the Intersection of Health, Climate, and Global Security
By Zack Langway, Seed Global Health
The first week in April once again brings our annual commemoration of World Health Worker Week: a time to celebrate the work that health workers do and to acknowledge both the challenges they face and the evolving ecosystem they operate in. We know that health workers of all varieties play a critical role in supporting health service delivery, ensuring that individuals and families’ needs are met. But this World Health Worker Week, it’s important to focus on the role of health workers in strengthening global security and creating a safer world – and how necessary that role is as we look toward the future.
When you think of global security what are the some of the first things that come to mind? You might think of war, military strength, and the power of diplomacy. However, one of the best investments world leaders can make to improve security is an investment in better access to health services. Better health access promotes stability and stronger economic growth within societies, helping build the foundation for more resilient and more secure nations, especially during the most challenging times. And by investing in health workers to provide access to quality services, we ultimately invest in work that bolsters national and global security.
Compounding this, of course, is the growing threat of climate change. As the world continues along the path of global warming, the spread of disease, the displacement of populations from intense storms and rising seas, and the forced migration of health workers as they, too, are displaced are threatening health systems across much of the world. As the Global Health Council notes, “global health security means having strong public health and emergency responses in place around the world to stop the spread of infectious diseases.” So as climate change creates new conditions for health systems to grapple with, it poses a security threat not for just one community, but for the whole globe.
We know that health workers are the key to preventing the spread of diseases like malaria, Zika, Ebola, and Guinea Worm. whether they are working as physicians, community health workers, midwives, nurses, or elsewhere in the health system. And in anticipation of new security challenges created by the threat of a changing climate, the human resources for health community must place special focus on anticipating, planning for, and addressing the needs of the health workforce in this context.
First, we must prioritize investments in health workers in climate-vulnerable areas. In addition to understanding the current gap within a local health workforce, we must analyze and attempt to predict where climate change will further exacerbate the gap, whether through increased need driven by rising, climate-induced disease burden, or through decrease supply of health workers precipitated by migration and displacement.
Second, we must begin to equip health workers with the skills, training, and resources they will need to prevent and treat disease threats that emerge alongside the changing climate of their communities. If tropical diseases and vector-borne diseases continue to migrate beyond their traditional geographic domains, we must teach and train health workers ahead of that movement so they can both prevent and respond to new threats.
Third, we need to invest in the resilience and wellbeing of the health workers themselves. Health workers are, of course, not mere cogs in a system – they are human beings, with lives, families, and homes that are also threatened by climate change. How are we to expect health workers to deliver the best services possible – in quite challenging circumstances – if we are unable to support their physical, financial, and mental well-being? The unique burdens imposed by a changing climate require special attention in this area looking forward.
And fourth, we need to advocate for intersectionality in policy and decision making. Gone are the days where ministers of environment, health, and defense can operate in silos. Gone are the days where global organizations can consider only one piece of the puzzle when considering our interventions and programs. Today, more than ever, we must look holistically at the undeniable linkages between climate, health, and security, and engage in policymaking and programming that is comprehensive and innovative in this way. Leaders and decision makers, in the U.S. and abroad, must acknowledge that security, climate change, and health are all inextricably connected, and act accordingly.
Health workers are the essential link to services for millions of people in low- and middle-income countries, especially in rural or remote areas. Even during the most vulnerable moments of a community, investing in health workers and better health services will always be an investment in stronger global security. And that’s never been more true than when we consider long-term economic development and political stability amidst a changing climate.