Inequality and climate change: the perfect storm threatening the health of Australia's poorest

Tackling the social determinants of health is critical to address health inequities, which arise because people with the least social and economic power tend to have the worst health. Poverty contributing to poor health in remote communities in many ways. But climate change and extreme weather events, such as recent flooding that cut road access to many remote communities for several weeks, are making it ever-more difficult.

Renee Blackman runs a health service covering a vast chunk of north-west Queensland – about 640,000 sq km, an area larger than Spain – that provides services to about 7,000 Aboriginal people in communities from Mount Isa to the Gulf. “You have got these massive weather events sweeping through our communities, decimating structures, infrastructure – which means health services,” she says. “If your health service is down, you can’t provide any type of healthcare; it’s almost like you are operating under war conditions sometimes, because things get totally obliterated and you have got to build back from scratch, yet you’ve got people who need your assistance.”

Health professionals are seeing the impact of a perfect storm threatening the health of some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities. Climate change is exacerbating the social and economic inequalities that already contribute to profound health inequities.

Blackman describes elderly Aboriginal people with multiple health problems stuck in inadequate housing without air-conditioning during increasingly frequent extreme heatwaves. Sometimes it is so hot, she says, the bitumen melts, making it difficult for her health teams to reach communities in times of high need. As well, patients are presenting to Gidgee Healing clinics with conditions such as dehydration that might be preventable if they could afford their power bills and had appropriate housing.

The mental health impacts are also huge, Blackman says, mentioning the deaths of hundreds of thousands of livestock during the floods. “This is devastation, this is loss, this is grief, we are already facing a suicide crisis in the north-west across all of the community, including the Aboriginal community,” she says. “You’re talking about a region that already has depleted access to mental health professionals.”

As Sharon Friel, professor of health equity at the Australian National University, outlines in a new book, Climate Change and the People’s Health, most of those who died because of Hurricane Katrina came from disadvantaged populations. These were also the groups that suffered most in the aftermath, as a result of damage to infrastructure and loss of livelihoods. “It was also lower-income groups, and in particular children and the elderly, who were at increased risk of developing severe mental health symptoms compared with their peers in higher income groups,” Friel writes.

Dr Nick Towle, a medical educator at the University of Tasmania who helped organise a recent Doctors for the Environment Australia conference in Hobart, where delegates declared a climate emergency, says that addressing the intertwined issues of health inequities and climate change will require massive transformation in how governments operate. They must move beyond the current siloed approaches whereby, for example, the housing portfolio can be reluctant to invest in improving housing if savings are to the health portfolio. Towle says a systems approach would reimagine urban development so that communities are within cycling or walking distance of local food production, green spaces and infrastructure such as shops, primary healthcare and aged care centres, and with active and passive solar a requirement for all new developments. Like Venn, Towle stresses the need to invest far more in primary healthcare and the prevention of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, lung and cardiac disease, which are more common in poorer communities, and make people less resilient to the effects of heat, which he says “is emerging as a big silent killer”.

Read the full article in The Guardian.

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