Vanessa Kerry said addressing climate change-related health issues requires an equitable political, social and health agenda to support health systems in developing countries.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted historically marginalized communities around the world, clearly demonstrating how unjust social, economic, demographic and political circumstances threaten our well-being and cost millions of lives,” Kerry said. “As we continue to emerge from this crisis, we all have the opportunity to deepen this understanding.”
Kerry, co-founder and CEO of Seed Global Health and director of the Global Public Policy and Social Change Program at Harvard Medical School, delivered a lecture Wednesday at the Yawkey Center on solutions to climate change-related health problems. Part of the Cornell School of Nursing Capstone Lecture Series.
First, Kerry shared stories from countries where she has worked, including Malawi and Zambia.
“I want to share a story specifically from Malawi, a country where Seed Global Health has been working for over 10 years,” Kerry said. “In 2022, Sid was hit by two powerful tropical storms, damaging homes, displacing thousands of people, and triggering the longest and deadliest cholera epidemic on record.”
She tells the story of Chancy Banda, a Malawian midwife who, after Tropical Cyclone Freddie hit, advocated for the conversion of hospitals into emergency spaces for women dealing with pregnancy and childbirth complications after the storm.
“We need health professionals like Chancey whose knowledge and confident actions in the wake of the storm exemplify the climate-resilient health systems we need,” Kerry said.
Kerry then turned to a discussion of what the health sector can do to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Kerry said that although 5% of carbon dioxide emissions are generated by health-related industries, 95% of these emissions can be reduced.
“I do want to emphasize that there is hope,” Kerry said. “I’m a die-hard optimist and a pragmatist. We already know a lot about what we need to do and the actions we need to take. However, the world we want to live in requires the participation of all of us.”
She urged the audience to view human health as a cornerstone of society, realign investments in human health to be cost-effective in the long term, and spend ambitiously to strengthen global health care systems, citing Seed’s work in Sierra Leone as evidence of this. .
Kerry explained that the government of Sierra Leone contacted Seed and asked it to help implement a midwifery program to curb its high maternal mortality rate. Kerry said the country’s maternal mortality rate has dropped by 60% year over year since the partnership began.
“We train midwives to be involved in providing care in the community,” Kerry said. “As a result, after just one and a half years of work with local partners, the country with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world has achieved zero maternal mortality in the first five months of this year.”
Kerry ended his speech by demanding accountability from health care industry and government leaders.
“There are no shortcuts to the work we need to do,” Kerry said. “The fact that we’re trying to find a faster, more efficient way to deliver health care often means we lose sight of basic principles.”
Olivia Yang, CSON ’24, attended the event and said she was amazed by the impact the environment has on human life.
“The statistics are really compelling,” Young said. “I didn’t realize that one in four deaths is from preventable environmental causes.”
Young said it’s exciting to hear about the impact nurses are having globally outside of the hospital.
“It’s really cool just to see how nurses can make an impact and not just be streamlined into hospitals,” Young said. “It’s important to understand how to be a global citizen and you can learn a lot by listening to other people’s stories.”