Birds singing, sunshine, lazy Sundays, family holidays to the beach, an abundance of food and drink, and gathering with friends and neighbours to celebrate holiday festivities. That is what summer in Australia has always meant to me. Instead, this year, as the bushfires continue to angrily rage across the country, my heart is hurting.
Friends and neighbours are still calling. We check in on each other, but we don’t gather. Food and drinks are sent to those who need it more. Families congregate on beaches, not to play, but to watch their homes burn. Silent, grey skies. Hazy Sundays. And my heart doesn’t just hurt, my chest is actually aching. Canberra, my beautiful home town, is once again choking on the world’s worst air quality.
And I know that I am lucky, when so many are not.
Bushfires can have significant impacts on people’s health, including exacerbating respiratory and cardiac conditions linked to poor air quality. The stress that bushfires place on first responders and their families, and on those who have had to evacuate their communities or lost homes and businesses, can lead to mental health challenges like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And, as those people who have been evacuated begin to return home, concerns about the long-term health impacts of exposure to toxic ash, environmental contaminants and on-going mental health stresses. Indigenous leaders have been warning about a bushfire crisis for years.
It has been almost ten years since Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) first included climate change and health as priority research area. And yet, in the decade since, extremely limited funding into climate change impacts on health has been provided.
In 2016, following significant bushfires in Alberta, Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research immediately responded by providing targeted funding to investigate the impacts of bushfires on people’s health. The NHMRC must now do the same. Coordinated, comprehensive and targeted funding to support research into the health impacts of the recent and ongoing bushfires in Australia is required. Emphasis should be given to vulnerable population groups.
Funding rules should be modified to allow research organisations, health networks and government agencies, and those relevant organisations beyond the traditional domains of health, to collaborate for cost-effective, long-term, longitudinal studies on the impacts of climate change on the physical, physiological and social domains that will affect Australian’s public health.
Only then can the impact of climate change on health be identified so that a robust evidence base can be provided to policymakers, effective policies developed, and action plans implemented in a timely manner.