A nurse volunteering with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps waits for patients at a free testing site in Richmond. She identified herself as Melissa, but her last name was inaudible at a distance through the protective masks she was wearing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Dr. Samantha Ahdoot and Kendyl Crawford 

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam emphasized the importance of data in the plan to reopen Virginia.

With almost 17,000 cases now of COVID-19 in Virginia, we are protected when our leaders make decisions based on both compassion and science. In the past months, across the world we have seen what happens when scientific and medical experts are ignored. Where leaders have failed to act decisively on warnings from scientists, cases of COVID-19 have been dramatically higher. No one is being hit harder than communities already living on the margins.

Our national scientific and public health experts devote their lives to understanding our biggest problems and finding solutions. Governor Northam is a physician who understands that we must heed their expertise to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

This same dedication is seen in our physicians and health care professionals on the frontlines treating patients during this crisis. Doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, some of whom are volunteers with Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, are working increased hours, sometimes without necessary personal protective equipment, to care for those afflicted by this pandemic. These clinicians have put their lives on the line when a crisis hits. 

Not all essential workers, however, are as visible or as lauded during crises. Farmworkers and grocery cashiers, for example, are keeping our stores stocked and our families fed. Yet they have not received hazard pay, access to tests, and often do not have basic health care coverage. Even before the pandemic, migrant farmworkers were facing an immigration crisis, low wages, and increasingly hazardous conditions due to climate change.

This crisis teaches us how closely we are all intertwined. When we pick up groceries for our families, we are interacting through the food supply chain with workers on farms and at meatpacking plants. Through the air we breathe, we are connected to the people standing next to us. A virus from a city on the other side of the world can rock the globe, making millions sick and killing more than a hundred thousand people.

On the heels of Earth Day, it is important to reflect on this message that organizations like Virginia Interfaith Power & Light teach us. We are all connected. 

Nowhere is our interconnectedness more fundamental than in our shared planet, and our common challenge of climate change. Like the viral pandemic, climate change is a threat to the health and safety of each of us today, and to our children and grandchildren tomorrow.

Like COVID-19, climate change threatens both health systems and communities around the world. The rapid changes occurring across the climate system today are causing shifting infectious diseases, more severe weather, decreasing air quality and significant mental health effects.

The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals projects that, due to climate change, “A business as usual trajectory will result in a fundamentally altered world… Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”

This is not the future we want for our children.

But we can overcome a crisis and protect public health. By trusting our experts, by coming together and heeding scientific and health leaders, we will protect our families, our communities and our common home.  Our leaders protect us when they respect science.

Expertise matters. Health matters. Science matters.

Together, we can create a healthy, sustainable, and just future.

Dr. Samantha Ahdoot is the chair and founder of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action. Kendyl Crawford is director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light.