IJeni Millert’s National Public Health Week! We’re spotlighting this year’s daily NPHW themes with a series of guest posts from APHA members. Today’s NPHW theme is environmental health, and our guest post comes from Jeni Miller, PhD, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. Miller currently serves as chair of APHA’s Environment Section.

It is rare that public health dominates the headlines. But the COVID-19 pandemic has vaulted public health leaders into the spotlight as the world comes to realize that their scientific expertise is essential to guiding us through this crisis.

The virus is moving quickly through a global population with zero pre-existing immunity to this new pathogen. We’re all navigating the impacts in real time — whether directly, as we or people we know contract the disease, or indirectly, as we deal with shelter-in-place orders, closed businesses and lost jobs, children home from school, fear and uncertainty, and, most dauntingly, the surge of COVID-19 patients seeking help at overwhelmed hospitals.

We all owe an immense debt of gratitude to the heroes on the frontlines, most especially the health care workers caring for patients, but also to those harvesting our food, stocking our grocery shelves, and sustaining all the other essential services we depend on every day. And so many people are stepping up in so many ways — engaging in acts of kindness, generosity and creativity to help to lift our spirits, maintain our human connections, and remind us that the way we’ll get through this is by doing it together, even while we’re physically apart.

Though I work in public health, I’m seeing all this unfold as I shelter in place, too. As the director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, my work focuses on a different public health crisis: climate change. For the moment, climate change is on the back burner, especially for the vast majority of the health community. And yet right now, those of us in climate and health have our own important role to play, carrying the ball on climate and related environmental threats to health even as COVID-19 rightfully remains fully front and center for us all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put science front and center, where it belongs. It is a stark reminder that we should “listen to the scientists,” in the words of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. It’s also demonstrated the difference that acting early — as opposed to delaying action — can make. The places that took swift, decisive action — such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong — are on their way to containing the outbreak, have minimized deaths, and have so far avoided overwhelming their hospitals. Though they may still face future waves of the disease, the value of prompt action is already evident. COVID-19 has also highlighted how critically important it is to robustly fund public health and health care; to give our health systems the resources they need to plan, model and anticipate; and to ensure our health and public health systems and the communities they serve are resilient in the face of future challenges.

These are early days and right now we’re all still reeling, as the pandemic and our responses unfold day by day. But we would do well to remember these lessons when we’re once again able to fully re-engage with climate change.

Much more urgently, however, countries are right now making major decisions that will set the direction of our post-COVID-19 world. In late March, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was suspending enforcement of environmental and public health protections due to the pandemic. Other nations are considering doing the same. Will we simply re-create exactly what COVID-19 shut down — a world vulnerable to another pandemic, vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, vulnerable to the ravages of ecosystem damage and biodiversity loss? Why not, instead, take some of the hard won lessons this pandemic has forced upon us, and invest to create a healthier, more equitable, more sustainable future for everyone?

To learn more about National Public Health Week and get involved, visit www.nphw.org, follow @NPHW on Twitter and use the hashtag #NPHW all this week. For resources, news and advocacy on the coronavirus pandemic, visit APHA’s COVID-19 page. For more on how each day’s NPHW theme intersects with COVID-19, visit nphw.org/nphw-2020/covid-19.