Climate change exacerbates various health issues in the Global South, directly challenging the achievement of SDG 3 which focuses on good health and well-being.
Leveraging the power of data, technology, and innovation, digital health can help achieve the SDGs by playing a pivotal role in safeguarding human well-being from the adverse impacts of climate-related issues.
A proactive approach, prioritizing education, workforce development, and inclusive policies, ensures that digital health becomes a powerful force for positive change in the Global South, enhancing healthcare accessibility and sustainability.
By Angela Tarana, Imesha Ediriweera, and Lois Maison
In recent years, climate crises such as floods, wildfires, drought, and extreme heat have disrupted ecosystems and negatively impacted human health. The Global South is often the hardest hit by climate change. Amid these crises, digital health emerges as a beacon of hope given its ability to provide accessible, cost-effective, and resilient healthcare services, which are increasingly necessary in the face of the growing challenges posed by climate change, particularly in hard-to-reach regions.
Climate change exacerbates various health issues in the Global South, directly challenging the achievement of SDG 3 which focuses on good health and well-being. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns increase the prevalence of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, heat-related illnesses, respiratory conditions, and food- and water-borne diseases. These changes lead to higher rates of malnutrition and mental health issues, while also straining health infrastructure due to displacement and migration. Water scarcity, another consequence of climate change, further impacts hygiene and sanitation. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 3.6 billion individuals currently reside in regions highly vulnerable to climate change. It is anticipated that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will be responsible for an estimated 250,000 extra deaths annually, resulting from factors including undernutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.
Leveraging the power of data, technology, and innovation, digital health can help achieve the SDGs by playing a pivotal role in safeguarding human well-being from the adverse impacts of climate-related issues. Efforts are underway to revolutionize healthcare delivery through innovative solutions such as telemedicine, mobile health, and electronic health records. These advancements align with SDG target 9.5, contributing to the enhancement of scientific research and technological capabilities. Digital health stands as a key player in achieving SDG 3 by improving health outcomes. It plays a crucial role in reducing communicable disease mortality, supporting SDG target 3.4. Moreover, it contributes to ensuring universal health coverage (UHC) through efficient service delivery, as outlined in SDG target 3.8. In the Global South, digital health solutions prove to be adaptable and effective offering timely solutions through telemedicine and mobile health apps for diverse challenges, ranging from extreme weather events to post-disaster scenarios.
EWARS (Early Warning, Alert, and Response System) is a successful example showcasing digital health’s impact in the Global South. Implemented across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, it facilitates rapid disease surveillance using mobile phones, laptops, and solar generators. During climate-related emergencies, such as floods or displacement, EWARS enables quick detection and response to disease outbreaks like cholera and malaria. Its use in Syria, Bangladesh, South Sudan, and Mozambique underscores its effectiveness in the context of climate-related health risks and challenges. EWARS showcases interconnected benefits across SDGs 1, 5, and 10, as addressing health challenges hinders poverty, promotes equitable health access, and reduces inequalities.
Digital health, while beneficial in addressing healthcare challenges during climate crises, encounters significant barriers in the Global South. Issues such as lack of a supportive environment, limited resources, and insufficient infrastructure hinder progress, compounded by challenges like human capacity, financial constraints, and internet connectivity. For example, about half of households in the Asia-Pacific region have home internet access, contrasting with a mere 17.8% in Africa. With this limited access to internet connectivity, providing digital health services will be a challenge.
These obstacles pose a threat to the sustainability of digital health interventions, particularly concerning SDG target 10.2, which aims to empower and socially include all individuals. SDG target 10.3, focusing on equal opportunities and reducing inequalities, is also at risk. The resulting increased inequality may worsen gender disparities, potentially hindering SDG target 5B’s goal of empowering women through technology.
Additionally, the adoption of digital health may threaten SDG 8.6, potentially reducing the need for physical care and health workers. Its integration into climate crisis responses may also impact SDG 16.10, regarding public access to information and fundamental freedoms due to potential cybersecurity threats associated with digital health technologies. It is crucial to note, however, that this discussion does not advocate for replacing in-person healthcare with digital care entirely. Rather, to ensure secure, safe and sustainable digital healthcare, governments and healthcare institutions must prioritize building a digitally capable health workforce. They must also address legal, ethical, and safety concerns, and navigate trade-offs amid the global shift towards a digital future.
In conclusion, the synergy between digital health and climate resilience signifies promising opportunities. However, the necessity to actively harness these synergies is paramount, as failure to do so risks exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Digital interventions, exemplified by EWARS, showcase transformative success. While challenges exist, they present growth opportunities. A proactive approach, prioritizing education, workforce development, and inclusive policies, ensures that digital health becomes a powerful force for positive change in the Global South, enhancing healthcare accessibility and sustainability. This aligns with the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, making digital health a key driver toward achieving many of its Goals.
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Angela Tarana is an MA student in International Development Studies, Imesha Ediriweera is an MA student in International Education, and Lois Maison is an MA student in International Development Studies at George Washington University.