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  • Remi Trovo

From the frying pan into the fire: Covid-19 and forest fires ravage the Americas

Last year, São Paulo went dark after being covered by smoke from huge fires in the Amazon rainforest. Now, the fires are raging once again. Meanwhile in the US, ferocious wildfires are burning across the entire state of California. Can countries like Brazil and the USA tackle both these wildfires and a global pandemic with leaders who have been dismissive of coronavirus and climate change? Has the pandemic caused the issue of climate change to decline in prominence?

Fires in the Amazon and the forests of California are an annual occurrence, yet the ones which they are currently facing are among the biggest ever seen in their history. According to Doctor Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist specialising in the Amazon rainforest, this has resulted in more than 13,000 square km of the Amazon being destroyed during the first seven months of 2020. Large parts of this area covering eight times the size of London, may never recover from the damage it has sustained. The situation is no better in California, where two million acres of land has now been scorched and 14,000 firefighters are continuing to tackle over 585 wildfires. The fires in California have killed six people and injured 43 others (including several firemen). Strong winds are also forecast, this prevents a major risk that the wildfires could be driven towards more populated areas.

As if all this was not enough, both Brazil and the United States have been heavily impacted by the pandemic. According to the University of Oxford, there have been 127,464 deaths from coronavirus in Brazil so far and fatalities stand at 189,679 in the US. There are reports that the smoke generated by the wildfires is compounding the symptoms of coronavirus and putting an additional strain on health clinics across the two countries. In the Brazilian village of São Félix do Xingú which is at the epicentre of the Amazonian forest fires, doctors report seeing a dramatic increase in patients with smoke-induced breathing problems. With scarce resources, they might struggle to treat them and control coronavirus infection rates. The doctors in this village are not the only ones to face this problem. According to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, more than 2,000 people were hospitalised last year as a result of breathing problems caused by smoke from forest fires. The USA faces a similar situation as smoke smothers large parts of California, Nevada and Southern Idaho.

It has been suggested that climate change will be placed on a back burner as governments continue to tackle the pandemic. Bolsonaro and Trump seem to neglect both of these issues in order to re-open their economies. The Brazilian government has taken certain measures to lessen the number of forest fires in the Amazon such as; imposing a four month ban on starting fires, sending in the army to protect parts of the rainforest and issuing 407.2 million reais (£55 million) worth of fines to people conducting illegal deforestation. Strange as it may seem, Bolsonaro has denied the existence of forest fires in the Amazon. He has also publicly stated his intention to open up the Amazon to mining and agriculture. According to Doctor Kalamandeen, these are the industries that are primarily driving the increase in forest fires as they burn large swathes of land to clear them more quickly. Bolsonaro has also dismissed the coronavirus as “a mere cold” and has said that economic shutdowns are more harmful than the virus itself. All of this bears a striking resemblance to the approach adopted by President Trump, who is attempting to overturn numerous environmental regulations so that fossil fuel companies can operate in nature reserves. Trump’s approach will be worrying for the Governor of California, Gary Newsom, whose state is trying to cope with 650,000 coronavirus infections (a number which could dramatically increase as people gather in emergency shelters) and devastating forest fires at the same time. Governor Newsom’s message on Twitter was clear: “If you don’t believe in climate change, come to California”.

In conclusion, both the USA and large parts of South America are simultaneously facing an environmental and a public health crisis. Yet, by not taking decisive action to tackle them, Bolsonaro and Trump are sending a message that the economy comes above all else. Is this Mother Nature’s wake-up call to humanity? If it is, these leaders appear to have hit the snooze button.

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