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Flooding in Suburban Town


Navigating Climate Resilience: Strategies for a Changing World


The first article in our Climate Resilience series addressed the challenges in planning for a changing climate; assessing impact, spatial and non-linear climate risk; and integrating ESG strategy and resilience plans. The second article in our series is a double-click into the effects of climate change on infectious diseases and how your organisation can prepare. 

The first-of-its-kind Health Day and subsequent Climate and Health Declaration at the recent COP28 was a landmark recognition of the interdependence and impact of climate change on human health. The Declaration, so far signed by 147 countries, acknowledges the increased negative health impacts on communities from climate change, the need to work with health ministries to build climate-resilience health systems, and the incorporation of health targets into national climate plans. While only the first step in a critical journey, the Declaration, and the accompanying $1bn (USD) in financing announcements from multilateral stakeholders demonstrates the international cooperation and funding required. Importantly, it also ensures that health officials, private sector health providers and other critical public health stakeholders are included in climate discussions that directly impact the infrastructure and delivery of health systems.

The Effects of Climate Change on Infectious Disease

Climate change has a wide range of adverse effects on health which are now well understood, such as increased life-threatening temperatures and disruptions to the food supply. Our focus here is on another significant consequence: the exacerbation of infectious diseases through climate change, and its potential impacts on organisations. The scientific journal Nature Climate Change found that 58% of known human pathogenic diseases are aggravated by climate change.1  

Climate-related hazard events, such as floods, droughts, extreme heat and shifts in snow cover can change animal and insect migration routes, bringing pathogens closer to people. The massive flooding in Pakistan in 2022 brought significant rises in the number of malaria cases and deaths and contributed substantially to the rise in the overall global incidences of the disease. Diseases like malaria, dengue fever and Lyme disease are expanding beyond their traditional geographical habitats. We have seen diseases like dengue fever reported in Southern Europe in recent years, for example, as the mosquitos that spread the disease move into warmer climates. 

Likewise, climate hazard events can also bring people closer to pathogens through forced migration and can contribute to the increases in outbreaks of food- and water-borne diseases such as cholera that we have seen in multiple countries over recent years. This is not confined to countries periodically or ordinarily affected by tropical diseases: outbreaks of Campylobacter-associated diarrheal disease have become more commonplace in the Nordics as the weather has warmed and the frequency of these outbreaks is expected to rise.2

Climate alters agricultural patterns; changes in habitat modify both animal and human behaviours. Climate change has also enhanced specific aspects of pathogen behaviour, such as improved climate suitability for reproduction; it has accelerated their lifecycle, increased their virulence, and diminished human abilities to cope with pathogens from environmental stress (e.g., through malnutrition or increased stress). 3

Low-income countries and already deprived communities also bear a disproportionate burden of infectious diseases due to a lack of access to clean water, health services, vaccination, and education. These vulnerable populations are more likely to be impacted by both the adverse effects of climate change and their increased exposure to infectious diseases. 

The Impacts of Heightened Infectious Disease Risks to Your Organisation

While the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the extreme impacts of new viruses on organisations, an increasing number of businesses are realising that increased geographic spread, virulence, and transmissibility of known infectious diseases can also have accentuated effects on their workforce. For example, in a region that is endemic for malaria, this climate-sensitive disease can be responsible for a substantial proportion of worker sickness absence. Other effects of increased infectious disease outbreaks can include dramatic swings in unanticipated customer demand or supplier availability, restrictions on movements of personnel and goods, increased regulatory requirements for products and services, and higher costs for insurance policies.

A key realisation from the recent negotiations on climate and health has been that partnerships between research bodies, governments, donors, and the private sector will be key to mitigate impacts. Employers have a key role in understanding and responding to these changes to protect their people and assets. A proactive approach to assessing the vulnerability and mitigation of infectious disease outbreaks exacerbated by climate change can enhance your business continuity plans, supply chain resilience, employee productivity and absenteeism.

At a macro level, the United Kingdom government has assessed that the most serious potential risks facing the country are pandemics and the outbreak of an emerging infectious disease (see chart below). This official government risk assessment aligns closely with other risk modellers, such as Metabiota and Airfinity, which estimate a strong likelihood of another pandemic with a similar magnitude as COVID-19 occurring in the coming decades. Such alarmingly high likelihoods for risk scenarios would ordinarily trigger business action, yet we somehow run the risk of entering another cycle of fear and neglect. 

Research has shown that climate-induced temperature changes have even affected cycles of familiar infectious diseases like dengue and influenza, with flu epidemics, for example, more likely following a winter with higher-than-average temperatures4. An organisation that does not plan for the infectious disease and health impacts of climate change does so at its own risk. 

The Challenges of Planning for A Changing Health Environment 

Given the black swan nature of epidemics and the complexity in predicting the severity or breadth of impact of diseases like influenza, it can seem daunting to integrate disease risk mitigation into long-term business plans. Like the overall climate risks highlighted in our first article in the series, infectious disease risks, exacerbated by climate change will impact the following key pillars: 

  • HEALTH AND SAFETY: Illness, absenteeism, and increased healthcare costs of a sick workforce will directly affect business continuity, operational ability, and human capital costs.
  • PRODUCTIVITY: Adverse mental health impacts, low employee morale, time off for recovery, and restrictions on travel and movement will negatively impact productivity.
  • RISK MANAGEMENT: Seasonality, geography, exposure to risk factors and type of industry will directly affect the risk profile of the workforce .
  • PHYSICAL INFRASTRUCTURE AND ASSETS: Modification and alterations to business models and physical facilities are needed to minimise the risk of disease transmission and spread.
  • SUPPLY CHAIN: Disruption to suppliers and critical inputs necessary for production and/or delivery of goods and services.
  • REPUTATIONAL RISK: Negative coverage due to reputational perceptions of unequal or price gouging of products and services, or inadequately protecting staff.
  • PRODUCT AND SERVICE MIX: Growing aversion to products or services because of potential risk factors (e.g., co-working spaces) or inability to maintain quality or supply due to workforce absences.
At International SOS, we help your organisation with the first three pillars, Health and Safety, the ultimate priority during a pandemic, as well as with Productivity and Risk Management. Our subject matter experts on infectious diseases can help prepare your organisation with services such as pandemic maturity assessments, pandemic preparedness plans, readiness webinars and training, outbreak monitoring and risk assessments, and proactive threat monitoring, to name a few. 


Integrating Health into Your ESG Strategy and Resilience Plans 

Organisational leaders need to reflect on how changing infectious disease patterns could affect current and future workforces (and travellers), while ensuring that enterprise risk management plans incorporate health threats into mitigation plans. This can include layering in infectious disease risk levels into pre-travel briefings and planning, leveraging services like Workforce Resilience to develop comprehensive crisis management plans which include pandemic and infectious disease outbreaks, and leveraging global monitoring services to proactively assess potential threats and problem areas. At International SOS, our ESG strategy incorporates a health pillar (ESG+H) into all our initiatives and roadmaps. Regardless of your industry and ESG maturity, there are opportunities for every organisation to assess the health impacts, interplays, and outcomes of their ESG strategy. 

 Specific industry ESG initiatives can be designed to be relevant to company strengths and advantages, while simultaneously providing increased resilience against climate-induced outbreaks, furthering shared business and societal goals of ESG value creation and infectious disease preparedness. Examples of these can include providing community access to on-site health care facilities and vaccination programmes in a remote mining community; biodiversity restoration programmes on a large-scale construction project; specific pandemic and infectious disease insurance policies in financial services; and transportation companies using spare capacity or new technology like eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) for medical equipment and medicine delivery. International SOS has worked with clients, such as a mining company working on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, to integrate and execute community health programmes into their ESG plans and control the community spread of malaria and Tuberculosis. Particularly for companies operating in low-income and disadvantaged communities, there is a large opportunity to integrate equity of access to infectious disease education, care, treatments, and vaccines as part of an ESG strategy and business resilience programme. 

The accelerated impacts of climate effects on human health and the need for long-term planning and investments mean business leaders can no longer sit back and ignore the impacts of climate change on health. While COVID-19 took the world by surprise, we now have the luxury to prepare for the next pandemic. Leaders would be wise to assess their preparation, vulnerability, and proactive investments to integrate climate and health into ESG initiatives and build Workforce Resilience to prepare for the next infectious disease outbreak. 

  1. Mora, C., McKenzie, T., Gaw, I.M. et al. Over half of known human pathogenic diseases can be aggravated by climate change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 869–875 (2022).
  2. Semenza, Jan C. et al. Climate change and infectious disease in Europe: impact, projection, and adaptation. The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, Volume 9, 100230.
  3. Mora, C., McKenzie, T., Gaw, I.M. et al. Over half of known human pathogenic diseases can be aggravated by climate change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 869–875 (2022). 
  4. Climate Nexus Report – The Business Case for Action, Business for Social Responsibility Health Care Working Group, 2018.