TORONTO -- A group of medical associations representing more than 40 million health professionals from around the world is urging the G20 governments to focus on addressing public health and climate change when it comes to economic recovery packages for COVID-19.

More than 350 medical groups, including the World Medical Association, the Canadian Federation of Medical Students, the Canadian Medical Association and the Conseil des medecins, dentistes et pharmaciens are asking the governments to prioritize clean air, fresh water and public health when considering stimulus packages for their economies.

“A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink,” the letter reads in part. “It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.”

Dr. Courtney Howard, the board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told that she hopes the Canadian government works to stimulate the economy through eco-friendly projects such as installing electric vehicle charging stations, improving public transit infrastructure and creating more green space in urban centres.

“If we want to come out of COVID and its economic fallout in a safe and healthy way, we in fact have to solve both it and the climate crisis at once with these injections of stimulus funds, as well as the policies we put forward,” she said in a phone interview.

Howard said doctors have noticed that many governments have ignored some of their climate goals and are using COVID-19 as an excuse for missing them.

“We have been watching the recovery effort in many parts of the globe and seeing frequently that environmental regulations in some places are being sidelined instead of strengthened, and that in some cases, COVID is being used as an excuse not to push forward with climate work,” she said.

In April, the World Economic Forum warned that “years of progress” concerning climate change could be washed away due to COVID-19 and that countries need to focus on environmental issues in their recovery plans.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Alberta’s energy regulator has suspended most of its environmental monitoring the energy sector, including soil, water and air pollution. In Ontario, the provincial government has suspended the 30-day consultation period for any policy affecting air, water and wildlife.

Additionally, recycling plants in large and medium-sized cities across the country are maxed out as deliveries soar and additional measures are instituted to protect staff.

The federal government also said its proposed ban for single-use plastics would likely be delayed due to COVID-19.

Howard argues each one of these policies has a direct impact on the health and well-being of the population. 

“Everything we can do to decrease air pollution as we build forward, decreases health (issues) immediately,” she said in a phone interview. “That means less asthma exacerbations, that means less lung cancer and it means clearer skies.”

There is still hope, however, as Howard suggests the world’s response to the pandemic shows quick and drastic life changes are possible.

“I think that something that we've learned from COVID is that we can change the world really quickly in order to protect everybody's health, and we've been disrupted now and we're in a rebuilding stage,” she said.

“What we need to do now is build back in a different way, build back in a low-carbon way, in a way that takes nature into account and that works in concert with it and so that world will be safe, that world will be healthy, and that the world we should be proud to hand over to our kids.”

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press