COVID, Climate and Frontline Workers

Updated: Jun 10

The pandemic is not yet over, but already the long-lasting impacts on frontline workers are evident. With Friends of the Earth, Grace Duncan takes a look at the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on frontline workers in the UK, and the further challenges that the impact of climate change may bring them. She finds a call for better government support for essential professions in the UK to be able to protect themselves from the impacts of climate crisis.

The coronavirus crisis has fundamentally changed society. While the disasters of the last year have been manifold, the appreciation we are seeing for front-line workers is long overdue. People previously branded ‘low-skilled’ by Priti Patel are now seen as the some of the most important members of society. As the climate crisis worsens, the Western World will feel its effects more closely and global issues like pandemics are expected to continue. So, while we may have clapped for carers on the doorsteps for the first few months of lockdown, it is unlikely that it will be the last time they will bear the brunt of society’s crisis. As the planet deteriorates further, how will frontline workers jobs change and how can we better support them than we have during this pandemic?

The long-lasting impacts of the pandemic on frontline workers

The pandemic turned the worlds of frontline workers upside down as they took on emotional and physical burdens to keep the country moving in a time of crisis. Despite everything experienced by workers over the last year, the all-consuming nature of the pandemic can perhaps be seen most explicitly in the toll on their mental health. For Dr Chris Newman, a GP who volunteered to work in the Nightingale Hospitals said, ‘There was a lot of powerlessness and that is why I decided to go to the Nightingale in the first place – so I could feel like I was doing something.’

‘The staff there had all volunteered to help out so there was a sense of unity and co-learning as we were trying to figure out how best to manage the situation. We had people who didn’t have the level of training you would hope, we had GPs monitoring intensive care patients like I was.’

Teachers also had to go above and beyond their normal role, Constance Handley, a teacher in North London, said that during the pandemic, ‘I think it became this completely different sphere, almost social worker-esque... While we have always had that vision of the bigger picture for the child, now it was a real concern of what is going on at home? And how is that impacting them, because it impacts them so directly?’

'We are nowhere near being self-sufficient'

For many front-line workers, extra responsibilities and priorities have left a lasting impact. Rachel Dring, Co-founder of Crop Drop, a vegetable box subscription company, said that farmers experienced a ‘surge in demand in local food across the whole sector and that meant all those winter stores of food were used up very quickly and we had to source more from Europe than usual. What we discovered was that we are nowhere near being self-sufficient.’

This has had a lifechanging impact on farmers; ‘I know one [large organic] farm that has gone out of business because of the combination of COVID, Brexit and extreme weather meant that they had to cut their losses really. That is a real shame because we just don’t have enough organic farms in this country to meet demand.’

Farming is not the only front-line work set to see losses. Recent research has shown that one in four NHS workers are more likely to quit the NHS than they were pre-pandemic. A similar trend can be seen in transport, according to Kenny Gillespie, a taxi driver in Glasgow. He believes that many taxi drivers are having to leave the job some of them have had for over 20 years.

'I have not spoken to a taxi driver who hasn’t had the same concerns: am I going to catch COVID? How am I going to pay the bills?'

For Kenny, much of this can be traced back to the pressures of the job and the lack of lockdown work: there were ‘2,500 taxi drivers all vying for the same bit of work at the same time.’ He added, ‘I have not spoken to a taxi driver who hasn’t had the same concerns: am I going to catch COVID? How am I going to pay the bills? How am I going to put food on the table for my family? How long is this going to go on?’

Repeating crises: climate and its ongoing impacts on frontline workers

Many of these concerns are not going to go away overnight, and in fact, are likely to worsen. Connor Schwartz, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth said that the impact on front-line workers was likely to be extensive, ‘the climate crisis isn’t only a distant threat to other countries, it’s already causing devastation right here in the UK. If things don’t change, we’re at risk of seeing so many different professions having to fight even more obstacles as they work to keep our communities going. This means farmers struggling through heatwaves followed by downpours, carers overwhelmed with patients suffering from excess heat, fire and rescue responding to more and more wildfires and floods, and countless more workers facing extreme weather.’