Honouring Earth Day during COVID-19 — a call for a planetary health renaissance

Crises like Covid-19 demonstrate the fragility and interconnectedness of our lives, communities and the environments we share. Issues such as migration, poverty, and environmental destruction all contribute to health, on a global, as well as local level. This crisis has also demonstrated our strength and resilience in facing large challenges; during this pandemic, we have collectively taken responsibility for the health of our communities, including those more vulnerable to this particular pandemic, and made changes.

Only a small percentage of healthcare takes place in hospitals, with social determinants of health and the environments we inhabit playing an equal if not greater role. From this perspective, it is valuable to consider the Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of planetary health, a term used to describe how human beings are intimately linked and cannot be separated from the health of the natural world. Changes in the environment ultimately affect every dimension of our health and wellbeing, including nutritional outcomes, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, displacement and conflict, and mental health.

A changing climate and global inequality both have the capacity to contribute to the increased spread of infectious diseases. Covid-19 is just one of many infectious diseases in humans that originates from animals.[1] Environmental destruction and habitat destruction place humans and animals in closer contact, increasing the potential for spread of zoonotic infections.[2] Moreover, climate change also has an effect on the trends of many vector borne diseases such as Lyme disease, Dengue fever and malaria, based on the changing patterns of species that transmit these diseases.[3]

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a plethora of global responses, both from governments and our communities, which demonstrate resilience, problem solving, and that societal change is possible in the face of a crisis. Unsurprisingly, many of the responses often tackle more than one issue at a time. For example, we have seen steps taken to provide more adequate housing for the homeless population, addressing issues of inequality and increased spread of infectious disease due to overcrowding.[4] Likewise, in healthcare, we have begun to challenge the idea of disposability of our medical equipment, instead turning to reusable forms of equipment such as PPE, protecting not only frontline health workers and patients, but also the environment.[5] We have also witnessed a shift towards investing in stronger, more equitable health systems, to deal with a changing human and planetary health, which we hope will continue moving forward.

As Inger Andersen, the head of the UN Environment Programme, pointed out, while there have been possible impacts on the environment as a result of responses to Covid-19, this has come at the expense of “tragic economic slowdown and human distress”[6], as well as the terrible loss of precious lives. This pandemic has highlighted the extremity of our behaviour pre-Covid-19, while exposing the ways in which the lives we led before were an extreme at the opposite end of that scale. We must find a balance, which will involve a radical re-thinking of our society towards building a more sustainable economy, constructed upon the principle of planetary health. In a post-Covid world, we can learn from these responses and build more resilient, sustainable communities, enabling behaviours that are healthy for the planet and its people.

The health of our society and the health of the planet that we inhabit are our collective responsibility. Covid-19 has demonstrated that community health isn’t the sole responsibility of frontline health workers, but rather that we all have a role to play to keep ourselves, our neighbours, communities, and loved ones healthy — something the last weeks have shown us. Together, we are, and can be the change we and the planet need.

Jacquie Safieh and Ola Løkken Nordrum are members of Irish Doctors for the Environment

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html

[2] https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/ehp.0901389

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6378404/, https://www.cpha.ca/climate-change-and-vector-borne-illness, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4342958/

[4] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-toronto-to-lease-hundreds-of-hotel-rooms-to-ease-crowding-in-homeless/, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/coronavirus/how-dublin-s-homeless-are-being-tested-for-covid-19-1.4214146

[5] https://medium.com/@trklou/health-care-workers-must-move-to-reusable-respirators-now-heres-how-33708ce0cd93

[6] https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061082 , https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/coronaviruses-are-they-here-stay

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