AS the global Covid-19 crisis dramatically underlines, the fate and wellbeing of people relies on the health of the planet. Planetary health is a term referring to human health “and the state of the natural systems on which it depends”.
The novel coronavirus looks increasingly like an expression of our failure to understand this link, as demonstrated by our disruption of ecosystems. It was in 1980 that non-governmental organisation (NGO) Friends of the Earth first articulated the need to enlarge the World Health Organisation’s definition of health, asserting that “personal health involves planetary health”.
The next decade, the late Norwegian physician Per Fugelli warned: “The patient Earth is sick. Global environmental disruptions can have serious consequences on human health. It’s time for doctors to give a world diagnosis and advice on treatment.”
In 2015, the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health concluded that unparallelled 20th century advancements had created better health conditions for billions of people but at great expense — a heavy toll on the Earth’s natural systems.
“Between unsustainable resource consumption and population growth, there is growing evidence that the planet’s capacity to sustain the growing human population is declining,” it said.
Air, water and land degradation, climate change, extreme weather events, lost biodiversity, and other problems have reduced food security and nutrition, diminished freshwater resources, raised exposure to communicable diseases and increased non-communicable ones.
The result: great loss of life and undermined wellbeing. The commission’s publication, Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, explored the scientific basis for establishing planetary health as a new field.
It identified three categories of challenges:
“Imagination challenges”, such as an over-reliance on gross domestic product as a measure of human progress, the failure to account for future health and environmental harms over present-day gains, and the disproportionate effect of those harms on the poor and those in developing nations;
Research and information challenges, such as failure to address social and environmental drivers of ill health, a historical lack of transdisciplinary research and funding, together with an unwillingness or inability to deal with uncertainty within decision-making frameworks; and,
Governance challenges, such as delayed recognition and responses to threats by governments and institutions, especially when faced with uncertainties, and time lags between action and effect.
Covid-19 and other zoonotic diseases — illnesses spread from animals to humans — are linked to the loss of biodiversity and forests and climate change. Others in recent decades include Nipah, Ebola, Avian Flu, and Zika.
The 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) said vector-borne diseases account for about 17 per cent of all infectious diseases and now cause an estimated 700,000 deaths per year.
“Emerging infectious diseases in wildlife, domestic animals, plants or people can be exacerbated by human activities such as land clearing and habitat fragmentation,” IPBES said.
Many scientists believe that we are witnessing the tip of an iceberg, that without drastic steps now more pandemics will follow.
And a recent survey of 222 scientists across 52 countries by NGO Future Earth ranked biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse among the top five risks facing humanity. The others: extreme weather, the failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change, food crises and water shortages.
Many of these scientists stressed, however, that their greatest concern is the prospect of one global risk cascading onto the others. Heatwaves, for example, can accelerate water loss and food scarcity, just as biodiversity loss exacerbates climate change, and vice versa.
There is an appropriate Malay saying for this atrocious situation: “Kalau sesat, baliklah ke pangkal jalan” — when lost, get back to where you started. It is important for us to join forces with like-minded movements, such as The Campaign for Nature, a partnership of the Wyss Campaign for Nature and the National Geographic Society, working with a growing coalition of more than 100 conservation organisations around the world that is calling on policymakers to commit to a science-driven, ambitious new deal for nature.
This involves commitments to: Protect at least 30 per cent of the planet by 2030; help mobilise financial resources to ensure protected areas are properly managed; and approach biodiversity conservation in a way that fully integrates and respects indigenous leadership and indigenous rights.
The campaign’s rationale: “We need bold new ideas and decisive action from leaders around the world so that life on Earth can continue to thrive.” And “we need to ensure the full participation of indigenous peoples and local communities.”
A slogan of the campaign says it all, from citizens to their leaders: “Nature is calling. How will you respond?”
The writer is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and founding chair of IPBES