April 7th is when the world celebrates World Health Day. Now more than ever, we must renew our commitment to caring for our common home by prioritizing not just the health of human beings, but the well-being of the entire planet. Without a healthy environment, a healthy global citizenry is impossible.
We need to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct result of our negligence for our environment. By mistreating other living beings and abusing Creation, we effectively unleashed the means to our own suffering.
Yet despite previous instances of epidemics and pandemics and the modernization of societies, the same pattern keeps emerging: the cries of the poor still ring the loudest in times of crises. If not the disease itself, other factors such as hunger, dirty surroundings, loss of income, or another type of illness would significantly impact their physical and mental well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic is proof that humankind is simply a small part of nature. As massive and influential as the global nexus of man-made political, economic, and social structures are, it is fragile and prone to any natural phenomenon without proper interventions.
Our notion of “health” goes hand-in-hand with what we think of “environment”. Just as our traditional view on the environment is focused on natural processes and ecosystems, our standard perspective on health concerns is human-centric. However, this recent crisis has shown that our concept for both must change to a more inclusive one that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all life on Earth.
As Pope Francis states in the Laudato Si’, “if everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life”. The post-COVID world needs countries to strengthen the universal health care system and ensure that every person, especially the marginalized and most vulnerable, have access to basic health services. We must institutionalize, enhance, and increase the accessibility of non-traditional modalities for providing primary care for non-communicable diseases, such as landline and online-based consultations.
The health imperative is not limited to avoiding and containing the spread of diseases, however. The management of the production chain for basic necessities must be improved to address the needs of the people in future episodes of crises, regardless of their nature or origin. For instance, governments and businesses must work together to improve the resilience of our food production systems, which are affected by COVID-19 and any potential pandemics. Supplies of potable water and electricity must also be managed to attain good health and well-being.
Yet in the long run, there may be no more important intervention for the health of all life on Earth than genuinely taking care of our environment.
Through hearing the singing of birds on empty streets or lifting the blanket of air pollution clouding the blue skies, it is evident that the absence of threatening human activities is necessary for restoring ecological health. By implementing more stringent environmental policies, not only would it result in a healthier bond between humankind and our surroundings, but also provide an adequate landscape for improving mental health.
The recent decrease of greenhouse gas emissions that worsen the current man-made climate change, while a welcomed development, is still not enough to prevent environmental degradation that experts have projected for the remainder of the 21st century. In this time of uncertainty, one fact is undoubtedly true: a return to the “business-as-usual” attitude that has prioritized economic growth over social development and environmental protection is no longer an option. Not when our health is on the line and this generation has just been reminded to never take it for granted.
Now that the world has seen how a virus can disrupt the daily routine of the rich and poor alike, the drive for changing our culture on health has never been stronger. Activities and habits related to maintaining cleanliness and sanitation will be emphasized for the foreseeable future by everyone, from governments and businesses to schools and households. Opportunities for strengthening education on health and the environment need to be maximized to create a precautionary, disciplined culture for addressing future hazards instead of a reactionary one.
Per Pope Francis, we are currently in “a time to choose what matters in life and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” The choice is clear: we need to redefine what it means to be healthy.
An edited version of this article is also published on Sunstar.