‘Our Planet, Our Health’

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The theme for this year’s World Health Day, 7 April, is ‘Our Planet, Our Health,’ chosen ‘in the face of the current pandemic, a polluted planet, and an increasing incidence of diseases.’ The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), one of the six regional arms of the WHO, poses the challenges humanity faces thus:

  • Are we able to reimagine a world where clean air, water and food are available to all?
  • Where economies are focused on health and well-being?
  • Where cities are livable, and people have control over their health and the health of the planet?

Our Planet, Our Health. Pic – Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

Is this reimagined world a mere dream, or is it achievable? The Covid pandemic is in its third year with no forseeable end soon because of the unpredictable emergence of variants and subvariants. The pollution of our planet goes unabated despite the efforts being pursued to control it. As for diseases, as soon as we have gained some degree of control over one, another seems to be lurking round the corner (AH1N1, Ebola, Zika, Covid), or an old one surfaces again in countries where it had been controlled (pockets of tuberculosis in the US, UK) or becomes resistant to drugs. Overall, though, the increasing incidence of diseases is real as, again, Covid has shown – according to Worldometer, with nearly 600 million cases and over 6 million deaths worldwide to date. The same applies to the non-infectious or non-communicable diseases also known as the NCDs, the rise of which globally has been called an epidemic.

The most fundamental lesson that the pandemic has taught us is how precious is the gift of life, as the death toll mounted, causing unbearable pain and irreplaceable loss for those whose loved ones fell victim in such a short span of time. The question that we must ask ourselves in light of the challenges framed by PAHO is: are we prepared, or preparing g ourselves, to address them so as to ensure a better future for our country and our children?

The slogan ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ is a powerful reminder that our world is interconnected or, to use the buzz word nowadays, we are all part of an ‘ecosystem’ – whatever we do whether at individual or collective level affects everyone else. We all have experience of this at the level of the most basic ecosystem of society, the family, our own to start with. Extend this to the whole world, and we get what the Indian sages or rishis thousands of years ago recognized as ‘vasudaivakutumbakam’ – ‘the whole world is one family.’ Alas, we have not acted on this wisdom consistently, constantly warring with each other, and bringing about so much of avoidable suffering and misery. The current war in Ukraine is a brutally conspicuous illustration of what happens when we forget the ecosystem.

Precisely because of the ecosystem, the whole world is being impacted by the climate change phenomenon, which the UN’s International Panel for Climate Change has indubitably established as being the result of human activities. This therefore gives us an opportunity to bring about betterment by revisiting our activities so as not to harm our health and our planet. Since as a small country our influence at planet level may not be consequential, we could focus on what we can do locally. There are things that can be done at individual level, but for a larger impact it is the state, the larger organizations and coporates that must assume the responsibility.

Let us take the first challenge of clean air, water and food. We are lucky that the frequent rains and winds that we get help to wash down and drive away atmospheric pollutants, and the abundant sunshine also helps to purify the air. Many years ago, when I was at the Victoria Hospital, a plastic surgeon from the UK came on a visit; his specialty was the repair of cleft lip and palate (commonly known as hare-lip and hole or trou in the palate). As we were doing a round in the children’s ward, where there was a case of cleft lip that I had operated, he asked me what was the incidence of infection after surgery that occurred. I informed him that in general it was low, but specifically for my cleft lip cases, it was nil. ‘No wonder,’ he commented, ‘all the bugs get blown away through the open windows that you have in the wards!’ In the colder climes windows have to be kept closed and the microbes remain inside.

While we can boast that we have had clean water in the island delivered to taps for many years now, and this has reduced the incidence of infectious diseases, we have at the same not been able to resolve the problem of access to all through an efficient distribution system, with leaky pipes being largely responsible and as yet not replaced. Besides, the problem of water supply in some regions becomes acute when there are torrential rains with flooding, or periods of drought during summer. Hygiene and sanitation are compromised as a result, with the potential to give rise to infection and disease.

At such times the concept of the ecosystem becomes only too real, for example as we are experiencing now, what with the investment of vegetable growers literally having gone to water, as so many have testified: one spent Rs 60,000 in planting an acre of coriander that has been completely drowned in the recent torrential rains. The same story applies for all other vegetables, their unavailability being felt acutely, both because of production issues and the inevitable phenomenal increase in prices. It goes without saying that those at the lower end of the social ladder are the ones that suffer most, and this inevitably affects adversely their nutritional and thus health status.

To this must be added the supply chain problems that have resulted in delays, interruptions, and cost increases as regards items that are not locally produced, such as oil, rice, flour – again demonstrating our vulnerability to what happens globally since we are dependent on external sources for many of our needs. Again, that is bound to impact nutrition and health status, and overall well-being, the second of the set of challenges identified by PAHO.

That the economy still remains focused on profit, not health and well-being, is evidenced by the rise of NCDs which are causally linked to industrial farming and food manufacturing practices, as processed food has been established to be harmful to the body, along with ‘coca-colonisation’ which refers to the overconsumption of carbonated drinks. Further, it is the GDP that is still the favoured metric for assessing how the economy is doing. Only the kingdom of Bhutan has innovated by devising an index of happiness instead as the metric. Unless more countries shift to doing this, we may have a long wait before the economy re-orientates itself. And of course, that has implications for pollution as well.

Have our cities become more livable? The vehicular congestion in them especially at peak hours and over weekends probably give us the answer!

This is but a sample of the myriad factors that are impacting our lives, alas mostly adversely. What can, should we do to start getting an upper hand on them? Something for all of us to ponder seriously.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 15 April 2022

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