Why Planetary Health can promote a more inclusive and durable pandemic recovery

Dr. Nicole de Paula

One of the most important questions arising from the painful corona crisis is: how can we make the economic case for investing in a green, healthy and just recovery for people and the planet?

The COVID-19 pandemic offers many lessons, despite the early stage of global responses. For me, the most important one is the inevitable truth that we will not be able to promote an inclusive and durable recovery without addressing the root causes of this pandemic. While most of the public attention goes to a much awaited vaccine, there is also great value in understanding long-term and preventive measures. In this article, I highlight the Planetary health approach, which has the advantage of “multi-solving” several crises at once, such as the one linked to climate change, biodiversity, food systems, and social inequalities.

What is Planetary Health and why it matters

Planetary Health is both a growing scientific field and a social movement. The term gained force when the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on planetary health published the landmark report “Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch”. In simple terms, this commission defines planetary health as “the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends”. This approach emphasises the importance of a holistic view of human health, which is intrinsically linked to healthy ecosystems. The fast-paced field of Planetary Health matters for many reasons. I will highlight three.

The first and most fundamental one is the intention to solve crises by addressing the root causes of global threats instead of wasting precious human and financial resources addressing emergencies. Planetary Health is about leaving the state of emergency to ensure that no one is left behind, also in the long run. In this context, the root causes of this pandemic have a lot to do with the way we conceive our development and imagine success.

This links to the second reason. By recognising the importance of Planetary Health, leaders are giving a change to durable development policies. A new report Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) on 6 July 2020 identifies seven trends driving the increasing emergence of zoonotic diseases, those which jump between animal and human populations, including increased demand for animal protein; a rise in intense and unsustainable farming; the increased use and exploitation of wildlife; and the climate crisis. This suggests that human health, climate and biodiversity crises are not disconnected. In fact, they are two faces of the same coin.

The third reason why Planetary Health matters is that it calls for inclusive solutions. A long-term solution to this pandemic cannot only be dependent on a vaccine. While this is highly desirable and necessary, we will not be able to sustain a just recovery without paying attention to inequalities. As stated by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen. “Pandemics are devastating to our lives and our economies, and as we have seen over the past months, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who suffer the most. For example, domestic energy consumption has risen substantially during the coronavirus lockdown. But it is not uncommon to address solutions from this pandemic through the lenses of developed countries. In the Global South, where the lack access to clean energy services for decades. Almost 80–90% of households in developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to clean cooking energy services, and must rely on polluting fuels (biomass and fossil fuels) and inefficient technologies such as open-fires to prepare their food. The 2019 Sustainable Development Goals report estimate that 3 billion people are dependent on inefficient and highly polluting cooking technologies and fuels. This results in millions of premature deaths every year, in addition to other social, economic, and environmental risks and burdens.

The way forward: social empowerment builds resilience for a world in transition

Here, I consider to be urgent to raise a very relevant and yet neglected topic on leaders’ agendas during this pandemic: gender inequality. Informal conversations and social media posts were the initial places where female academics were going through during the lockdown. Given the expected social norms, women ended up taking up increased childcare responsibilities and started to be left behind when compared to their male peers. Several analysis have now confirmed: across disciplines, women’s publishing rate has fallen relative to men’s amid the pandemic. It was found that, even in those dual-academic households, the evidence shows that women perform more household labour than men do, which is also true for childcare. If this is true for academics, a luxury, we have strong reasons to worry about the negative impact of gender inequity in vulnerable regions, such as those ruled by failed States.

Another recent UN report also makes clear the urgent need for gender-responsive action to tackle linked crises. “Gender, climate & security: sustaining inclusive peace on the frontlines of climate change” shows that interventions around natural resources, the environment and climate change, for example, can enhance women’s political and economic leadership, and strengthen their contributions to peace. This report argues that it is imperative to recognise that peace and security, human rights, and development are interdependent. In support of this idea, we have recommended in our latest policy brief to scale up gender-just solutions as a lever to implement the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is because gender and other social inequalities lower the capacity of communities to cope with climate-related health challenges and dangerous environmental degradation.

Finally, no healthy recovery will take place without including a social equity perspective, inherently linked to the Planetary Health approach. Social equity and the empowerment of vulnerable social groups must be an explicit goal in designing support measures, evaluating economic opportunities, assessing impacts, and prioritizing new policies for a just transition. The potential positive aspect of this tragic pandemic is that we might be able to leave the superfluous behind to focus on what really matters for human well-being. While our lives have been paused, we can still accelerate the thinking that will be required to overcome a crisis of trust and make this world a safe place for people and the planet. Planetary Health is the right start to do just that.

Dr. Nicole de Paula

Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V. (IASS)
Dr. Nicole de Paula is the first Klaus Töpfer Sustainability Fellow awardee at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (ASS) in...

Add new comment