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Post Pandemic, for a Happier Planet and Healthier People

(April 07, 2022)

The World Health Day is being celebrated on April 7, the day the World Health Organisation (WHO) was formed in 1948. The WHO is focusing on “global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being.” Aptly, the theme for 2022 is ‘Our Planet, Our Health’.

by Santanu Mishra

The entire globe seems to be at a crossroad. For the past two years, we have all been dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic that literally inundated geographical and socio-economic boundaries, and raged through our lives in general. It was also a new world order, which was thrust upon the planet without any forewarning. It also accentuated the widening gap of the haves and have-nots. After all, the pandemic was not just a healthcare crisis.

The stress on access to water, food, clothes, education and healthcare, to name a few, was palpable, that was defined by people having resources and those who didn’t. As the pandemic appears to be ebbing and life limping back to normalcy, there are still concerns about a new wave, vaccine hesitancy and at time vaccine inequality, and how to rebuild lives while the global economy has gone for a spin.

It is against this backdrop that the World Health Day is being celebrated on April 7, the day the World Health Organisation (WHO) was formed in 1948. The WHO is focusing on “global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being.” Aptly, the theme for 2022 is ‘Our Planet, Our Health’.

The WHO identifies the “climate crisis” as a health crisis too. A Lancet Planetary Health study had said that around 17 lakh Indians lost lives to air pollution in 2019. This is 18 per cent of total deaths. India has lost 1.4 per cent of the GDP due to premature deaths and morbidity from air pollution, which is equivalent to Rs 2.60 lakh crore in monetary terms. This was more than four times of the Union Budget allocation for the health sector in 2021-22 (Rs 73,931 crore) and 2022-23 (Rs 86,200.65 crore).

It is not that air pollution is the only big threat that is contributing to the health crisis. Life-style diseases are also on the rise. Obesity, cancer and heart diseases are on the rise with experts pointing to reasons such as changing eating habits and lifestyle. They put the blame mainly on the unhealthy packaged food, beverages and behavioural changes. Also, untreated human-generated waste is triggering health problems and degrading ecosystems.

At the same time no one is discounting the possibilities of economic factors that are triggering a health crisis. The WHO says extreme weather events, land degradation and water scarcity are displacing people and affecting their health. It says the food-chain is impacted, as the humans pollute every inch they could set their foot in, whether it is the deep ocean or the highest mountain.

While these were existing troubles in varying degrees, the Covid-19 pandemic has added more challenges for the health sector. The pandemic struck from nowhere and it could have put the best of preparedness to task, any time. The resilience of the human race was tested once again and with the help of science and technology, the war against the pandemic was launched. Although an ‘infodemic’ sought to derail the fight back giving rise to spread of fake news. The world is climbing back to normalcy even as the final bugle has not been sounded.

So, what are the challenges? For any government, tackling the climate crisis is a priority. They have set ambitious targets but there must be convergence of resources and knowhow amongst nations. While acknowledging the importance of dealing with the climate crisis, the question however is whether emerging economies or developing nations have the wherewithal to match the guarantees that the developed countries have promised but not delivered yet. Development needs of countries like India may have to be kept in mind while dealing with such a question.

At the same time, countries like India will have to increase its spending on the health sector, particularly in public health. The private sector, civil society organizations as well as the government have a chance to work out a better convergence of resources and efforts.

On a brighter note, the pandemic has preponed application of technologies in human development at an unimaginable scale. Many things would have been possible only by 2030 otherwise. The acceleration of technology covered not only medical research and vaccine development, but also ways to taking basic healthcare to the masses. Our own experience has shown how tele-medicine, mobile healthcare and virtual consultation became the new normal in no time.

Another area to that cried for attention was prioritizing mental health, or as I would like to call it, mental wellbeing. Surprisingly, children were one of the most affected. The pandemic also was overwhelming for the healthcare professionals, who were facing burnout among other concerns.

The healthcare areas in particular is expected to see enhanced focus on ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) components – covering sustainability, tech-enabled governance, digital-driven impact, innovation in creating higher reach and inclusiveness.

When we commemorate the World Health Day, one should remember that the present danger is not over. The civil society organizations, governments and the health sector players continue to play a more proactive role, accelerating the pace of preparedness and advancement.

“Santanu Mishra, Co-Founder and Executive Trustee, Smile Foundation”

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