Today, 7th April, is World Health Day, an annual UN observance initiated in 1984 to mark the anniversary of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and to draw attention to global health priorities.
This year, it has rightly been dedicated to the courageous nurses and health workers across the world who are at the forefront of the global response to coronavirus. Theirs is not an easy role at the best of times, and right now they will be beset with additional anxiety and enormous responsibility to consider the health of their patients above even their loved ones and themselves. Our hearts and thanks go out to them.
Of course, the world health day focus is more than ever on physical and mental health. Our physical health is under attack from the Covid-19 virus. The necessary enforced social distancing and self-isolation is, at the same time, putting a strain on the mental health of many, particularly for those who rely on services that have had to be temporarily suspended.
Many have turned to nature as a source of comfort and wonder. In the northern hemisphere it is spring, and buds, birds, greenery and sunshine,offer hope that this too shall pass, that a sense of normality and continuity will return. With far fewer journeys made by cars and planes, pollution levels have fallen dramatically and city dwellers are reacquainting themselves with the wonder of the night sky, previously hidden behind a veil of smog. These silver linings of the dark coronavirus storm are important and we are right to celebrate them – we need them. However, it’s not just today that we rely on nature for our happiness: spending time in nature has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, and is hugely beneficial for our mental health.
But nature’s health is at risk too, and sadly it’s our fault. World Health Day – the health of the world – takes on new meaning when one considers that our own physical and mental health is so interwoven and interconnected with the natural world.
The law of nature dictates that if we take more than can be replenished, there will be consequences: since the birth of the industrial revolution, humans have acted as if we can reap all the benefits of the earth’s resources, and the earth must bear – and recover, naturally – from the consequences. But we are part of a complex social, environmental and economic ecosystem. Human health – and society at large – is directly linked to the health of the planet. Covid-19 has made us painfully aware that this is a fact of nature: demonstrated with equivocation by how large-scale development has not only brought us closer than ever to wildlife, it has created a system of use and control that has also made it easier for pathogens to jump from animals to humans. We are part of a complex planetary ecosystem and anything we do affects not just the planet and biodiversity, but us too. World Health is just that. Health of the world in all its totality.
We spoke previously about this interconnectedness on International Day of Forests when we considered how beneficial the world’s forests are as important for human health as they are for the planet’s health. Trees are incredibly effective carbon ‘sinks’, absorbing carbon via photosynthesis and locking it up for centuries. This makes them an incredibly important weapon in our fight against climate change, as well as in making the air that we breathe cleaner and better for our health. What’s more, forests provide food and shelter for a huge range of animal and plant species – including humans: in short, they’re a hugely important part of the ecosystem of which we are just part.
That means that deforestation – the human act of cutting down forests to use their resources or to make space for farming – is destructive at every level of the ecosystem. The contribution to global warming is twofold: not only does it destroy the trees that are so effective in removing carbon from the air, but also releases the carbon the trees store. People, flora and fauna lose their habitats, and we lose a key tool in our fight against climate change.
It’s not just the health of forests that is important: oceans are another integral part of earth’s ecosystem that we aren’t looking after properly. We continue to pour a huge amount of plastic and toxins into the sea, which not only damages marine life but also human life, because we consume fish. Coral reefs aren’t just home to immense biological wealth: they also help protect coastlines from erosion, thereby protecting human life too. Reefs damaged by chemicals, destructive fishing practices and quarrying can no longer carry out those or any other role.
The list could go on, but the point is the same. As we are part of an ecosystem, our attitude to the planet and resources not only affects our health directly, but also indirectly because the whole ecosystem is affected. Respecting both the planet and our place within it is an important way to look after the health of humanity.
So as we turn to nature for comfort in our time of need, perhaps we can also use the time to reflect on how we can tend to the planet in its time of need. Because, if nothing else, we’re part of a circle – and what goes around comes around.