Health of our planet impacts our own wellness, says KJ on World Health Day


World Health Day 2022 will focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being”. — Photo: AFP

In a joint column with Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Sunway Centre for Planetary Health executive director, Malaysian Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin stresses the need to urgently think about and address how the health of our planet impacts our own individual wellness.

It is World Health Day today (April 7, 2022).

After the pain of the last two years, the significance and importance of this day should not be lost on any of us.

The World Health Organization (WHO), of which Malaysia is an active member and participant, has declared that “in the midst of a pandemic, a polluted planet, and increasing diseases like cancer, asthma, heart disease, World Health Day 2022 will focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being”.

We should welcome this call to action as the focus on planetary health resonates with our priorities.

Planetary health is a new approach to understanding how to improve our relationship with the natural world.

It focuses on achieving the highest attainable standards of health, well-being, and equity – all within safe environmental limits.

This requires a stronger focus on how our political, economic and social systems must change to better protect us and the Earth’s natural systems, so that both can thrive.

Our 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP), which references planetary health several times, recognises the need to reframe our development priorities so that they are better harmonised with the health of the planet.

And the evidence that action is needed is now irrefutable.

The damage humanity has caused to the planet is having a direct and highly visible impact on human health.

We see illness and injury caused by extreme weather events, such as the recent floods in the Klang Valley.

We see people experiencing ever more intense and ferocious forest fires across the planet, suffering the health consequences of inhaling smoke and worse.

Mosquito-borne diseases are expanding northwards and southwards as the planet warms.

Extreme heat increases the risk of cardiovascular (heart) complications, and of course, our collective mental health suffers as we experience virus, climate and other forms of existential anxiety.

We’re in this together

Here in Malaysia, our rapid development over the last few decades has come with a price.

We need to adjust our development priorities so that they are more centrally focused on protecting the rich and diverse ecosystem within which we are lucky to make our home.

Work is already underway through our national development planning process.

In the field of health, our Covid-19 immunisation programme was among the first to go green, with guidance issued to reduce medical waste across the board.

But there is much more that we can and should be doing to rethink how we understand “health”, which is only partly about doctors, hospitals and drugs, and much more about cutting carbon emissions, having access to clean air, enjoying nature, eating nutritious and sustainably-produced food, and taking responsibility to play our part – no matter how small – in improving planetary health.

After all, the damage caused to the planet isn’t someone else’s responsibility; we are all in this together, and we are now facing the consequences together.

This is exactly why the upcoming consultations on the future of our healthcare system are so important.

The upcoming Healthcare White Paper is fundamental in ensuring that we can provide meaningful health outcomes in the decades to come.

This provides us with an opportunity to reinvest in services that are equitable, high quality, accessible, affordable and sustainable in the long term.

But beyond this, the reform process opens space for us to rethink our approach to health, redefine its parameters, and include in our considerations, the health of our environment and the impact its current state has on our health.

This may sound like a departure from what we understand as “health”, but we are not alone in seeing an urgent need for change, as the WHO is demonstrating.

Beyond this, the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) recognises the relationship between the health of the planet and our health.

There are solutions at hand, but we need to think for the long term and strategically.

We need to anticipate how we will manage the damage that has already been done and work to improve planetary health, while future-proofing our healthcare system, so that it is ready for the challenges that we will inevitably face as the full impact of the climate crisis hits us.

The future of health must be built on health systems that are resilient to the impacts of epidemics, pandemics and other emergencies, including extreme weather events and the increasing burden of various diseases related to air pollution and our warming planet.

As we work out how to do this – including through a thorough and inclusive consultative process - we must ensure that we are caring, first and foremost, for our most vulnerable and providing them with the health protection measures that they need.

Clearly, the government must lead this charge, and we are committed to doing so.

But this is also about partnership, which is why we are writing this call to action together.

As we prepare for World Health Day, let’s all take a moment to think about how the uncertainty that Covid-19 has caused has impacted us, then commit to doing our part to improve planetary health, and by extension, our own health outcomes as well.

Together, we can do this.

Khairy Jamaluddin is the Malaysian Health Minister and Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood is the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health executive director. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this article. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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