A national planetary health strategy could help the 12th Malaysia Plan make lasting systemic change

As part of the 12th Malaysia Plan, we need to demonstrate responsible stewardship of the country's finite resources, such as the 130-million-year-old rainforest in the Royal Belum State Park in Perak. — Filepic/The Star

The 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) was launched in October 2021 with some fanfare – and with good reason. The plan marks a change in the government’s approach. It focuses on three key themes: resetting the economy; strengthening security, wellbeing and inclusivity; and advancing sustainability.

As we start to emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic we must move from plan to implementation to begin our recovery, but do so without causing further harm. This is not easy. We have been deprived of so many things for the last 18 months. Everyone is keen to “get back to normal”. But we need to look forward with our sights not just at our individual wellbeing but also on how we, as citizens, use what the 12MP plan provides to help us start to do things differently.

Planetary health, mentioned seven times in the plan, can boost the potential of the 12MP for lasting systemic change. The planetary health approach emphasises humanity coming together, assuming greater responsibility for our collective actions, working with a stress on equalising responsible access to and use of the finite resources our planet can offer us, underwritten by the need to act urgently.

One way to boost the potential of the 12MP to advance planetary health is for the government to develop a National Planetary Health Strategy. No other country in the world has done this yet – can we be the first? Often, national and sectoral plans and policies only focus on either human welfare or the environment – with one frequently being at the expense of the other. Malaysia’s National Planetary Health Strategy will show that both are vital, and that balance and harmony between the two can be achieved.

The comprehensive 12MP is a document some might find tough to digest. And a lot of the plan is about how our elected representatives and officials can help us to recover from the pandemic in a way that is safe and sustainable. The Planetary Health Strategy can act as the connector between this technical body of work and us, our health and the health of our country. It can answer the question “So what can I do?”

The strategy should lay out a series of principles underpinning the implementation of the 12MP. These should include:

> Emphasising the need for balance and harmony among this land, its non-human inhabitants, and us. We are currently way off.

> Demonstrating responsible stewardship of the finite resources the country possesses. The fact is we all consume far more than the country and the planet can produce. Fixing this isn’t impossible – we need to plan it out and rethink what’s important in our lives.

> Not reinventing the wheel. There’s a lot of good planning and policy work already but we need to get on and implement it; things like our now 11-year-old national climate change policy which says all the right things.

> Working across sectors. The pandemic has shown us that a health crisis is also an economic, social, and political issue. The same whole-of-society, whole-of-government approach must underpin the country’s approach to the climate crisis and its human health and social impacts.

> Getting our leaders to lead. Planetary health needs cross-government coordination and so the push for and commitment to a National Planetary Health Strategy must originate from the highest levels of government. Planetary health leadership must start with the Prime Minister. This can happen, as proven by the success of our national Covid-19 vaccination programme.

> Providing space to listen. The nature of governments in democracies is that they think in three-to-five-year chunks. The planetary health strategy needs to break this cycle and engage in longer-term thinking and ensure that the voices of those who are usually not listened to but most severely impacted by crises are heard.

> Underlining the importance of doing no harm. We need to make sure that our rush for innovative answers that solve social problems or enhance provision of services to the people does not create new harms, especially to human health and the environment.

> Practicing good governance – an area that demands attention in public and private sectors.

> And, finally, recognising that it’s not just about Malaysia – that this piece of land we call home is connected to other pieces of land that others call home. Through nature, we are all connected with each other and need to ensure that our plans support planetary health globally.

My sense is that most of us can relates to these principles and they can provide part of the answer to the question “What can I do?” as we watch the world burning, drowning, coughing and being buried in plastic.

I will be pushing hard, through the Malaysia Climate Action Council, that such a strategy is drawn up. But it’ll only be of value if we can generate a movement that will help us to monitor and implement it. I hope you will be willing to engage.

Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a physician and experienced crisis leader, was appointed the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in August 2021. She is the founder of aid organisation Mercy Malaysia and has served in leadership roles internationally with the United Nations and Red Cross for the last decade.

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