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COVID-19 a planetary health issue, says expert

HPF caught up with public health physician and leading authority on planetary health and health promotion, Professor Anthony Capon to get his views on a wide range of issues including the link between environmental health and COVID-19

Professor Anthony Capon

Q: First of all we’d like to congratulate you on your appointment as Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI). You were Professor of Planetary Health in the School of Public Health at Sydney University for a number of years. What motivated you to take up this new role and can you tell us a bit about what it entails?

A: I was attracted to MSDI because it’s a leading academic institute focused on sustainable development, with more than 100 staff from a wide range of disciplines and a lively cohort of graduate research students.  MSDI was established more than 10 years ago and hosts the Australia, New Zealand and Pacific hub for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).  MSDI is different to conventional academic institutes because it is focused on impact.  We don’t just describe problems.  We work with partners on solutions.  It’s worth mentioning that as well as directing MSDI, I also hold a chair of planetary health in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash.

Q: You were one of the plenary speakers at the global health promotion conference in Rotorua last April where you spoke on Planetary Health: Promoting health in the Anthropocene. What were some of the highlights of the conference for you?

A: The IUHPE world conference is always a terrific event.  It’s a marvellous opportunity to connect with health promotion colleagues from around the world, to share experiences and learn together.  For me, the highlight of Waiora—the 23rd of these conferences—was the focus on indigenous knowledge in health promotion.  Planetary health may be a new concept in health promotion policy and research, however it is not a new concept for indigenous people.  For indigenous people the connections between human health and the health of country are central spiritual foundations and deeply embedded in cultural practices.  More generally, it was terrific that the conference organisers chose the theme of Promoting Planetary Health and Sustainable Development for All.  The nexus between health promotion and sustainable development warrants much greater attention in our health promotion programs.

Q: You spoke at the conference about how you hoped many would want to learn more about Maori understanding of health and wellbeing and broad indigenous understandings. Does your Ngāi Tahu (South Island) heritage give you more appreciation of this? Do you think enough is being done around the world to promote indigenous knowledge?

A: Certainly, it was a great privilege to grow up as a member of a Ngāi Tahu family in the Catlins.  I fondly recall my childhood on a sheep farm outside Owaka in south Otago.  My great grandmother, Mary Brown, imbued me with an enduring respect for Mother Nature which continues to guide my work and everyday practices.  New Zealand provides a really positive example for the world in valuing indigenous ways of knowing.  However, we definitely need to do more in this space, particularly in countries like Australia where I was raised and subsequently trained in health promotion.

Q: We all know countries like the UK, US and Japan are historically responsible for most of the greenhouse emissions in the world, but closer to home, Australia’s per capita carbon dioxide footprint is now one of the highest in the world. NZ’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by 2.2% in 2017 from the previous year. Do you think these countries are doing enough to reduce their CO2 emissions and if not what more can be done?

A: Indeed, all high income countries need to do more.  My current home country, Australia, in particular, must do more.  If all people in the world lived as Australians do, we would need five planets—not one, but five.  It is clearly not sustainable, nor fair.  As a wealthy country, Australia should also urgently transition from its reliance on coal for a large part of its export income.  In addition to health impacts of climate change, globally more than 400,000 premature deaths each year are attributable to the toxic pollution from coal burning.  As well as reducing our own carbon footprint, Australia, and other high income countries, should be supporting urgent transitions to healthy and sustainable development pathways in low and middle income countries.

Q: Looking at the way the world has been heading since the industrial revolutions one could be forgiven for thinking it’s all doom and gloom. But there is a rising consciousness and determination, evidenced by worldwide protests recently, to set the planet back on the right track. Does this wave of action, especially from younger generations, give you optimism for our future generations?

A: It is terrific to see young people speaking out about these important global environmental challenges.  Young people learn about these issues at school because it is now a core part of the curriculum.  Notably, many of our elected officials—often from an older generation—did not have the opportunity to learn about these issues at school and this may help to explain why sometimes they deny their importance.  Of course, vested interests in business as usual is also part of the problem.  While the urgency for action is clear, I do remain hopeful that we can come together and act in the interest of the wellbeing of future generations.  This is the core ambition of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Q:  You are one of the few public health physicians in Australia who trained in health promotion. Your message for health promoters is that there is a need to bring planetary consciousness to health promotion education, research, policy and practice. Please can you elaborate more on this, and give some examples of how health promoters can achieve this?

A: In health promotion, we know the importance of behavioural risk factors.  We also know the importance of health literacy and of social determinants of health.  However, we’ve seemingly forgotten that human health entirely depends on the health of natural systems.  Indigenous ways of knowing about health are relevant again here.  In health promotion, we need a paradigm shift to eco-social understandings of health—an integrative approach to health promotion that acknowledges ecological, economic and social foundations of health.  In essence, we need to be ‘conscious’ of the planetary in all of our work.

Q: Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is currently sweeping across the world.  Should planetary health understanding feature in our responses to this pandemic?

A: The bottom line is that the COVID-19 pandemic is a planetary health issue.  There is mounting research evidence that the emergence of infectious diseases (e.g. SARS, Ebola and Zika) is being enabled by environmental change, including changing climatic conditions, loss of biodiversity, urbanisation and ecosystem degradation. These environmental changes are providing new opportunities for contact between animals and people with potential for transmission of infectious agents.

In this context, while it is entirely appropriately that health systems are currently focused on provision of health care to patients and interventions to prevent human to human transmission (including social distancing and vaccine development), it’s also important we look upstream and invest in tackling the underlying causes of the problem through biodiversity conservation and stabilising the climate. This will help avoid transmission of diseases from animals to humans in the first place.