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Back to normal or on the way to a healthy future?

By Laura Jung*

For many of us, myself included, the last months brought about unexpected changes of plans, cancellation of opportunities and separation from friends and loved ones. Many have gotten sick and died, millions have lost their employment or still struggle under the double burden of managing care work alongside their jobs. It might therefore not be surprising that there is a joint call to finally return to normal. For many of us, back to normal means a back to how things were at the beginning of the year, back to work, back to travels, and back to meeting friends and family without worrying.

But is this “back to normal” what we really want or what we should aspire as a society? Is it really the way to ensure a healthy future for all of us? I am not saying that I, like many others, am not struggling with the situation as it currently is. I have had to cancel a clinical rotation overseas, a suitcase is waiting for me in a different country because I left in a hurry. Also, I am not able to be with my long-time partner because we don´t share the same nationality. I definitely don´t like it. But I don´t think a back to normal is the answer.

Our normal is one where we constantly outstretch the planetary boundaries. Earth overshoot day, the day of the year when our ecological footprint becomes greater than the global biocapacity is a bit earlier every year. In 2019, it was reached in early August. For High-Income countries like Germany, it is even earlier – this year it was at the beginning of May. This means that we are living in a normal where we exceed the natural capacities of the Earth by more than double.

It is a normal where we continue to reduce biodiversity to a point where ecosystems become unstable and the spread of disease becomes more likely. Research showed that transmission of disease from wildlife to humans has become more common due to the destruction of natural environment which are leading to wildlife and humans living in closer proximity. Additionally, animal species living in degraded habitats are more likely to carry zoonotic diseases, which have the ability to infect humans. This might contribute to creating pandemics like the one in which we are currently living. It is a normal were millions of people are die each year from breathing polluted air. The air pollution might additionally make our lungs more vulnerable to respiratory infections, like COVID-19. It is only now, when we have stopped most commercial production and a lot of vehicular transportation that we can finally see the blue sky in many places.

Farsighted philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, that true freedoms can only be reached within the boundaries set by nature. Going by her words, we should not be aiming for our pre-crisis normal, but moving forward towards a healthy and balanced normal within our planetary boundaries. Adapting a more holistic perspective of health, which includes our environment. Healthy people can only exist on a healthy planet. To keep ourselves alive, we need to care for the nature around us. If we do it well, we may find an increased in biodiversity, clean air, and balanced ecosystems, all of which will also heal us.

I don´t think our attitude towards planetary boundaries will change overnight. I also understand the concerns of people who need to get back to work, those of parents who want kindergartens and primary schools to re-open, those of everyone who just wants to move about to freely. I myself, am scared of the closed borders even within the European Union, the rise of nationalism in many countries and the blame game that some political leaders started.

But I would like to see more conversations of how our future should look like – other than the normal we know from previously. If we don´t want to get back to a world where episodes of natural disasters and infectious disease outbreaks become the new normal, we need to have these conversations. We can start by just asking how we would like our surroundings to be: our neighbourhood, our workspace, our connection to people. Health is more than just not being infected by a virus: it is about feeling physically and mentally well, it is about environments that allow us to live to our full potentials, and it is about sustainability and respecting the fragile ecosystems around us.

The conversation we need to have, is one, that includes everyone. However, we are not there yet. Last week, at the 73th sessions of the World Health Assembly, a global resolution on the Covid19- response was adopted. It set the ground for how we, as a global community, are going on with this threat to our health. When those decisions are made, everyone should have a seat on the table. But the reality is somewhat different. Only 23% of the 194 country delegations were led by women, and that lack of representation was more severe in some parts of the world (with less than 20% of female delegation leads in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Pacific Region). Excluding women from discussions about our present and future is a barrier to create a new normal that truly accommodates people and planet.

As we begin to think about Covid-19 recovery plans, we have to ask ourselves if we want just to get back to normal – or move forward into a more equal, more sustainable, healthier future. In a letter to the G20 leaders, health professionals from all over the world therefore call for placing health at the centre of all national recovery programs and promote a #healthyrecovery. How tomorrow looks like will be decided today – join us in the conversation and help to create a healthy future for all.


* Laura Jung has a background in Medicine and Public Health. She is interested in the intersection of climate, health and gender and advocates for a healthy and sustainable future.

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