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Planetary health matters: reflections from my maternity lockdown

By Dr Sabine Baunach, International Health Consultant

Blogs of friends and colleagues, female leaders in Planetary Health, inspired me to share my view on the current situation in the mid of two global emergencies raging over our heads. While some of my friends are locked down in Georgia, China, the Netherlands and elsewhere with different points of viewing the Corona pandemic and the Planetary Health emergency, I am stranded in the German country side and blessed with the joy and adventure of caring for my 3-month-old baby.

If not locked down by maternity leave or a pandemic, I work as International Health Consultant. Trained as a medical doctor with a focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, I have spent the last decade responding to global emergencies-my specialty: family planning and abortion care in crisis hit countries such as Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. I am lucky enough to live in a country with an amazing health care system. Where maternity leave gives me the opportunity to dedicate my time to my son during the first year of his life. What a gift!

I have witnessed first-hand the climate impact on people’s health and well-being. I have worked with pregnant women struggling to feed her children in war-torn Somalia fighting prolonged drought and recurring famine. I have also worked with Sudanese refugees in Chad, where the climate crisis is triggering armed conflict over scarce natural resources. I have worked with Syrian refugees in Turkey fleeing an ongoing war triggered by what? The climate crisis! The pattern is obvious and cannot be denied.

Realizing that everything is interrelated, that people can only live healthy on a healthy planet and that the most urgent issue for the 21st century is the planetary emergency, I shifted my career’s focus to Planetary Health.

But don’t get me wrong, I believe strongly in reproductive health and the right of each woman and girl to decide on her own body, have the number of children she desires, and have access to health care regardless of the situation she lives in. By the way, I do believe that modern contraception is a human right. Providing 200 million women who have globally an unmet need for contraception with the method of their choice would be tremendously important for their individual lives but also for the health of our planet (but this is food for another blog).

But being a medical doctor whose heart beats (or should I say ‘drums’?) for planetary health. I hear the daily calling, the alarm that rings to fight climate change, environmental degradation and species extinction with an unprecedented urgency.

My heart’s drumming combined with an extra load of parental worries and concerns for my child’s future gives me sleepless nights. Suddenly, the future has a face. There is the face of my little boy within the crowd of future generations, who have hopes and dreams and equitable rights to live on a healthy planet. I see my son along with his generation fighting against the mess we leave behind. I can hardly stand that image.

These days, my professional life is under maternity lockdown. Beside of nursing my baby, changing nappies and singing lullabies, I try to stay involved in the current debate around Corona and the climate emergency. Sucking in the daily flood of news makes me anxious that, beside of COVID19, there is a planetary health emergency raging above us which comes with an imperative to act, but we are not doing more.

Globally human action is on hold, life around me slows down and gives me time to reflect: I observe less aviation travel in the sky, I see empty roads, I see people with ample amount of time taking walks, spending more time with their kids, appreciating outside activities and enjoying nature. I see more birds and insects, breath cleaner air.

I see nature reviving.

Is this the foretaste of what life could look, taste, feel like if we would address the climate emergency with the urgency it would require?

Of the key challenges defined by researchers for the field of Planetary Health, the imagination challenge (beside of the knowledge and implementation challenge) describes our struggle to imagine or rethink our relationship with nature, such as prioritizing gross domestic product as the greatest value and failure to account for future health over present day gains.

While being on lockdown, the impact of our common action in response to COVID19 gives me hope: Isn’t the current situation teaching us an important lesson? Will we be able to see that our common action can have an impact? Will we eventually realize that healthy people can only live on a healthy planet? And that it is our responsibility to treat the planetary emergency with the same urgency as the corona pandemic (#FightEveryChrisis). Will Corona help us to overcome the imagination challenge for planetary health?

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