From Global to Local: Planetary Health as the Solution to Australia’s bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic
by Tassia Oswald, PhD Candidate in the School of Public Health, University of Adelaide, Australia.
I think it is fair to say that 2020 has not turned out to be what anyone had hoped for or expected. I remember being woken by the smell of smoke in my bedroom on my last day of work before Christmas break, my best friend sending me photos of smoke plumes billowing from behind her home. My commute into work that day was one I will never forget, filled with smoky coughs, stinging eyes, and a collective ‘apocalyptic’ feeling.
Entering the roaring ‘20s’ ablaze with roaring bushfires
Australia was set to enter the roaring 20s ablaze with roaring bushfires. Communities already stretched thin by ongoing droughts were about to face a catastrophic summer, with no other disaster in living memory creating such profound destruction to Australian landscape and wildlife. By the end of this Black Summer, over 18 million hectares* of land would be burnt and stripped of life. For reference, that’s bigger than the size of entire countries like Singapore, Belgium, Ireland, and Malaysia.
Growing up in Australia I have always been acutely aware of the threat bushfires pose. But never before had I heard the term ‘megafire’: fires so big that they create their own weather conditions and grow vastly beyond human control. As we collectively watched fires around the country creep closer and closer to one another on real-time websites, with communities forced to flee their homes in fire-surrounded towns by boat, it was difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the devastation.
Beyond the immediate threat the bushfires posed, my mind constantly darted between thoughts of issues that would continue long after the fires became a memory of the past. Environmental issues like biodiversity loss, wildlife recovery, global warming, and air pollution, as well as their undeniable links with public health issues such as respiratory illnesses, psychological distress, and the exacerbation of health and economic inequities experienced by people living in rural areas. The bushfires were a time that opened many Australians’ eyes to the interconnectedness of all forms of life, and the concept of ‘Planetary Health’ in Australia somewhat rose out of the ashes.
Acts of kindness, from local support to global connection
Amid feelings of helplessness, I was inspired by so many acts of kindness towards Australia’s plight. Through the power of social media, those hit hardest by the bushfires, such as fire-affected communities, small businesses, and tourism-reliant areas, were provided with much needed attention and financial support on Instagram pages like @spendwiththem and @staywiththemau, which encouraged people to shop and holiday locally. Many Australians (who are notoriously known to be international jet-setters) opted to travel ‘in their own backyard’ in support of these communities. All summer-long I bought my friends’ birthday gifts from a collection of quirky rural and regional businesses, which I never would have known about before, rather than large corporations. In supporting our local communities, we were also inadvertently reducing our carbon footprint and helping the planet at the same time.
A good friend I met during a student exchange program to Italy in my teenage years reached out and asked where she could donate and how she could help in the bushfire relief. Her kindness reminded me that although far apart, everything we do and experience impacts humanity and the planet collectively. I never expected that in just a couple of months’ time I would be returning the favour as Italy’s healthcare system became crippled by a new virus. I never expected that masks protecting Australians from smoke inhalation would soon be used to protect us from an invisible threat, which spread without the medium of dry gum trees.
Just as the smoke had cleared….
While the smoke had cleared, the burn of a Black Summer was palpable in Australia and efforts for recovery, regrowth, and rebuilding had barely begun when the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. I looked on in disbelief and wondered when 2020 would catch a break. As we collectively watched COVID-19 cases around the world creep higher and higher on real-time websites, with humanity forced to stay home and stay apart, it was difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the pandemic.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, I worked from home for approximately 10 weeks. With little else to do, I found myself making the most of my local greenspaces, and walking around my neighbourhood became a great way to boost my mental wellbeing. It seemed as though many people in my area felt the same.
When art reflects life…
During my walks, I began photographing a series of painted ‘stobie’ poles. The paintings really resonated with me, from the clear message that “There is No Planet B”, to highlighting the health benefits of connecting with nature (which is what my PhD is all about!). A variety of Australian flora and fauna were also featured — many of which were threatened by the bushfires. A particular Aboriginal painting made me think of Indigenous Australians’ “connection to country” and the way in which they sustainably lived with the land for tens of thousands of years. I often thought of the Australians who couldn’t work from home because they had just lost their homes and businesses in the bushfires, or those who couldn’t walk through nature given their towns had been charred by megafires. My COVID-19 walks are times I won’t forget, stifled elbow coughs, kind eyes greeting isolated neighbours, and a collective ‘apocalyptic’ feeling.
A glimmer of tangible hope (and jellyfish)…
With no intention of dismissing the suffering and destruction COVID-19 has caused, I found myself quietly revelling in the temporary respite that global lockdowns had afforded nature. Instances of short-term environmental reclamation, such as cleared air and waterways, along with the return of some animals to formerly abandoned spaces, gave me a glimmer of tangible hope that human-induced changes to natural systems could be improved, and that we could envision a sustainable recovery and future in a post-COVID-19 world. Like the bushfires, COVID-19 has opened many peoples’ eyes to the interconnectedness of all forms of life. A time in which humanity has been forced to realise that the consequences of disturbing planetary systems renders us all vulnerable to new infectious diseases. While COVID-19 does not discriminate, our levels of wealth and privilege do dictate our susceptibility and health outcomes, once again highlighting and exacerbating health and economic inequities experienced by vulnerable people and minority groups.
Responding to crises vs. preventing crises
Overall, Australia’s leadership and preventative actions mobilised against the virus, along with general community compliance, has resulted in our nation being relatively unscathed in terms of transmission and death rates. While this acute response to COVID-19 in Australia has been impressive, it has prompted me to wonder why such efforts are not put in to preventing the creation of environments that facilitate the emergence of new infectious diseases and devastating Black Summers. Why do we not place greater and more urgent investment in reducing climate change, protecting biodiversity, and engaging in sustainable land use?
At home, but not alone
While I pondered these questions in isolation (alongside a newly adopted kitten), it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone and that a whole community of like-minded people around the globe were also doing so. I was very fortunate to be able to tap into this unique community through the Planetary Health Alliance Campus Ambassador (PHCA) Program. The first webinar we had all together was a true highlight, featuring young people and accents from across the globe, and I left feeling incredibly inspired and rejuvenated. The program called for passionate students to spread awareness about and promote Planetary Health on their university campuses through a variety of advocacy, educational, and networking events. Given that the program commenced before COVID-19 existed, I had been working towards planning, or participating in, a variety of events focusing on Planetary Health on my campus and in the wider community.
In my role as a PHCA at the University of Adelaide, I joined a planning committee for a local research group (Robinson Research Institute) that wanted to apply a Planetary Health lens to their research in fertility, reproductive, and maternal health. This area of research interests me greatly given eco-anxiety is affecting young peoples’ decisions around having children. While planning had commenced and a venue was secured for the networking days, this event has been postponed to next year as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
More in-line with my area of expertise, I had prepared a presentation about the psychological benefits of spending time in nature for children and adolescents for an event being run through Healthy Development Adelaide, a collaborative partnership of South Australian organisations. A series of researchers were going to be presenting their work on the topic of nature and childhood health, and the organiser of the event had secured the Minister for the Environment for an address. Once again, this event has been postponed until next year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
As Treasurer for the South Australian branch of the Public Health Association of Australia, I had conversations with other executive committee members about running an event to shed light on the mental health impacts of the recent bushfires. I had also hoped to collaborate with the University of Adelaide’s sustainability engagement program ‘Ecoversity,’ but with students off campus for the majority of the semester, this collaboration was no longer feasible.
As we could no longer be on campus, the pandemic significantly disrupted my activities as a PHCA. While this was disappointing, the current state of the world significantly increased my understanding of and amplified my passion for Planetary Health. The need to advocate for Planetary Health is now greater than ever. The inability to advocate for Planetary Health on campus has been met with the opportunity to do so more widely, reaching individuals online from communities beyond my university, city, or state. In moving all of my efforts online, I established the Australian Planetary Health Network (Twitter: aus_phnetwork), which aims to create awareness of Planetary Health in Australia through education, advocacy, and collaboration. In the second half of 2020, I will be organising a series of webinars which highlight Planetary Health topics and experts across Australia (now that we are all Zoom experts!). I am especially looking forward to organising one of these webinars with a fellow Australian PHCA who is involved with Doctors for the Environment in Canberra. I am also really excited to be working on a children’s storybook about Planetary Health in a COVID-19 world, led by PHCAs from Canada.
Some parting words…
Amidst the chaos of 2020, my passion for Planetary Health has grown and I am ever thankful for the exciting, productive, and meaningful distraction being a PHCA has afforded me. I’m looking forward to this next chapter of advocacy and connection with an inspiring global group of Next Gen leaders in Planetary Health. In the meantime, in light of my cancelled trip to Peru, I am keenly planning a slow travel trip through Eastern Australia, where (when safe) I hope to stay in as many bushfire affected towns as possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has been such an overwhelming experience that I often hear people remark “Can you believe the bushfires were actually this year?!” We mustn’t forget those who bore the brunt of both tragedies, for it is these communities whose insight into our environmental systems may help to create a planet which is more resilient against future pandemics.
* It is difficult to quantify the extent of the 2019/2020 bushfires. This source was accessed on 19/07/2020: https://theconversation.com/summer-bushfires-how-are-the-plant-and-animal-survivors-6-months-on-we-mapped-their-recovery-142551