Planetary Health Campus Ambassador — A blog reflection from quarantine July 2020
Oisín Brady Bates, M.D | Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
As I retrospectively write this blog post from the depths of lockdown in Dublin, Ireland, Ireflect on the discrepancy between what I assumed the role of a planetary health campus ambassador would entail when I initially applied for this role compared to how it has over the past few months of pandemic, quarantine and lockdown.
When this role first began I endeavoured to undertake activities that aligned with my definition of what the word “ambassador” meant. An ambassador, in my mind, was someone who could deftly insert themselves into the fringe of the awareness of others; somebody who would campaign for a cause or principle through unobtrusive diplomacy. Through proactive engagement, an ambassador strives to gently aid others in mediating the bridge between the known and unknown.
The activities I initially undertook in my role as planetary health campus ambassador at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland reflected this perspective. I was fortunate that another campus ambassador was present at the same institution. Together we formulated a plan for the year that consisted of a number of dynamic and interactive activities — these activities were aimed at highlighting planetary health topics to the campus community in a way that was fun and engaging. Our first activity was to deliver an “Introduction to Planetary Health” talk on campus. We enlisted the aid of the Irish Doctors for the Environment (IDE) group in delivering this. We were delighted that a representative from IDE (Ola Løkken Nordrum)came and delivered a talk outlining the work of IDE in conjunction with us (fig. 1). The aim of this talk was to highlight not only the core concepts of planetary health but also to introduce those interested to the networks and opportunities for involvement that already existed beyond campus. In conjunction with this event we held a vegan bake sale.
This first event was met with a lot of encouraging enthusiasm from those in attendance and the open discussion facilitated by this in-person talk led to some promising connections being forged within the campus community. Our aim for the year had been to further develop this engagement with more interactive and social events, e.g. a vegan “come dine with me” event coordinated with staff and students at the University around Dublin and a “sustainability market”. However, this predicted emphasis on activities predicated on social engagement and interactivity obviously unraveled with the sudden and unexpected seismic shift in our daily lives that the COVID-19 pandemic provoked.
Reflecting on how expectation in this scenario did not ultimately line-up with reality serves as a useful meditation on life’s inherent entropy. To paraphrase Steinbeck; often our best-laid plans are built on shifting sands. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is a particularly stark example of the forces of cosmic chaos laying wreckage to predicted schedules and routine — the principles needed to adapt to life’s uncertainties, I believe, remain constant.
The manner in which my role as a planetary health ambassador has changed over the last few months has affirmed this. One of the key points of personal growth that I have taken from quarantine is adaptability in communication. The restriction on close physical proximity necessitated a new approach to discussion and social connection. Technology and online platforms for discourse have clearly been a significant boon in maintaining channels of communication, often facilitating a larger forum for discussion than perhaps would have been achieved in the context of a typical in-person meeting prior to quarantine. A significant positive from this increased emphasis and effort to connect online are the connections and lines of communication that I have opened with my fellow campus ambassadors around the world. Due to restrictions on physically being present within the campus environment, the scope of our ideas and ambitions for our roles have broadened to reflect the international context of the various other ambassadors.
It has been extremely encouraging and inspiring to meet such like-minded and motivated individuals. Our increased levels of communication have prompted some incredibly exciting collaborations. Not least of which is the “ABC planetary health children’s book” — with this project we aim to produce a children’s book that introduces topics of planetary health to children and perhaps serves as a resource to process the trauma of quarantine and lockdown through exploring their relationship with their environment and the natural world. As my experience to date has been primarily in the realm of clinical medicine and research, I have found it to be a deeply rewarding and enriching experience to navigate and aid in coordinating the steps necessary for a collaborative creative project.
Additionally, I have been organizing an international working group amongst academics and clinicians which aims to coordinate and promote the integration of planetary health topics into medical curriculum. This is a group which initially stemmed from my work on my own academic masters which explores the same topic. My role as a planetary health ambassador aligned neatly with the aims of this already established working group and has been instrumental in helping me form links and new connections between these two communities. In March 2020 I helped to facilitate an expert educator workshop attended by experienced educators in the realm of public health representing all the medical Universities in Ireland. This workshop aimed to explore the barriers and facilitators towards the integration of planetary health topics into medical curriculum and has prompted the formation of a new working group in Ireland the “Climate and Health In Medical Education” group (CHIME).
The cornerstone of all these experiences boils down to communication. This adaptability in personal connection, I believe, highlights a key skill in being an effective ambassador. In discussions of our social systems and the trajectory of the planet, we live in a time in which polarising tribalism and political anxiety pervade much of our discourse. We have become oversaturated with sensationalist and dread-inspiring news-stories. Particularly now in the midst of this global panic it is easy to become overwhelmed by the feeling that humanity is perpetually teetering on the brink of a catastrophic collapse. When initiating conversations about sustainability and planetary health with others it is understandable that these might get lost in the neurotic murk or be dismissed out of hand. As such, I believe that communicating with care, sensitivity and clarity is what is needed now more than ever. Pro-actively seeking a compassionate connection with others begets more of the same. It is this bedrock of compassion and connectivity that I believe underpins many of the principles of planetary health.
The other great positive I have gleaned from life in lockdown and which has helped me in my role as a planetary health ambassador is perhaps the most important. Academically engaging with the concepts of planetary health is one thing, but getting your fingers stuck in soil and nurturing a humble garden plot with care has certainly been just as enlightening (fig. 2).