"Many historians say we haven't seen the type of changes happening currently in the last 11,000 years; that we are now entering a new geological epoch where the physical, chemical, and biological changes are unprecedented. The IPCC reports clearly have laid out the criticality of issues we are facing. Never before has human and planetary health been so deeply interconnected like this," said Minal Pathak, Associate Professor, Global Centre for Environment and Energy, Ahmedabad University, Senior Scientist on the Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and a drafting author on several critical IPCC reports.
Professor Pathak, along with Dileep Mavalankar, Director, Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar, and Indu Bhushan, Founding CEO, Ayushman Bharat, and Chairperson, Partnerships for Impact (P4i), was part of a panel discussion on Human and Planetary Health at the launch of Ahmedabad University's School of Public Health.
Vice Chancellor Pankaj Chandra, who was moderating the discussion, initiated the conversation around the interconnectedness of human and planetary health, asking why it was highly critical to understand this connection. Mr Indu Bhushan spoke about 'one health' for humans, animals, and the planet. "When we look at public health, we have some important things to look at – empirical data, the five elements of nature, climate change, change in biodiversity, and mental health, each of which is interconnected. We have to look at the known-knowns and the known-unknowns."
Talking about the Black Plague, Professor Mavalankar said, "During those pandemics, we were lucky to have a planet where humans and animals and all species could evolve with the temperature, with the water, with the environment, with the soil. Now, we have a footprint that is affecting this big planet. That is where this new science of planetary health is crucial. If we look at water resources, just six months back, in my place, we had a 400-foot tube well that lasted us ten years. Planetary health has various dimensions. Even animals, for example, dogs, are becoming more vicious. Things are changing rapidly and affecting life. You can also observe secondary effects on food production."
Talking about solutions, Professor Pathak said, "We've come to 8 billion people, and we've just found a way to dominate all the other species on the planet. The IPCC report shows that the future doesn't look great if we continue business as usual. Solutions include looking after nature and stewardship of ecosystems. If we look at changing diets, many people are fascinated with olives from Spain and chocolate from Switzerland. You will be surprised at how many affluent households are importing food. But a lot of our food comes from miles away, and there is a direct linkage between what is on the plate and where it comes from and not just the emissions associated with that but also the water and the land footprint of food. The other areas are clean energy, deforestation, industrial development, forecasting, and more. We must focus our actions on the intersection of the environment with other social factors. We have to develop a lot of people. It's too many simultaneous equations to solve."
Underpinning information and data, especially very precise local information, as one of the key challenges as well as solutions, Professor Chandra asked Mr Bhushan to talk about his work in implementing Ayushman Bharat and how institutions like Ahmedabad University could play a role. Mr Bhushan said, "I truly believe that digital health and everything happening in the digital space can change the whole narrative. We could do this during the Covid period very effectively. We used it to identify problems, offer interventions, and monitor what was happening. With private educational institutions like yours, the Government could do with help in understanding the data better. In addition to Ayushman Bharat, I also started the National Digital Health Mission, which creates digital health infrastructure. The idea is to provide an ID to each provider from the hospital and try to link those with their electronic medical records and information sharing privately and securely. Here, the public-private sector, especially startups, play a big role in creating applications for personal health records."
Professor Mavalankar highlighted that one of the blind spots in Indian public health and sciences was environmental health and that there was an urgent need for interdisciplinary training and education in these critical fields. He said, "We have the immunisation programme, which is one of the best in the world, and we have the family planning programme, which we initiated in the world, and we have more examples – the eradication of polio, smallpox, and guinea worm. But environmental health? 1.4 million people are dying worldwide from air pollution. But India hardly has environmental epidemiologists who can calculate how many people are dying in Ahmedabad and Delhi. We need education; programmes in environmental health training, environmental engineering, environmental science, and public health."