Home | Opinion | Natural disasters, global pandemic places planetary health on centre stage: opinion

Natural disasters, global pandemic places planetary health on centre stage: opinion

At the beginning of 2020, no one could have predicted that within six months people around the world would be breathing cleaner air, carbon emissions would decline, people would reach out to help neighbours they once barely knew, and we would dramatically transform our usual lives – all out of concern for our own and others’ health.

With the start of the year focusing on massive bushfires that merged into a single fire front across much of southeast Australia, the devastation of our ecosystem was captured around the world through distressing images of rescuers removing wounded koalas from burned landscapes, and holiday-makers evacuating smoky beaches by ship.

Subsequent rain and floods drenched the land, but they did not reach the long-term drought-affected locations that needed water most. 

Worldwide support for Australia came from unlikely sources, including our Pacific neighbours who collected money from residents with little money to spare, and who sent their own emergency workers.

Coping with natural disasters and rebuilding communities may be a regular part of life across much of the developing world, but the first part of 2020 was a shock to many Australians troubled by thoughts this was becoming an increasing occurrence in our own wealthy country.

When the COVID-19 pandemic added to the social and economic magnitude of Australia’s natural disasters, Victoria University made a swift whole-of-university commitment to the growing international movement of ‘planetary health’.

What is it and why is it important to VU?

The concept of planetary health has been used in health and environmental sustainability discourse since at least the 1980s when researchers began to acknowledge and prove that environmental and human health are closely linked.

In recent years, it has emerged as a distinct field of transdisciplinary academic endeavour, with courses and research developing around the world in areas that extend to community development, engineering, economics and business. 

The United Nations Development Program recognises that the health of the planet is critical for it to achieve its global sustainable development goals that are related to health and wellbeing, access to energy, and climate action.

Victoria University has applied to join the international Planetary Health Alliance of higher education and research organisations, taking a place-based approach to planetary health that focuses on issues and solutions in VU’s local context. VU’s heartland has long been the west of Melbourne, so this means collaborating with the region’s industries and organisations to shape healthier, smarter and more sustainable communities through local projects, activities and research – that can also be shared globally.

This includes a $1m planetary health research program which identified 25 practical projects that Victoria University researchers have embarked on, ranging from how tourism destinations can become more resilient to natural disasters, to ways eco-bricks can be made from disposable coffee cups, to key factors that support international students’ wellbeing.

Graduate Certificate in Planetary Health

Alongside this research, Victoria University has developed a unique six-month online Graduate Certificate in Planetary Health, designed to meet the demand for innovative solutions to current and emerging issues.

The global pause created by the COVID-19 crisis provides Australia with a rare opportunity for businesses, government and other organisations – as well as individuals – to develop roles or pivot careers that can focus on new approaches for planetary health action and change.

This Australian-first course will develop and build new convergences drawing upon fields including environmental science, public health, education, community development, economics, communications, community psychology, disaster management, and aligning with Aboriginal knowledges.

Graduates could very well take up exciting roles that may not yet exist and emerge in the near future, but they will also be prepared for existing jobs as procurement and sustainability officers, health and community workers, or researchers.

Join a free webinar on 2 July to learn more about Victoria University’s Graduate Certificate in Planetary Health. www.vu.edu.au/planetary-health-webinar.

Associate Professor Jeannie Rea is course chair, Graduate Certificate in Planetary Health, Victoria University.

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