- The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need for a broader discussion on One Health, an interdisciplinary approach stressing connections between human, animal and environmental health, even as scientists dig deeper to pinpoint the likely animal origin of the disease.
- Talking to Mongabay-India, K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), discusses the urgent need to begin multi-disciplinary consultations, multi-sectoral action and nipping xenophobic rumours associated with COVID-19 in the bud.
- Reddy believes post-COVID-19 community engagement should be strengthened to make social mobilisation the backbone of India’s health system as well as climate action.
They say that the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need for a broader discussion on One Health – an interdisciplinary approach stressing connections between human, animal and environmental health, even as scientists dig deeper to pinpoint the likely animal origin of the disease.
Panic around COVID-19 spread has also reignited racism and xenophobia around food practices. E. Tendayi Achiume, the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, said governments must ensure that their response to the COVID-19 pandemic does not contribute to xenophobia and racial discrimination and that they must eradicate xenophobia throughout all state policies and messaging.
Talking to Mongabay-India, K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), discussed the urgent need to begin multi-disciplinary consultations and multi-sectoral action and nipping xenophobic rumours associated with COVID-19 in the bud.
Reddy is a member of a government-established high-level technical committee of public health experts for COVID-19 to guide the prevention and control activities. He is the co-author of the 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health report. Under his leadership, PHFI has established five Indian Institutes of Public Health (IIPHs) in different regions of India, to advance multi-disciplinary public health education, research and implementation support for strengthening health systems. He holds advisory positions in several national and international bodies and recently published a book Make Health in India: Reaching A Billion Plus.
Can the COVID-19 pandemic shape dialogues around One Health, especially in India and South Asia?
One Health links the health and disease of wildlife, captive-bred or free-living veterinary population and human communities as a continuum. We have, in the past viewed human infections as a battle between microbes and human beings, without recognising our folly in building conveyor belts for transmission of microbes from wildlife, veterinary populations, and human habitat. Since South Asia has been experiencing frequent zoonotic outbreaks, even if some of them arose in other countries, we need to pay greater attention to One Health. We need to begin multi-disciplinary consultations and multi-sectoral action with great urgency.
From an environmental health perspective, can preparedness for climate change (building climate resilience) also aid local governments in responding to such infectious disease outbreaks efficiently?
Certainly. Actions that were taken to curb deforestation and slow down climate change – whether for agriculture, mining or housing construction -will help to limit viral transmission and prevent cross-species spillover. That will also put the brakes on zoonotic infections. The switchover to predominantly plant-based diets (in the global context) will also help with both objectives. Livestock breeding, especially when done on an industrial scale through factory farming, will require deforestation for grain-fed animals. Those cattle also produce large amounts of methane. Deforestation releases viruses and vectors into human habitat. Poultry farming too provides a closely packed animal population for multiplication and mutation. Animal foods are also associated with a variety of adverse health effects, carrying the risk of heart disease, cancers, and diabetes.
Read more on the role of dietary diversity in planetary health
What is the one rumour on COVID-19 that you would like to debunk?
The xenophobic rumour that COVID-19 arose because Chinese eat bats. We know that Nipah outbreak arose in India because of fruit contaminated by bats, not because humans ate bats. We must not target ethnic groups and create prejudice.
Read more on the Nipah virus infection in Kerala
Which communities will be hit the hardest?
The poor will be hit the hardest; because of the crowded conditions they live in and the nature of their livelihoods which forces them to work in crowded areas such as mandis and construction sites. They also have to use packed public transport like buses or trucks. Women too are very vulnerable because they often do marketing and are mostly in the informal workforce. They also are the usual caregivers for sick family members and hence vulnerable to acquire infection. The disabled, homeless and elderly are the other vulnerable groups.
In a post-COVID-19 scenario, what policy shifts in public health do you envisage for India?
I expect greater attention to public health, especially a stronger emphasis on surveillance and early community-based prevention. I hope primary health care services will be strengthened, along with district and medical college hospitals. I would like to see health workforce expansion, in all categories. I believe community engagement too should be strengthened to make social mobilisation the backbone of India’s health system as well as climate action.