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Our Pandemic and Our Planet

A letter from the co-director of the Urban Health Collaborative

Posted on April 2, 2020
Woman walking in a park

By: Gina Lovasi, PhD, MPH
Dornsife Associate Professor of Urban Health
Co-Director of the Urban Health Collaborative 

A joint understanding of how our actions affect our planet and our health is a key premise behind the mission of SALURBAL and other related projects at the Urban Health Collaborative (UHC). Understanding how the health of the public and our planet are intertwined can help identify win-win situations. For example, longer commute times have implications for fuel consumption and associated emissions, as well as for health outcomes such as depression. Actions that the transportation, housing, and urban planning sectors take can all potentially curtail commute times, resulting in planetary and health co-benefits.

How does the current COVID 19 pandemic fit into our understanding? 

We find ourselves in a time of rapid change. Travel and daily movement patterns are shifting dramatically in the short term as countries, states, and cities move to reduce the speed of coronavirus transmission. As flights and commutes get cancelled, are our actions to protect health also protecting the planet? I would argue that they could, but that will depend on what behavior changes are sustained across the long-term.

Questioning our frequent flying habits

The idea that our society could curtail our carbon footprint through flying less is not a new idea emerging from the current pandemic.  The SALURBAL team has itself questioned and adjusted the frequency of face to face meetings in light of the financial costs and environmental impact. However, the widespread cancelation of conferences and restriction of travel puts the idea of limiting travel to the test.  Crucially, there are livelihoods connected to travel, hospitality, and event planning that are threatened by the abruptness of this shift.

However, in reducing travel we also stand to lose opportunities for personal connection, group interaction, and insights into how urban environments shape our lives that are challenging to cultivate and maintain through remote connection alone.  Our group has been investing in ways of remotely seeing and systematically assessing variation in urban environments, but we have noted that the availability of stored imagery varies spatially, creating blindspots. 

"We suddenly are attentive to the communicable disease vulnerability that travel creates despite our best efforts at social distancing."

Yet from this experience we stand to gain insight about the value of travel for our activities within the field of urban health. Are all of our professional trips necessary? Many of us struggle with the decision to travel for conferences and meetings, thinking about what else we could do with the money and time allocated. Now, along with these opportunity costs we suddenly are attentive to the communicable disease vulnerability that travel creates despite our best efforts at social distancing. This moment may create space to re-evaluate what is essential or of sufficiently high value to warrant travel, and what can be adjusted to be online or less frequent. Perhaps smaller events or events with pre-travel virtual sessions will emerge as the new normal to maximize the benefits from occasional travel. If travel becomes something to indulge in infrequently, we may make a difference in flight-related emissions that endures beyond the current crisis.

Wondering where we should work

The economic impact of the current pandemic will reflect not only losses of life and productivity due to COVID 19, but also due to actions by government agencies and institutions.  Among these actions have been school closures and telework allowances that have changed our daily lives. 

Telework has a lot of potential advantages and conveniences, both for individuals and for the planet. Numerous studies support the positive association between telework and increased productivity. There is a myriad of factors that might be contributing to this positive relationship including: some workers simply put in more hours since they are no longer using valuable time to commute, lack of distractions typically found in office environments, and working from home provides a relatively high level of discretion over the conditions under which work is completed. Easing restrictions on telework and creating a culture that includes telework as a normal feature of work life could potentially create more inclusionary practices for individuals with disabilities, especially those with invisible disabilities.

Working from home has been an accommodation long used by individuals with disabilities needing adjustments to workplace environments. The recent pandemic has only brought to light working from home to a larger audience. This new telework audience might be experiencing some of the potential negatives to telework since they are new to not being in their typical environments. There is extensive empirical evidence that telework may lead to social and professional isolation. As social beings, many of us may struggle to maintain focus, feel accountable, and support each other without face to face workplace contact.

"Flexibility to work remotely has the potential to lead to a long-term reduction in private vehicle dependence and stressful commutes."

Yet, if our time management skills, communication systems, and self-care routines can be developed to serve us in this time of concern, they can perhaps sustain us in having flexible working arrangements.  Flexibility to work remotely has the potential to lead to a long-term reduction in private vehicle dependence and stressful commutes. Flexibility to study remotely may also improve equitable access to excellent education and could even counter school-related residential selection processes that reinforce residential segregation.

Resources and resourcefulness

Current efforts curtailing mobility have the potential to benefit the health of the public and planet alike, but that benefit may be overshadowed by the economic impacts which are still unfolding. In addition to the devastating impact on many workers and their families, investments in the public and private sector toward cleaner energy and a healthier lifestyle may be stalled for lack of financial resources.

Yet, as we have learned through our community-based systems dynamics workshops, policy-makers and researchers are open to looking at problems in new ways. This may prove to be a moment to re-focus on what we value and what we as a globalized society are trying to collectively achieve; perhaps the answer will be planetary health.

Posted in Urban Health, Social Environment, localnews, Health Promotion, Governance, Public Policies