Interdependence — this is how the world works. It’s how ecosystems work. And ecosystems are important: Our species’ existence and wellbeing evolved from, and depend on, healthy ecosystems. A new report from Harvard's Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source points to the model of interdependence to prevent pandemics. That concept of interdependence is how Health In Harmony, the organization we lead, approaches its work.
Our practice of comprehending and operationalizing global human health and the conservation of nature as one and the same is a new framework for addressing, and potentially solving, not just pandemic risk but also several of humanity’s interdependent grand challenges.
Report co-author, Dr. Aaron Bernstein, rightly calls out the prevailing myopic approach to pandemic prevention, saying about the report findings, “Almost all attention and financing to address new disease outbreaks has gone to actions that contain but do not prevent them.” But the real breakthrough captured in this new report is in the optimism it displays for the adoption of a win-win, intersectional mindset when confronting the grand challenges of poverty, a climate crisis, mass extinction and pandemic risk. “Critically,” in Dr. Bernstein’s words, “the task force found that investments in spillover prevention confer multiple wins. As the most prominent example, protecting tropical forests protects the climate and our health, which is critical given the dire findings of last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report."
Operationalizing interdependence is as innovative as it is natural. To help reverse rainforest loss in Indonesian Borneo, Madagascar and Brazil, we are guided by the experts — the local and indigenous rainforest people themselves. Based on our Radical Listening methodology, we catalyze the transfer of global wealth from middle- and high-income countries into the innovative systems that communities themselves design which — when implemented — will allow them to live in balance with their rainforests.
Protecting tropical rainforests decreases the probability of pathogen spillover and draws down carbon dioxide — the primary culprit for global heating — from Earth’s atmosphere, lowering global temperatures. The rainforest communities in whose wisdom and science we invest do that by improving their health care access and the job options available to them. Doing so lowers their infant and maternal mortality and allows their families to make more money doing safer, better-paid, environmentally friendlier jobs, rather than being forced to log or mine local rainforest for the cash they need to survive. In short, they keep Earth’s rainforests intact. Intact forests reduce global pandemic risk and drastically decrease the national health care expenditures of citizens and governments from Brazil to Japan, because everyone’s air is cooler and less polluted, leading to healthier global citizens.
In Indonesian Borneo, for example, locally designed solutions to thwart the complex drivers of forest degradation halted rampant logging in a massive, climate-critical tropical rainforest — a lung of the planet — while simultaneously improving community health, alleviating poverty, and keeping $65.3 million worth of carbon dioxide from entering and heating Earth’s atmosphere. To stop logging, the community concluded that access to affordable quality health care and training in organic farming and small-business management were necessary. Our organization built a medical center staffed by Indonesians and facilitated training with expert organic farmers from the neighboring island of Java. Villages received discounts on their health care based on changes in their rates of logging — monitored by forest guardians — and everyone could access care with non-cash payment options like rain forest seedlings used for reforestation.
This model is working. The peer-reviewed 10-year impact of this program revealed that the $5.2 million investment Health In Harmony made in community-designed solutions between 2007-2017 facilitated a 90 percent reduction in the number of households reliant on logging for their livelihood, and contributed to a 67 percent decrease in infant mortality in the population of 120,000 people serviced by the program’s medical center. There were also significant declines in diagnosed cases of malaria, tuberculosis, neglected tropical diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes.
That’s a win-win no matter how you cut it. It’s a win for the rainforest community and biodiversity, for the probability of lowered pathogen spillover, for the critical prevention of carbon dioxide emissions and for the health of all people no matter where on Earth we live. And it provides a promising roadmap for how to prevent future pandemics, address the climate crisis and tackle poverty at the same time.
To follow this roadmap, we must:
Expand how we comprehend human health. The theory and practice of global health should cease to be so narrowly focused on disease burden in the individuals and populations of only one species (humans) and expand to encompass our interdependence with nature.
Combine global health and environmental conservation. Policymakers and practitioners of global health and conservation alike should combine forces and unite to execute systems-oriented interventions, guided by the basic ecological fact that the health of humans and our civilization depends on the health of nature and vice-versa.
The challenges are interdependent and so are the solutions. Our public policies must move beyond silos and address these challenges as the interdependent issues they are.
Jonathan Jennings is the executive director of Health in Harmony. Dr. Kinari Webb is the founder of Health in Harmony.