Figuring Forward

Health And Happiness In A Post Pandemic World

Guys, I’ve made it! I was on a podcast! Well, sort of. A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour of being in an audience of 20 people for The Doctor’s Kitchen’s first ever live podcast. The Doctor’s Kitchen is the project of Dr. Rupy Aujla, an NHS doctor and one of the world’s leading experts in culinary medicine and functional health. I’ve been an avid fan of his podcast and books for years. He is one of the most informative and insightful voices in the health and wellbeing space today. This live discussion was a fascinating deep dive into the opportunities for growth post pandemic, and how to cultivate communities which allow health to thrive. And I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Rupy for his thoughts on what health and happiness in a post pandemic world might look like. As we set our sights on lifting lockdown, these are topics that are frequently on my mind. Because frankly, the thought of Boris and co blundering their way through it is terrifying. And I know that we can do better. 

The determinants of health

So much of the prevailing narrative around health and happiness focuses on change at an individual level. Which is frustrating, at best. Dan Buettner is the National Geographic Fellow who discovered the world’s five Blue Zones – where people live the longest and healthiest lives on Earth. What he found is that it’s the environment they live in which dictates the lifestyle of the world’s healthiest people. They don’t TRY to be healthy – their environment, culture and society are set up to facilitate their health, happiness and wellbeing. Zooming out from individual responsibility, the key determinants of health are at an environmental, cultural, societal, political and economic level. As we navigate the trauma caused by COVID-19, we face an urgent need to re-evaluate health and happiness post pandemic. As I posited previously, if there is any good to come out of this, it must be positive action which sees us grow and learn from the lessons we’re being taught. It’s time for global governments to take responsibility for those determinants of health. 

Dr. Rupy highlighted that measures of inequality have increased exponentially across the most industrialised nations over the last 60 years. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. And for the first time in decades, the life expectancy of people from a lower socioeconomic stratum has decreased, particularly for women. That’s one reason Dr. Rupy advocates for the concept of universal basic income. Universal basic income is a non-means-tested financial contribution to every citizen of a country. We know that financial security improves psychological health; what if we were to elevate everyone through UBI, and give them the ability to make positive, healthful behaviour change? That security could enable health and wellbeing to thrive. 

Stronger together 

As could a renewed focus on community, cooperation, and serious structural changes to our political systems. Dr. Rupy recently interviewed author and activist George Monbiot on how we can harness intrinsic values of human kindness and cooperation to foster wellbeing. Monbiot points out that the current prevailing political narrative of being an individual first and rising to the top by any means necessary is counter to our evolutionary history. We wouldn’t have survived had it not been for the cooperation between communities. Historically, we hunted and gathered together, protected each other from predators, and looked after each other as a community. These are things you can’t do as an individual. The notion of individualism doesn’t strike a chord with how we evolved, and it breeds inequality. We can be happier and healthier humans if we change the constructs of our society to focus on the community, cooperation and kindness that we need to survive and thrive. 

Monbiot suggests that our modern capitalist society has sold us a lie about who we are. We are not inherently individualistic, selfish, greedy humans. Instead, our dominant values are about togetherness, community, kindness, family. However, we easily fall for this lie because, by and large, those who govern us are psychologically atypical. I loved Monbiot’s assertion that: “Broadly speaking, we’re a bunch of altruists governed by psychopaths.” Rarely has one short sentence resonated so much. As he asks: why do we let this happen, and keep happening? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves. We need people who care about people in government.

Planetary health

Instead, we are seduced by the trappings of capitalism and consumption. We aspire to be like those with the fame, the money, the influence, the social media followings. We’ve been told that in order for our society to thrive, we have to maintain a certain level of growth. But our levels of consumption are destroying our life support system, our planet. The environment and the natural world are essential to our health and wellbeing. Dr. Rupy pointed out that the problem is, while we see climate catastrophes playing out, they lack immediacy to our daily lives. The pandemic may help more people to understand that climate change will have huge consequences to our ability to survive and thrive as a species. Since the 1970s, Earth’s population has doubled, and consumption has increased by 45% per capita. In direct correlation, nature’s capacity to support us has plummeted. By destroying the planet, we are directly endangering our own survival, and increasing the risk of future pandemics – and worse: 

“Pandemics…are caused by activities that bring increasing numbers of people into direct contact and often conflict with the animals that carry these pathogens. Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a “perfect storm” for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people…Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today.”

Our health depends on a healthy planet. This is a turning point for us to take serious, swift action to protect the environment. Governments need to balance economic growth with sustaining the world we live in. We need to address the meat trade, the wildlife trade, the growing threat of antibiotic resistance due to current farming methods. We are sitting on a ticking timebomb, creating the perfect storm for catastrophe. 

Hope springs 

But there is hope. There is renewed focus on holistic and culinary medicine, regenerative farming, and sustainable practices across multiple industries. Monbiot highlighted economist Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ model as one which could successfully sustain both our economy and our environment. As Raworth puts it

“Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend.” 

The goal is to live within the two boundaries of the doughnut, and facilitate human wellbeing within the thriving boundaries of life. And the concept is being tested. Amsterdam is just one city which is looking at implementing this model and taking transformative action

The tipping point 

This point in time may be the most important in humanity’s history. Now is the time to reimagine how to cultivate and sustain health and happiness in a post pandemic world. Let’s choose to reshape our political and societal structures, and what we value and reward in our culture. Let’s choose new leaders, ones who care about human health and wellbeing rather than power and wealth. Leaders who recognise that health is the basis of wealth, and that investing in health IS investing in the economy. Precedents have already been set prior to the pandemic by countries such as New Zealand and Iceland. Governments which prioritise health and happiness post pandemic – rather than GDP – can address climate change, tackle inequality, and restructure the economy to benefit us all. 

We have an opportunity to come together in global solidarity to solve these issues. I hope that we invest in global healthcare systems for all, that we renew our focus on fostering community, kindness and connection. I hope that we prioritise human health, planetary health, and the health of our relationships. More than 70 years ago, the WHO declared that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” Collective action can yield powerful results, and together, we can build a society that prioritises health and happiness post pandemic for everyone. 

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