We need a vaccine against Olympic and fossil fuel insanity

11 May 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Two broad themes this week, both from recent headlines. The first is the insanity of the plans for the Olympic Games, and especially the unethical prioritization for Covid immunization of elite Olympic athletes over vulnerable people and essential workers in low income countries. The second is a couple of astonishing ideas from the fossil fuel industry and its political supporters in the USA.

What unites them is they both fit into the shake-your-head category of ‘they are doing what?’. Both reflect an inability or unwillingness to accept the new realities of – on the one hand – a pandemic and on the other hand, a climate crisis.

Let’s start with the Olympics. What is wrong with this sentence, from an article in the Times Colonist on Friday May 7th? “Pfizer and BioNTech are donating Covid-19 vaccine doses to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for the Tokyo Games.”  Well, where does one begin?

First – Games, what Games? They are holding the Olympic Games a couple of months from now, in the midst of a global pandemic? In a country with a vaccination rate of around 1 percent, according to another Times Colonist story the next day? A country that has just expanded its state of emergency to cover other regions and extended it until May 31st?

When the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had to cancel his trip to Japan on Monday because of the surge in cases? When places such as India, Brazil and who knows where else are essentially out of control? Hello, IOC – wake up and face reality!

Second, they are donating these vaccines to the IOC. Donating? Why the heck should vaccines be donated? Does anyone know how rich the IOC is? Its own website says the revenue for the 4 year cycle of the last Olympiad from 2013 to 2016 (the Sochi Winter Games and the Rio games), was $5.7 billion. So they can afford to buy their own vaccines.

Anyway, if there are enough vaccines that Pfizer and BioNTech can donate them, I can think of a very long list of way more deserving recipients than a lot of fit young elite athletes. For starters, front line and essential workers in low income countries. Whatever else Olympic athletes may be, they are not essential workers. Where is the slightest scintilla of morality in all this?

Moreover, why is the Canadian Olympic Committee accepting this donation?  They may try to dress it up as not jumping the queue, not getting the vaccine ahead of vulnerable and essential workers, because they are donated vaccines, but that is tosh. My local supermarket staff – who are essential – were not getting the vaccine, so I resent Olympic athletes, and for that matter, all professional athletes, getting it before they do. What the COC should do is re-donate all its donated vaccines to essential workers and vulnerable people and cancel its participation in the Games.

Turning to my second theme, here are a couple of recent jaw-dropping headlines from The Guardian. “Wyoming stands up for coal with threat to sue states that refuse to buy it” (May 7th) and “Bill seeks to make Louisiana ‘fossil fuel sanctuary’ in bid against Biden’s climate plans” (May 9th)

Let’s think about that for a moment. In Wyoming, the state hopes to take “legal action against other states that opt to power themselves with clean energy such as solar and wind, in order to meet targets to tackle the climate crisis, rather than burn Wyoming’s coal”, while the Louisiana proposal would “ban local and state employees from enforcing federal laws and regulations that negatively impact petrochemical companies” – such as limits on air pollution.

I see endless possibilities here. Perhaps we could sue places that refused to take our old growth lumber or the last of our dwindlng salmon stocks. Maybe tobacco states could sue people who give up smoking, thus depriving them of revenue. Or we could establish a whaling sanctuary so we can get rid of those pesky salmon-eating orca.

Oh, and please don’t tell Alberta about Wyoming and Louisiana’s plans, we don’t need the insanity to spread up here. What we really need is a vaccine against such insanity.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca 

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at                                                                    the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Active transportation is good for mental health

5 May 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

The physical health benefits of active transportation (walking, biking, public transit) are well known. Compared to cars, there are fewer emissions of carbon dioxide and various air pollutants per passenger mile, fewer accidents and more physical activity – I often joke that includes running for the bus. But less attention has been paid to the mental health impacts of transportation and the benefits of active transportation for mental and social wellbeing.

Some 35 years ago, when leading the Healthy City initiative for the City of Toronto, I gained a fascinating insight into the social role of public transportation. Former Mayor John Sewell, in discussing the TTC (Toronto’s public transit system), described it as “the great democratizer”.

His point was that because it was a well-run, extensive system, everyone used it: Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. And so you had to literally rub shoulders with ‘the other’ all the time. And he felt that helped people learn tolerance, learn how to get on with each other.

Ever since, I have always had an interest in the social implications of transportation. But two recent reports have re-awakened my interest in the mental health implications.

The first is a March 2021 report on the relationship between transport and mental health prepared for the NZ Transport Agency by a University of Auckland research team. The second – a March 2021 report on Urban Sanity – is from Todd Litman, a local expert who runs the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, although he seems to be far better known internationally than he is locally.

The findings are perhaps not too surprising. The NZ report finds that factors leading to increasing psychological distress in cities include “increased noise pollution and neighbourhood severance, and declining levels of active transport use resulting from a rise in private car use”. The term ‘neighbourhood severance’ refers to “a decline in social connection and social capital (feelings of trust and belonging within neighbourhoods) due to rising traffic volumes”.

The researchers also found that longer commutes, whether by private car or bus, especially in congested conditions, lead to increased commuter stress. Moreover “transport poverty and inaccessible environments” are likely to cause “psychological distress for low-income households and people living with disability”.

On the other hand, the transport system conditions that are essential for mental health are “Low-cost and accessible . . . systems that enable people to access essentials such as employment, medical care, food, and social support”. In addition, “high-quality walking (or wheeling) environments that provide opportunities for gentle exercise as well as social interaction in low-stress traffic conditions” are also good for mental health.

Key ways to improve urban mental health through transport policy, the researchers suggest, include “improving neighbourhood walkability, reducing long commutes, increasing active commuting, and reducing the cost and improving the comfort of public transport”.

Todd Litman’s report is on urban mental wellbeing in general, with only one small part of his report focused on transportation. The intent, he writes, is to help us understand how to create saner and happier cities. But he readily acknowledges it is not easy to understand this complex issue.

In part, that is because our understanding of what mental wellbeing is and how to measure it is less than perfect. It is also a challenging area of research, in part because mental and social wellbeing is largely subjective, and varies a great deal. What makes one person happy or stresses them out may not have much effect at all on someone else.

Nonetheless, when it comes to transportation, he concurs with the NZ report, adding that more walking in the neighbourhood adds to community safety because there are more ‘eyes on the street’, as Jane Jacobs put it. He also notes that a British study found “psychological wellbeing was significantly higher for active mode commuters than car or public transport users, and for longer duration commutes, particularly driving.”

Litman concludes: “Cities can increase mental health and happiness by improving walking and cycling conditions, and enhancing public transit services, particularly reducing the most uncomfortable conditions such as excessive crowding, heat, and harassment.”

Local politicians, transport systems designers, mental health professionals and the public should pay attention to these important ideas.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Creating wellbeing: From the personal to the planetary

28 April 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

In 1948 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”; I find it a good and simple definition. One of its strengths is that it fully recognises both mental and social wellbeing, with the latter inevitably bringing in our relationships with others – our families, communities and society as a whole. However, I would make an important change by adding ‘environmental wellbeing’. 

One aspect of environmental wellbeing is having a healthy local environment – clean air, water and soil and a healthy built environment. The other aspect is ‘ecological wellbeing’, something that was not so apparent 70 years ago. But today, we recognise that our health is dependent ultimately on the well-functioning of the Earth’s natural systems: No health without planetary health, we might say.

And yet, that simple concept seems to elude most of our political and corporate elite, and millions of our fellow citizens. We act as if we can continue to exploit and pollute the Earth beyond its ability to withstand such harm, without consequence for us.

But I have been heartened in recent weeks by a number of examples showing a strong interest in health and wellbeing as a motivating and driving force for positive change. For example, I sit on the Planning Committee for the Atlantic Summer Institute, an annual summer school on PEI focused on the mental wellbeing of infants, children and youth. This year’s theme is ‘The Great Reconnect’, and is focused on how we help young people form strong connections with their families, each other, their schools and communities, and with nature.

I have also been involved in discussions about a number of local activities that all, at their roots, are about improving human and planetary wellbeing. One local group, brought together by Steve Woolrich of Rethink Urban (and an occasional fellow columnist) is discussing how to address community safety and wellbeing in an humane and compassionate way. Another group is looking at how to create more livable, sustainable and healthy urban environments through creating ‘gentle density’.

This concept, championed by Vancouver-based urban planner Brent Toderian, is about “density done well”. In a 2013 article he noted “Density isn’t just a downtown thing”, but that it includes “artfully adding to the inner city beyond the downtown, and building smarter suburbs that are more mixed, compact, walkable, and transit friendly”. His long list of benefits ends with “Improving public health, diversity, creativity, safety and vibrancy”.

Finally, this past week I was also able to participate in the online annual conference of the Planetary Health Alliance in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Alliance grew out of the 2015 report of the Lancet-Rockefeller Commission on Planetary Health, which established this new field of work. Planetary health is understood by the Alliance as focused on characterizing the human health impacts of human-caused disruptions of Earth’s natural systems.” Given that, you might have expected a strong focus on science and data about health and ecology.

So you would perhaps have been surprised by the focus of the opening session, which was all about the values needed to take us to and through the Great Transition to a world “where all people thrive by protecting and regenerating Earth’s natural systems for generations to come”.

The keynote speaker was Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and an Indigenous woman. She talked movingly about the wisdom of both Indigenous and scientific knowledge for achieving our shared goals, stressing that “sustainability is not about looking for ways to go on taking”, but that we need to listen to what the Earth asks of us.

She was followed by speakers on Indigenous values, Earth ethics, religion and the Buddhist-rooted Bhutanese concept of measuring and being guided by Gross National Happiness. Embedded in many of their presentations was the need for a value shift that leads us to reject the current economic system and move to a new wellbeing economy.

Ultimately, societies, governments, businesses and communities have to focus on wellbeing – why else would they exist? Happily, in many ways and places, the conversation is starting, the move to a focus on creating wellbeing is underway.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy