No amount of medical knowledge will lessen the accountability for nurses to do what nurses do; that is, manage the environment to promote positive life processes.
— Florence Nightingale, 1859, Notes on Nursing
Celebrating Earth Day
With over 17 million nurses and midwives globally, we can create a healthier world for present and future generations. At the heart and spirit of Florence Nightingale’s legacy is the knowledge that our external environment is inextricably interconnected to the health and wellbeing of all species and ecosystems, a concept that is reflected in the first principle of integrative and holistic nursing—human beings are inseparable from their environments. In this time of increasing concerns about the impact of the environment on the health of individuals and communities, identifying and reducing health risks associated with environmental exposures and potential hazards in the workplace, community, and home is rapidly becoming part of our nursing practice and leadership role.
A healthy planet means fewer diseases
The health of our planet plays an important role in the spread of disease originating from pathogens that transfer from animals to humans. As we continue to encroach on fragile ecological ecosystems, we bring humans into ever-greater contact with wildlife and illegal wildlife trade, increasing attributed to human diseases. Any positive environmental impact in the wake of the COVID pandemic, must include changing our production and consumption habits towards cleaner and greener. Only long-term systemic shifts will change the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
So, in the aftermath of the crisis, there is a real opportunity to meet that demand with green packages of renewable energy investments, smart buildings, green and public transport, healthier food production, and increased green jobs. Since COVID-19, and the world slowing down, residents of India can see the peaks of the Himalayas for the first time in 40 years, and canals in Venice, Italy are clear again. Mother Earth can again breathe and has shown us that she is resilient.
As cities and, in some cases, entire nations weather the pandemic under lockdown, Earth-observing satellites have detected a significant decrease in the concentration of a common air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, which enters the atmosphere through emissions from cars, trucks, buses, and power plants. The drop, observed in China and Europe, coincided with stringent social-distancing measures on the ground. Air pollution can seriously damage human health, and the World Health Organization estimates that conditions stemming from exposure to ambient pollution—including stroke, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses—kill about 4.2 million people a year.
What can we learn from this momentary pause?
The better we manage nature, the better we manage human health. An important pillar in our post-COVID recovery plan must be to arrive at a measurable and inclusive framework, because keeping nature rich, diverse and flourishing is part of our life’s support system. As life gets back to normal, we hope that the “new normal” can create a “different economy” that can fuel green jobs, green growth and a different way of life, because the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same.
As we move forward post COVID-19, Nurses have a unique opportunity to raise our collective voice and lead global efforts for creating a healthier planet. By continuing Nightingale’s environmental knowing, nurses are organizing and leading initiatives as environmental advocates for their patients, families, and communities. By assessing the environments in which people live, work, and play, nurses are integrating environmental awareness, education, and coaching, using preventive health strategies and thus improving health outcomes. Nurses with environmental health knowledge are closing the information gap by educating consumers, colleagues, hospital administrators, school personnel, parents, families, and communities.
As the World Health Organization and the United Nations has declared 2020, the year of the Nurse, this is our time to have a critical role to play in transforming the health of all communities, now and for future generations.
Happy Earth Day!