Exclusive: Former Malaysia advisor calls for public health to tackle climate change

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Director and Professor at the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, Malaysia.

“You are a product of your environment,” wrote W. Clement Stone, a self-help author. His words possess a new meaning today, as human wellbeing is directly impacted by climate change and the earth’s deteriorating health.

But the final chapter of this story hasn’t been written yet. By acknowledging the role of the environment and its impact on human health, policymakers can make a difference. The first step is to put the planet’s health as a priority for policy.

Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Director and Professor at the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, Malaysia, explains why public health goes hand in hand with protecting the environment. She reflects on her experiences as a public health Special Advisor to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, and shares insights from her experience managing health crises.

Planetary health is public health

“There are direct links between climate change and the climate crisis and health”, Jemilah says. She shares three ways that humanity’s impact on the environment is creating public health issues.

First, deforestation forces animals to live closer to humans, raising the chances that infectious diseases will be spread across species. For example, in 1997 deforestation in Indonesia caused bats to move to urban areas, spreading a virus that resulted in more than a hundred deaths, National Geographic wrote.

Infectious diseases can also spread as a result of rising temperatures. Warmer climates result in melting glaciers, unleashing diseases that were previously frozen in ice, Jemilah highlights. It also means mosquito-borne diseases like dengue can spread to new areas, she adds.

Second, humans are becoming resistant to medicines due to chemical products in agriculture. Eating meat that contains antibiotics causes the human body to grow resistant to the medicine, meaning later health treatments are less effective, Jemilah explains.

This medical resistance results in 1.2 million deaths annually worldwide, which are more than the number of deaths caused by HIV and Malaria respectively, wrote Eco-Business.

Third, climate change will cause droughts and rising sea levels, creating climate refugees. Climate disasters caused more internal displacement of citizens than war in 2020, she emphasises.

This forced migration will inevitably lead to public health challenges. “When you are disrupted by crisis, you don't get access to healthcare”, she explains, also highlighting that this will bring increased risk of mental health issues.

The next step for policymakers 

What should policymakers do? “Throw out whatever old knowledge and old thinking they have” and “take the issue of planetary health very, very, very, very seriously”, she says.

The first step is for national plans to “take the health of the planet as a starting point rather than an add on”. One way they can do this is by changing their approach to the economy, which is currently driven by a continuous desire for growth, she says.

“We're all addicted to a utopian view” of life, which revolves around acquiring money, belongings, and gadgets, Jemilah explains. The goal should be to change these attitudes, “so that our lives are more harmoniously aligned with the health of the planet”.

But governments can’t do this alone, they need to bring communities with them on this journey, she identifies. Policymakers can earn citizens’ trust through “clear communications, demystifying science, being pragmatic, but also being good role models”, Jemilah continues.

The importance of citizen trust was demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some nations had scientists saying one thing, while politicians said another, leaving the public with no one to trust, she says.

Jemilah calls this effect “Don’t Look Upism”, in reference to the recent film Don’t Look Up. It tells the story of an apocalyptic asteroid heading to earth, but citizens are convinced to ignore the problem by not looking up, a metaphor for climate change.

Tech and Covid-19 in Malaysia 

Tech innovations such as the MySejahtera app will be key to Malaysia’s public health in the future, Jemilah highlights. What started as Malaysia’s contact tracing app is now a portal for vaccine certificates and other personal health information, she explains.

The app’s contact tracing abilities could eventually make it an early warning system for outbreaks of infectious diseases. “It can become a fantastic tool in the transformation of our health”, she says.

But governments need to first ensure that every citizen has access to these digital tools, Jemilah shares. Social media has raised awareness about this issue, as people can see “school kids struggling with no laptop, having to climb a tree to get 3G for school”, for example.

This awareness “has really been a huge catalyst for the government” to work on improving digital literacy in Malaysia, she says. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission is already working with telco companies to expand connectivity and provide free wifi, GovInsider wrote.

Governments are now looking at how to put their many sustainability promises into practice. Viewing public health issues through the lens of environmental sustainability can help in this process, and will hopefully make citizens a product of their environment in a positive way.