With the possibility of a triple pandemic this winter, Cal State Fullerton public health expert Moygan Sammy said individual health care will be critical to helping people recover, vaccinate and protect themselves, but this focus on individual individuals should include a new conversation about how to prevent another pandemic in the future.
“The future of health is collective. It’s about recognizing each other’s interdependence on each other’s health and well-being,” said Sammy, assistant professor of public health. “The future of health care requires us to understand that doctors are not going to save humanity from ourselves.” Health starts much higher than we think.’
Faced with cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and COVID-19 in the United States, Sammy said people need to start thinking critically about the future of public health as they guard against this wave of disease.
When people think about health, their first instinct is to focus on individual behavior. They might think of diet, exercise routines and annual doctor’s check-ups, but Sammy specified that the health narrative needs to shift from a narrow focus on individualism to collective care and planetary health if the goal is to create a healthier future.
“The former, late Director-General of the World Health Organization, Lee Jong-wook, once asked, ‘Why do doctors cure people of diseases and then send them back to the conditions that made them sick in the first place?'” Sami shared. “It is these conditions that we must address in order to improve our health and well-being. This is the essence of public health.”
By changing people’s understanding of health to focus more broadly on living conditions, Sammy said scientists can begin to seriously analyze the root causes of disease and illness and find preventative solutions before people get sick.
“We must recognize that climate change is one of the greatest threats to human health in the 21st century, as noted by the World Health Organization. If we do not act collectively in accordance with science to prevent ecological destruction, we are harming ourselves. We need to have this conversation now because the future of our planet and our health rests on reframing the values that guide our lives, our well-being and our communities.
Climate change affects health directly and indirectly. Increases in greenhouse gases affect air quality, and increases in air pollution are linked to a variety of health conditions, including asthma and other respiratory diseases, heart disease, dementia and obesity.
In the United States, health care tends to “treat” disease rather than focus on preventing it, Sammy explained. By shifting the focus to preventative measures for the drivers of disease, Sami said people can create the conditions for a healthier future for all.
While this way of thinking is not new to the public health field, it is new to the general public. She explained that “health is all around us” and to create a healthier future, health must start at the top with policies and systems such as infrastructure, transport, sustainability projects, housing and agriculture.
“We’re putting all our resources into downstream health care – doctors and drugs – and that’s important. We’ve seen with the coronavirus how important this is, but it doesn’t address the root causes of our vulnerabilities, which lie in the structures we’ve put in place on this planet to manage our lives.”
In the long term, Sammy said, this approach involves reconnecting humanity with the planet and taking action to prevent ecological degradation, because “if we don’t recognize that we are all connected together, we risk the destruction of our planet. The planet doesn’t need us. We need the planet.
CSUF prioritizes community health
While that goal may seem decades away, Sammy explained that CSUF has already begun prioritizing health upstream by funding infrastructure projects that put the health and well-being of campus members at the forefront.
Some of these projects include increasing access to green space and shade structures, adding solar panels to Eastside parking structures, planting low-water landscapes, and installing electric vehicle charging stations.
“We treat the campus as a living laboratory for understanding the intersection between physical infrastructure and our health and well-being,” Sammy said. “We’ve done an incredible job around campus integrating design for resilience to adapt our infrastructure to be aware of the fact that we’re entering a new phase of climate change impacts.”
She said CSUF has not only created physical spaces for change, but the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects has also been instrumental in creating intellectual spaces for interdisciplinary collaboration.
“It is in these spaces that we can reframe the way we think about our world’s big problems, whether it’s a pandemic or an economic recession, or the need to adapt infrastructure to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” Sammy added. “Our future depends on scientists and communities working together to create healthier, fairer and more just societies.”