Ocean and human health in the age of COVID-19
Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.
There is no part of the ocean that remains unaffected by the growing and interconnected pressures from climate change, biodiversity loss, and further degradation caused by human activities. To add to the complexity of these multiple marine pressures, they are situated within different political, social, economic and environmental systems across multiple scales of time, space, place, involving a diversity of people and interests. No single group in isolation can address the challenges and questions this raises for the sustainability of our planet.
While we have legislated widely to regulate the impacts of human activities on the marine environment, and devised mechanisms to monitor and measure these impacts, we have not fully considered, in turn, the impacts of the ocean (and marine environmental degradation) on human health.
A newly launched Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) on Oceans and Human Health (OHH), published by the Horizon 2020 EU-funded Seas Oceans and Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE), showcases how deeply interconnected the health of people and ocean are. The report sets out existing evidence that the health of seas, oceans and humans are inextricably linked and outlines vital research priorities and collaborative approaches needed to inform policies and practices to protect the health of seas, oceans and people.
To understand and respond to the complexity of the interrelationships between human activities, human health and ocean health requires the coordination of approaches that are equally fluid, adaptive and dynamic. Fixed policies are no longer fit for purpose. The global coronavirus pandemic starkly highlights the need to adopt an adaptive and more dynamic form of governance that allows communities, managers and decision-makers to respond rapidly to changes in space and time, in addition to the need for mutual cooperation and support on a global scale.
A key outcome of the SOPHIE project, identified following the engagement of over 14,000 OHH experts and citizens invited to contribute their priorities for a sustainable future, was the need to link knowledge with practice in a way that can support and promote sustainable actions and greater citizen engagement.
Instead of a narrative of loss, risk and fear, conversations with experts and citizens alike, emphasised an opportunity to create a new narrative of the sea that recognises our marine environment as health-enabling, where our seas and coasts are celebrated for a range of health-promoting benefits. This builds on other emerging initiatives that point to remembering and reawakening our ocean heritage and values, presented in these very pages every issue.
This presents opportunities for new alliances and partnership building between research scientists in OHH and marine science, social sciences and public health, and support for a ‘health in all policies’ approach to strengthen the links between human health and ocean health. All of this is even more relevant in light of the global coronavirus pandemic, highlighting the catastrophic consequences of our societal disconnect from our natural place within Earth’s systems, and how essential the restoration of healthy, functioning natural ecosystems are for our survival.
We have discovered with ‘COVID-19’ and the subsequent ‘lockdown’ that we are having to create a new language and new stories to make meaning in such a rapidly changing world. Icelandic activist and author Andri Snaer Magnason argues that we often struggle to talk about some of the most important issues of our time because global issues like ‘climate change’ and ‘ocean acidification’ are so huge that all meaning collapses. The need for new stories and experiences are key to connecting people with the sea. OHH presents an opportunity for a new way of understanding our relationship with the ocean that addresses complex challenges in a holistic way, humanising the environmental crises.
Stories help us make sense of the world, our places within it, and can spark curiosity and wonder that can form new connections, new ideas and new ways of thinking about the ocean and our relationship with it. This is essential if we are to evolve to an ocean literate culture. For example, the story of our planet – a watery sphere, enveloped in ocean with springs, streams, canals and rivers all around and under us and with all this water flowing eventually to the sea. According to Dan Burgess at Wild Labs, this story of our blue planet seems strangely muted and invisible in our modern culture. It’s been concreted over, digitally diverted, out of sight and therefore out of minds.
How might we weave this oceanic story and our intimate relationship with water back into our post-pandemic lives? How might it help us recover from the coronavirus by reconnecting us with what matters most? In healing the ocean how might we heal ourselves?
The potential benefits for health and wellbeing through connection to water, and through these connections, engaging people in protection and conservation, is a ripe place for communities to be pioneering, and in the process, help to ‘build back better’ following the societal upheaval caused by COVID-19. I believe the pandemic represents a unique opportunity to bring the ocean literacy principle of the interconnectedness between ocean and human health into mainstream culture. This will require mutual cooperation and support on a global scale that we have now seen is possible – exploring ways that these diverse perspectives recombine, accelerating awareness, literacy and action through innovation, experiences and communications, and above all, fostering a culture of care for our ocean.
For more information on the Oceans and Human Health Agenda please visit: www.sophie2020.eu
This column appears in ISSUE 13: This is Hvaldimir of Oceanographic Magazine
Beautiful ocean stories straight to your inbox.
Join our community.