In June 2019, humanitarian, public health and disaster response professionals from across Oceania met on the campus of James Cook University.1
They were gathered for one main purpose: to prepare for an emergency that may very well come someday. Over the next two weeks, they developed plans to share information, simulated responses to a public health disaster, and learned best practices from military leaders and government officials.
Little did they know, the kinds of events they were preparing for were months, not years, away. The ensuing bushfire season would be one of Australia’s deadliest,2 only to be followed by a global pandemic.
Two years on, what have we learnt?
- Health is a Human Right
As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, we see the full extent of its consequences everywhere. At the end of August 2021, the pandemic had claimed 4.55 million lives. It had infected over 219 million people. It has exposed gaps in our public health system and support infrastructure globally, magnifying and exacerbating faults in our social and economic foundations. It has laid bare long-ignored inequities and structural and systemic health disparities. It has shaken and weakened institutions thought to be unassailable.
Up until the Delta variant outbreaks in the middle of 2021, Oceania was one of the least affected areas in the world,3 and the region’s initial response was lauded as a success.4 However, our recent experience demonstrates that even the most proactive of responses is no foolproof safeguard against an ever-evolving virus.
As we integrate human health into sustainable building policy, we must remember that time and time again, the most polluted, destructive, and unhealthy environments are most commonly in places populated by people of colour and people living in poverty.
Underscoring the state of these disparities, Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University notes, “Too often, ZIP (post) code and race are the best predictors of health and well-being.”7
Those words were written long before the pandemic. Yet they have once again proven true. People from disadvantaged communities are significantly more likely to contract and die from COVID-19.8 To ensure equity in this new policy standard, we need to be more purposeful about delivering health benefits to everyone, everywhere.
- Enlisting Buildings in the Fight
Rather than stop at emergency planning, leaders across our region took another proactive step: they enlisted buildings in the fight against COVID-19. Take the issue of indoor air quality, for example. Traditionally blessed with high-quality outdoor air around major cities, Australians have historically taken indoor air quality for granted. But after being faced with bushfires that blanketed entire cities with smoke and now a virus known to linger in the air,17,18 the indoor air quality has become a focus for many. Some companies—particularly Australia’s leading property managers—have responded by adopting ventilation systems that increase the fresh air supply, thereby improving ventilation and slowing the transmission of the virus.19 However, there remains an opportunity for others to follow suit. In so doing, they will address an issue of growing importance to customers and employees alike.
As IWBI Task Force Co-Chair, FMA Chair, and Strategic Development Director of A.G. Coombs, Bryon Price has said, “Effective management of our buildings has taken on increased significance and new urgency. As we pull together to face this pandemic, buildings—and indoor air quality strategies in particular—are now clearly in focus as we move forward to make indoor environments as safe as we can in the face of COVID-19.”
- Everything Matters in the “New Normal”
This is not just a novel virus—it’s been a novel chapter in our history. Many of us have attended our first virtual classes and telehealth appointments. Many more have worked from home, schooled children from home and become reacquainted with kitchen appliances. We have learned about wearing masks and physically distancing. We figured out how to adapt to a situation that few have ever experienced. We found that public health literacy is a survival skill.
Even as COVID-19 and its Delta variant continue to wreak havoc, we have no doubt that further new challenges will emerge in months and years ahead. We’ve learnt that everything matters. Science matters. What we breathe matters. Policy matters. So does how we invest our resources.
If we reframe our thinking and reset how we interact with our buildings and organisations – and how they interact with us – we can move forward with confidence to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has the opportunity to realise their healthiest, best lives.