Commonwealth Alumnus Barbara MacKinnon shares information about the Foundation for Resilient Health (RESILIENT), launched by the New Brunswick Lung Association in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact in Canada.

Opportunity and motivation can arise from unexpected events. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a global movement and commitment to actions that can lead to a healthier planet and healthier society. In early 2020, the world was faced with an urgent threat. Countries came together and acted, realising what was truly important in our lives. Recognising this extraordinary moment as an opportunity to make extraordinary changes, the New Brunswick Lung Association launched the Foundation for Resilient Health (RESILIENT).

Since 1933, the New Brunswick Lung Association has a long and successful history in funding research, providing patient support, and leading advocacy for change. The Association started with the sole purpose to eradicate tuberculosis and later expanded to encompass all respiratory diseases. Over the last 20 years, it has been a leader in advocating for cleaner air, reducing greenhouse gases, and increasing awareness of radon gas and other common toxic exposures. Looking to the future health needs of Canadians, in 2018 the Association made plans to expand their mission, based on the Association’s expertise in environmental health. This planned expansion was kicked into overdrive by the opportunity for change created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Renewed momentum for change

After many virtual meetings with experts from Canada and other countries, the team realised many other groups were experiencing new hope and renewed drive to create momentum for big changes. RESILIENT wanted to develop new goals which addressed foundational changes that would lead to reduced inequities and make people healthier.

To achieve this, the new goals were distilled into four key pillars or goals by which success could be measured.  Developing the key goals in the early days of lockdown in Canada, the team encountered a big learning curve regarding financial systems. Poverty is a basic driver of poor health. In Canada, and many other countries, the current fiscal systems have led to a greater difference in the health and well-being between the rich and those with fewer resources. These fiscal systems have also resulted in progress indicators being limited to financial growth rather than the more valid indices, the Genuine Progress Index, or the Social Progress Index.

Having spent several years working in the field of environmental health, the team were acutely aware of the importance of a richly biodiverse and toxic-free environment and the importance of limiting climate change, and that this should be reflected in the goals.Since its inception, the Lung Association has advocated for health care that is equally accessible for all people, and has pressed for stronger measures to prevent illnesses, rather than only focusing on diagnosis and treatment. It was therefore appropriate that the last goal linked the history of the Lung Association with the new Foundation for Resilient Health (RESILIENT).

The four goals are:

Reduce financial inequities. Poverty is a common factor in many illnesses. If people have a basic income and safe housing, they can use their time towards obtaining better training, secure employment, and access healthier food.

Create healthier environments by expanding protection for biodiversity and reducing toxins in our natural and man-made environments. Ecosystems rely on a diversity of organisms to create oxygen, improve soil nutrition, manage water supply, offer rich food chains, control the climate, and where humans are concerned, offer healthy foods and other essential resources. Modern living has resulted in a constant increase in toxic chemicals in our indoor and outdoor environments. Some of these greatly impact our health and the health of children. Modern management of chemicals must take action to protect the most vulnerable among us. Before a new product is created, we need to ask whether this product is necessary to our wellbeing.

Take stronger and more urgent action on climate change. Climate change is threatening life and we need to use all available tools and laws to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Improve formal healthcare systems to increase preventative medicine and improve availability of drugs for all people. Traditional health care relies on diagnosis, treatment, and care. When emphasis is placed on preventive medicine and improvement of the determinants of health, illnesses can be prevented, and healthcare expenditure reduced. Universal health and pharmaceutical plans will create greater health equity, increasing the well-being of all people.

Measuring success

To achieve progress on these goals, RESILIENT engages both the government and the public through a range

of programs which use behaviour change strategies to reduce barriers to action and provide solutions that are easy and inexpensive to implement, as well as gaining commitments from people to take action.

Support from decision-makers is needed to change laws, regulations, and policies, however this can be notoriously slow and limited by political influence. As public support is important to politicians when deciding changes to policies and laws, RESILIENT directly encourages people to take action to protect their family’s health and reduce their risks from toxins or climate change as a means of showing the importance of these much-needed changes, whilst protecting people, as far as possible, in the absence of legal change.

One example of RESILIENT’s public engagement programmes is the Healthy Habits for Health Humans, a program developed to inform people about common toxins in homes and how to reduce their exposure levels. The program covers information about common toxins that affect young children’s reproductive and nervous systems, and highlights those that are found in plastics and fabrics in most homes. The toolkit for this program can be used by anyone and is available in English and French on the RESILIENT website.

Through 2020 and into 2021, RESILIENT and its partner organisations witnessed a large growth in willingness to change and recognition by world leaders of the urgent need for action in the areas identified. A growing number of countries, including Canada where RESILIENT has focused its advocacy work, are discussing universal basic income, universal drug plans, stronger action on climate change, and expansion of protected natural spaces. The movement to protect Mother Earth and all of her species has taken a large jump forward.

Barbara MacKinnon is a 1977 Scholar from Canada. She studied for a PhD in Zoology at the University of Aberdeen. She recently retired as President and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association.