High-Level Plenary
Bernhard Schwartländer: “Throwing garbage over the fence” is stupid
December 21, 2023

Bernhard Schwartländer

Global Health Envoy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Germany

Thank you, James, Chairman John Zhao, Executive Vice Chairman Bi Jingquan, an old friend from my previous times in WHO in Beijing.

I have the somewhat difficult task to speak as the last speaker, after such an incredible discourse that we have just heard from the ambassador. I have been told by James that I should be very short. So, I try to reshuffle the thoughts that I had, because I also know that we are here for the next day, and there will be more time for interactions. And I hope and I feel already very inspired, I must say, I will come to that later. I hope that we will have plenty of time to continue these discussions and.

All of you have spoken in different ways, how the world is in disorder in so many ways. And clearly, as also the ambassador and others have just said: nothing is more important in these times than dialogue, being together, listening, thinking together, and basically taking up our responsibility that our children and grandchildren, and those following, have a place where they can live and thrive.

So many of us have spoken about the challenges we have with clashing systems, new powers challenging the established world orders, then shock. And I speak as a European here, we are in shock with the violent wars that broke out in different parts of the world, which is something that I could have not imagined, and people of my generation could not have imagined would ever happen again in Europe.

But with all the differences that we see these days, there are areas where we have a common ground. And where people no matter where they live, are the same, and feel the same and think the same. And I've dedicated my professional life to the health of people, as a public health professional.

I've had most of my professional career in the United Nations system, in all parts of the world, and I’ve learned to see diversity and being different as an incredible value and opportunity. The pandemic that we’ve sort of left behind, it’s not quite gone, but we hope it is gone, has taught us many lessons. And most importantly, we’ve seen that we are connected across continents and national borders.

Decoupling in a way may work for politicians and economists in a short-sighted view, but it will not work for viruses. Any attempts to interfere with science and collective action made things worse in terms of health, lives, and ultimately in terms of economies.

The pandemic has always reminded us that health must ultimately be at the center point of all action. If you think about pandemics, we need to think more than viruses and pathogens. We need to think about the health of the planet. Never before has the concept of planetary health shown to be more palpable, more meaningful and more relevant. The health of human civilization and the natural systems on which it depends. Never before, it has become more clear that despite all the efforts of scientists, policymakers and politicians, the global community has failed to truly connect the dots and collectively and decisively act to stop global warming, protect the environment and ensure equitable access to health for everybody.

Floods, droughts, ice caps and glaciers melting at record speed are alarming signs of the threat to the natural systems in which human civilization depends. Unhealthy lifestyles across all regions and cultures of the world are now a leading risk factor for ill health and premature death across all cultures, and civilizations. Rapid urbanisation and cultivation of land for agricultural use fundamentally changed the natural habitat of animals, both threatening the biodiversity of the planet, as well as altering the way humans and animals interact with new health risks, such as increases in vector-borne diseases, threats through new viral diseases in mankind including MERS, SARS, and of course, Corona.

Let me give you a personal thought that sort of occurred to me, especially over the last weeks. Since I was a teenager, I recall the creation of Earth Day and later, the slogan: ‘Save the Planet’. I realised suddenly that this is almost arrogant. The planet will survive, the planet has time to recover. It's our civilization. It’s our lives that are at stake, and nothing less. If that is not the call for action to come together and think differently to talk together and find the solutions, I wouldn't know what.

When it comes to the health of our civilization, health and natural systems, this is where everybody is the same, where everybody has the same interest no matter where people live. And this is important. As we are in a time of dispute, of not listening, not talking to each other, as we have just discussed. It is so important that we find cultural areas of common ground where we are actually together where we don't fight to start with. I want to postulate, and I liked that some of you had very clear recommendations, these are: one, two, three things you want to do. I want to recommend that we should look at the health, environment and the nexus of the health environment is the one common element, possibly the last language that we all have together in the same language that we speak, work together and live on that. Because I do believe that it's much easier to quarrel, in areas where we have disagreement; if we have at least a strong basis, where we do agree and could move together.

Let me close with a sort of personal thought as a German. We have this saying “throwing garbage over the fence”, and what that means is that here are neighbours and they start to quarrel about stupid things. One is: the tree is too high, the tree is too low, the car is too big or whatever. So they start to throw stuff over the fence. So neighbours throw stuff back and, then eventually throw the barbecue over the fence and the big barbecue comes back. And that's just completely utterly stupid. We all know that. That's when I think that, unless we go back and say: ‘actually, we all like barbecue’, let's have a barbecue together and talk about it. You know, what can we do about the tree? And that's how I feel with health, with the environment. Let's find that basis. Let's talk to each other. Let's find the basis for a decent discussion and move forward.

I do feel inspired already today. I'm an optimist because, as long as I have hope for change, I will always be optimistic. I get up in the morning and say that's what I have to do to get there. Today gives me hope and strengthens my optimism, so I look forward to this evening and tomorrow. Thank you very much.

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