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2021 as Benjamin Button

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, I came to a decision: I could no longer put off sorting through my vast, ever-accruing backlog of ‘news’ emails. Unlike previous attempts, however, I would work backwards from late December to the start of the year, rather than in the usual chronological order.[1] It’s been eye-opening.

First of all, you won’t be surprised to hear that it has been thoroughly depressing, not least because things were actually more hopeful back in January, with the arrival of Joe Biden (and the US rejoining the Paris Accord). As I went back in time, expectations for 'building back better', COVAX, the G7, COP26 and the UN Food Systems Summit grew – but, in the event, none of them can realistically claim to have delivered to their potential.

The ebb and flow of this year-of-the-vaccine-and-variant has been particularly striking when viewed in reverse – and equally striking is that no one really had (or has) any idea where Covid is going. My trawl backwards has laid bare just how impossibly hard it has been to manage expectations (no wonder mental health is suffering) – although one thing that can’t have been a surprise to anyone is the ongoing frustration of the early-2021 hope to get the whole world vaccinated in double-quick time. This really has been a shameful failure to address power imbalances, resource inequity and vaccine nationalism, the result of which – in the form of Omicron[2] – has, predictably, come back to bite us on the bum.

But at least Covid news has ebbed as well as flowed. The climate news emails have been a daily deluge of horror, and I’ve struggled while reading with the inescapable truth that Covid is just the warm-up act. Little wonder here, too, that there have been increasing numbers of news stories and studies this year about the impact on mental health (of adults and children) of the climate crisis. Kudos to those who pick out ‘good news’ stories for their newsletters and, yes, they are heartwarming, – but so often they are examples of local, small-scale action: without scale-up on a truly staggering level, they are less than a drop in the (rapidly failing) Gulf Stream.

Away from Covid, if such a thing is possible, there have been things to be grateful for, the possible new malaria vaccine among them. In my world of non-communicable disease prevention, there have been plenty of articles about the benefits of what works in cities for mental and physical health: cycling, green space etc. But again, things just aren’t happening on a sufficiently grand scale – and I know from my own daily experience the antagonism that persists between car and bike users in urban areas (speaking of power imbalance). Recent news of TikTok setting up a new restaurant chain doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that 2022 is going to be a year in which good health comes to the fore...

Reading about the UK aid cuts really hasn’t improved my mood: again, working backwards from the implications to the initial shock and consternation about the announcement has been gut-wrenching. NCDs have never been central to this country’s international development budget, to put it mildly, but nutrition and numerous other areas that overlap with NCDs have been profoundly affected (quite apart from the hideous impact on all sorts of other successful, lifechanging programmes in other health spheres: maternal and child health, polio, HIV/AIDS...). I sincerely hope that the FCDO’s newly announced focus on ‘health systems strengthening’ not only acknowledges the centrality of NCDs to universal health coverage for people of all ages, but actually acts on it.[3] I’m hoping, too, that all the many and varied WHO initiatives on NCDs that are due in 2022 – on obesity, the NCD roadmap, digital health, humanitarian settings etc. – are fully supported by the UK government and others. The SDGs ain’t gonna happen if not....and I fear not.

Finally, I’ve found that the stories that stay with me are often those that don’t fall under an obvious Firefox Bookmark folder (‘environment’, ‘law’, ‘obesity’, ‘digital marketing’ etc.). In this category have been articles on pandemic fatigue and its impact on how we view disasters, Covid's destruction of work-life balance and (by someone with too much time on their hands!) a tongue-in-cheek analysis of every local authority logo in the UK...

So, taking a Benjamin Button approach to 2021 has been genuinely interesting, although not something I plan to repeat, not least because my (not unreasonable) New Year’s Resolution for 2022 is to stay more on top of my email. It’s taken something north of two days to work through 450 emails and reading/sorting the consequent URLs – and, to be honest, there are more entertaining/cheery things to do during Betwixtmas!

It's going to be a tough year: let’s stick together. See you at @healthkaty on Twitter, if that’s your thing.

[1] I subscribe to a variety of newsletters – some weekly (notably the truly excellent IHP – if you don’t subscribe, you really should), some less frequent (CEDAR updates) and some more frequent (the Daily Climate, WHO NCD updates, various from the NCD Alliance etc.). I can’t do much more than give a fairly cursory glance to each one, choosing the most important links to click on, read and file – I must have many thousands of URLs bookmarked by now. My reading for this blog was also a rather random selection, because I’d filed a fair few emails as I went along, often doing a few days’ worth at a time during a lull in work or just to give myself a break from things requiring proper brain power.

[2] Time has been playing tricks: were we really almost six months into 2021 before we started to give them Greek names?! I suppose Alpha and Delta are indeed the variants formerly known as Kent and India, but goodness it feels like a lifetime ago. And the first mention of ‘“booster” jabs’ being used was in July (in Israel), when it merited inverted commas (that got dropped sharpish).

[3] Going back through emails was extremely helpful for a project on exactly this (NCDs and UK international development) that I am working on at the moment as part of my role of chair of the UK Working Group on NCDs.


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