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Joao Nunes: Strengthen international cooperation to ensure the health of participants

Joao Nunes, Professor of Political Science at New York University

In this issue, the Center has an exclusive interview with Dr. Joao Nunes on health and safety issues. Dr. Joao Nunes is a professor of Political Science at New York University. His research interests are focused on global health, Brazil and security. His recent research includes social movements of Brazilian women and their response to Zika virus and microcephaly: Addressing Neglect through a Community-centred Approach, and Developing the capacity of Brazilian Community health workers and Strengthening their Impact on Public health.

Health and safety has always been a topic of concern. In the run-up to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, it is particularly important to deal with COVID-19 and protect people's health and safety. How to deal with security issues? What does health and safety mean to China? What are the factors that affect public health security?

In response to these questions, the Center interviewed Dr. Joao Nunes for his views on health and safety and how to deal with health and safety issues.


Health and safety of Beijing Winter Olympics: Strengthen international cooperation to ensure the health of participants

The XXIV Olympic Winter Games will soon be held in Beijing. What are the factors that affect public health security in such a large global public event? What should be done in response?


Health security is a contested concept. It relates to fundamental questions: who or what is to be made secure? What do we consider threatening? Which threats should be prioritized? Depending on our answers, we will have different ideas about what health security is and how it should be protected.


My approach to health security assumes that we should privilege the experiences of insecurity of individuals in their socioeconomic and cultural context. Therefore, mine not a state-centric approach. I am interested in the various obstacles that affect the health of individuals and groups, by preventing them from exercising their ability to reflect and act in their own lives. This vision is based on Ken Booth’s idea of security being intrinsically linked with emancipation, that is, with the alleviation or elimination of the various obstacles (such as disease, poverty, lack of education, among many others) that prevent people from doing what they would freely choose to do. An understanding of health security would be incomplete if we did not also consider the way in which individual and group experiences are shaped and determined by dynamics occurring at the national, regional and global level. Therefore, health security happens at the intersection between the micro-level of individual experiences, the meso-level of domestic policies (state and sub-state) and the macro-level of the international system.


What does this mean for the Beijing Winter Olympics? Events of this nature raise specific health-related challenges and risks. Surveillance and preparedness for these risks are paramount. Given the current pandemic situation, it is important to consider how the circulation of people, and the physical proximity and distance, can be managed. Clear information about preventive measures, as well as masks and sanitizer, should be widely available. Hospitals should stand in readiness for an uptick of cases. People should have easy access to advice from health professionals. This is particularly important for those who will be working on the Olympics. It is crucial to ensure that they have good transport to and from the venues, access to sanitation facilities, adequate rest areas, good working conditions, and preferential access to healthcare. Health professionals and security personnel should also receive special attention, as all other frontline workers.


The focus on the most vulnerable is key to a health security strategy. The most vulnerable sectors of the population are more susceptible to becoming ill, and less able to rebuild their lives after disease. Tourists and the more privileged sectors of the population have access to more options and greater resources. A health security strategy should therefore identify instances of vulnerability along socioeconomic lines, ensuring that this vulnerability is alleviated or eliminated – and not simply cordoned off or contained. A health security strategy for the Olympics should thus focus on the needs and expectations of local populations, particularly the poorest, the most vulnerable (for example, because of pre-existing medical conditions or disabilities), and those who will be most impacted by the great influx of athletes and tourists from around the world.


A health security strategy should pay attention to the possibility of bioterrorism or the weaponization of disease agents. A strategy to prevent or counter terrorism must seek to address its root causes, and should not be deployed in such a way that contributes to the stigmatization of certain groups, or depletes them of their livelihoods and dignity. The best and only way to counter terrorism is to work to address the broader cultural and socioeconomic factors underpinning political violence.


The climate emergency is the world’s greatest health security threat. It is not enough that large events are carbon-neutral and sustainable – although this is the absolute minimum. Events like the Olympics should also provide the opportunity for changes in people’s behaviour along more sustainable lines – for example, by promoting less waste and the consumption of locally-sourced, plant-based and sustainable food. The Olympics should also enable urban renewal projects that can reduce the carbon footprint of cities, and make neighbourhoods more adapted to addressing the climate challenge – for example, by forms of transportation not based on fossil fuels, more urban gardens and allotments where people can grow their own food. Otherwise, events like these will be a missed opportunity. They will harm the health security of individuals by failing to counter humanity’s path towards extinction.


Ultimately, a health security strategy must be long-term. It must encompass different sectors in society beyond the defence and security sectors. It should be part of a broader political strategy that seeks to tackle specific vulnerabilities and humanity’s greatest challenge: the ongoing destruction of the planet. The definition of this strategy must include the participation of local communities, particularly those who are most impacted. It should also consider the importance of international collaboration based, not on self-interest and competition, but on solidarity.


Interviewer: Zhao LAN

Interview date: November 12, 2021

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