Dr. Anusha Seneviratne
Girawa launches | Collaboration with Foundation of Goodness grows
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Since mid-2020, UK-based scientist Dr. Anusha Seneviratne has been working with the Foundation of Goodness (FOG) in Sri Lanka, where she previously volunteered, to introduce a Planetary Health Course to the FOG's Village Heartbeat Empowerment Centres. The course aims to increase awareness among rural schoolchildren that a healthy environment is essential for human health and survival. The course complements existing initiatives run by the FOG such as STEM education and the Goodness Agriculture Initiative. (More information at http://unconditionalcompassion.org/stem-education-and-planetary-health-education/).
The course began at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-2020, when the children returned to school for the first time in several months, and were still trying to make sense of the circumstances. It was only appropriate to begin the course by teaching the children what COVID-19 is, why basic hygiene measures, social distancing and lockdowns are important to limit the spread of the virus, and how the virus arose (as widely suspected although still yet to be confirmed pending investigation by the World Health Organization) as a result of the trade and consumption of wild animals, why zoonotic diseases can be so dangerous to humans and why the destruction of natural habitats is increasing the risk of future pandemics. Recently, pupils were updated on the importance of vaccinating against COVID-19 and how vaccines work.
Children observe nature outdoors and practice meditation during the mental health module. Photos courtesy of Foundation of Goodness.
It is well known that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented mental health challenges to many, especially children. FOG pupils discussed the causes of mental health issues before being introduced to how stress and depression can lead to physical health issues such as increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and how nature can prove a healing force. During the lessons, children were shown images of wildlife roaming free in various locations around the world during lockdowns and asked if it lifted their spirits. The children reacted positively and, considering what was learnt during the COVID-19 lesson, they notably reflected on how humanity has pressured wildlife and the pandemic has allowed nature to breathe. The children then put their learnings into practice with practical exercises outdoors such as meditation, observing nature and providing food and water for local birds.
Next the pupils explored nutrition and how a healthy diet can also benefit the environment. This subject is particularly important for young people in the country as Sri Lanka is burdened with a high incidence of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease like much of the Indian subcontinent. The children discussed how high levels of salt, sugar and red meat can not only increase the risk of diabetes, vascular disease and cancer, but can also contribute to environmental destruction and the biodiversity crisis, due to the amount of land required for such intensive farming practices and monocultures, and to meet increasing demands particularly from developed countries. Thus children learned about the importance of consuming in moderation, the biology behind how fruit and vegetables reduce the risk of common diseases, and how fruit and vegetable production is less harmful to the environment.
With the successful impact of the course on rural schoolchildren, we can share the launch of Girawa - an online project aiming to make planetary health education accessible to as many people as possible, especially future generations. The project aims to expand the FOG planetary health course into other subject areas such as ecology, and inspire career paths such as in engineering, to benefit the planet. We also hope the FOG planetary health course will serve as a benchmark for such educational opportunities to be disseminated worldwide.
The first contribution of Girawa to the FOG planetary health course is a module on plants and human survival. The module details the important contribution plants make to the atmospheric oxygen we rely on to breathe, how plants can boost our immune system, and how much we rely on plants for our medicines. We look forward to seeing how this module is received by students and further expanding the course, including existing teaching material.
If you would like to volunteer and/or contribute to the development and dissemination of education by Girawa, please visit the 'Get Involved' webpage for more information.