I write my weekly columns a week or so before they are published, and submit them five days ahead. So when I wrote my column last week, while there was always the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine, there was still some hope that the Madman of Moscow would not actually do so.
But as I write this, the invasion is in full swing. Who knows what the situation will be when it is published, but it does not look good.
I cannot possibly write a column right now about anything else to do with the health of the population, when we are faced with one of the gravest threats to peace I have seen in my 73 years.
A threat to peace is not only a threat to health but to life itself, whether locally or, in the event of nuclear war, globally. Which is why peace is listed first in a short list of prerequisites for health in the 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, which is the key founding document for the work that has been the focus of my career.
What is happening in Ukraine is horrifying, as is all war. Indeed, we should not forget that there are equally horrifying international wars underway in Yemen and Ethiopia and numerous other smaller or internal wars around the world.
But what makes the Ukraine war so troubling is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has compounded his war crimes by fairly explicitly threatening the use of nuclear weapons.
I was 14 at the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and recall the real fear we all had that nuclear war would be unleashed. While we avoided it then, the fear was omnipresent, and was crystallised by a 1966 mock-documentary called The War Game, which I saw in my final year of high school.
It graphically depicted the run-up to and aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain and it made me a supporter of nuclear disarmament.
Fifteen or so years later, as a public-health physician working for the City of Toronto’s Department of Public Health, I helped the department undertake a health-impact assessment of a one-megaton nuclear airburst above Toronto, as part of an international project co-ordinated by International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).
The findings were horrific, as one would expect, and were, of course, the same around the world. The public awareness that resulted helped move the U.S. and Russia toward some degree of nuclear disarmament, and won the IPPNW the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
These large global geopolitical issues, this violence on the other side of the world, can leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless, fearful and anxious — although it is of little import compared to the enormity of the fear and stress Putin has imposed on the people of Ukraine, of course, nor the stress experienced by their families and friends around the world.
So on the basis that the antidote to our fear and anxiety — and our outrage — is action, what can we do at a personal level to help the people of Ukraine, and in the process help ourselves?
Here are some ideas. Attend rallies in support of Ukraine. Boycott all Russian goods until Russia withdraws — and beyond that. Donate to recognized disaster-relief charities — check with the Ukrainian Congress Canadian or donate through CanadaHelps, which manages donations for thousands of legitimate charities.
Write, phone or email your MP and the prime minister insisting the government support Ukraine in every way possible, including by supplying lethal armaments, and that it seek to brand Putin a war criminal and hold him accountable.
If you have friends or contacts in Ukraine, ask them what you can do. And if you have friends or contacts in Russia, help them understand what Putin is doing and how the world is reacting, because he is keeping them in the dark.
If you are a member of an organization of any sort with international links, see if there are ways to work through that organization to support Ukraine and to reach out to and inform ordinary Russians about what is happening.
Because there is no health without peace.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.