Published open access in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 44(3), 38
The definitions and conceptualizations of health, and the management of healthcare have been challenged by the current global scenarios (e.g., new diseases, new geographical distribution of diseases, effects of climate change on health, etc.) and by the ongoing scholarship in humanities and science. In this paper we question the mainstream definition of health adopted by the WHO—‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO in Preamble to the constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the international health conference, The World Health Organization, 1948)—and its role in providing tools to understand what health is in the contemporary context. More specifically, we argue that this context requires to take into account the role of the environment both in medical theory and in the healthcare practice. To do so, we analyse WHO documents dated 1984 and 1986 which define health as ‘coping with the environment’. We develop the idea of ‘coping with the environment’, by focusing on two cardinal concepts: adaptation in public health and adaptivity in philosophy of biology. We argue that the notions of adaptation and adaptivity can be of major benefit for the characterization of health, and have practical implications. We explore some of these implications by discussing two recent case studies of adaptivity in public health, which can be valuable to further develop adaptive strategies in the current pandemic scenario: community-centred care and microbiologically healthier buildings.