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OPINION: Coming through the pandemic the right way up

by Andrew Norton | @andynortondev | International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Wednesday, 29 April 2020 15:21 GMT

A stray dog walks past women waiting in a queue to receive free grocery items, during a nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kolkata, India, April 27, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Covid-19 risks exacerbating inequality and ecological destruction, but may also bring lessons of environmental and social justice

Andrew Norton is a Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

The ultimate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet clear. We don’t know how long it will last, how it will end or even how it is distributed geographically. Through the suffering and disruption of daily lives it forces us to imagine the world in new ways.

Global cooperation was already under immense stress and there is a clear possibility that nationalist, xenophobic politics could damage the chances for an effective response. But there is another way.

Keeping all the balls in the air. The pandemic has proved the importance of early action. However hard it may be for governments to focus on multiple challenges, the worst thing that could happen is to put action on climate and biodiversity loss to one side while dealing with the pandemic. The destruction of nature and ecosystems makes the world more vulnerable to pandemics and climate change is a key driver. It is crucial that the economic stimulus needed to restart the global economy after COVID-19 is low-carbon and in line with the Paris Agreement to keep temperature rise below 1.5°C. And that developed countries not only stimulate their own economies but support developing countries’ ability to thrive in the face of the climate crisis.

Respecting intergenerational justice. The older you are the more vulnerable you are to COVID-19. But those younger are vulnerable to the economic impacts of policies to contain it and will see greater damage from climate change. If young men and women are asked to make sacrifices in their life chances and incomes in order to contain the pandemic then their voices calling for action to address the climate crisis must not be ignored.

Matching responses to the context. Societies that are younger and poorer need strategies for dealing with the pandemic that are different from richer and older societies. Protecting livelihoods in countries with a large informal sector is a different challenge from those with higher levels of formal employment. Ghana has recently started to lift its lockdown citing progress on other containment measures and concern with impacts on the poor and vulnerable. Local institutions need to be supported in developing responses that are tailored to the context. Responses documented in informal settlements by the Asian Coalition on Housing Rights include providing welfare support, conducting surveys to identify vulnerable people, monitoring of the effectiveness of response and community quarantine where people cannot keep socially distanced in households.

Tackling inequalities. The impacts of the pandemic, country response measures, and disruption to economic life all fall disproportionately on poor people. As richer countries struggle aid budgets will come under pressure. Poorer countries may find it harder to generate the fiscal resources needed for rebuilding without sacrificing autonomy. Yet a durable solution requires solidarity both within and between countries. As Mark Lowcock, UN co-ordinator for emergency relief put it “Nobody is going to be safe, until everyone is safe”. Revenue systems that are more effective and fairer will be a big part of the answer in providing the resources for global responses as well as support to national economies.

Protecting freedoms. Democratic processes could be undermined if states of emergency are repeatedly renewed. This could harm core democratic processes such as elections, restrict civil society organisations and prevent popular mobilisation, including for climate action. Tracking individuals digitally for monitoring movement and health could expand state surveillance. Yet it is possible to build on high levels of trust and an effective, democratic state, as seen in South Korea, which responded effectively and has emerged with an ambitious ‘green new deal’ for environmental action.

There are real risks of rising inequality and ecological destruction on a trajectory even steeper than we have seen in recent decades. But there are also lessons that make the case for a move towards environmental and social justice. At best the pandemic will shift values, strengthen solidarity and encourage people to mobilise for change. Coming through this the right way up will require renewed respect for the rights to a healthy and dignified future for present and future generations.