How Covid-19 national response measures have promoted social-economic injustices in a changing climate
New, or novel, coronavirus, now called the Covid-19 virus, had not been detected before the outbreak that was reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. As of January, 27, 2020, human-to-human transmission was confirmed largely in Wuhan, but also in some other places in China and internationally. On March 11, the WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared Covid-19 as a global pandemic likely to affect all sectors and individuals.
As the virus began spreading quickly around the world, it ravaged Europe and other countries and the number of cases continued to soar the concern by WHO was that it has called on "all countries to continue efforts that have been effective in limiting the number of cases and slowing the spread of the virus." Soon after, the global conversation revolved around lockdowns imposed in various countries. The basic rationale for a lockdown is to reduce the spread and this can be observed through flattening the curve of this new infections. While "lockdown" isn't a technical term used by public-health officials, it can refer to anything from mandatory geographic quarantines to non-mandatory recommendations to stay at home, closures of certain types of businesses, or bans on events and gatherings. Within the package of lock-down, there has been a call for social distancing, which prevents people from being closer to each other with a distance of one to two meters.
Covid-19 and Socio-economic Justice
Similar to climate change, this pandemic is affecting the poor and vulnerable populations most. They include, urban and rural vulnerable and poor communities, mostly affected by Climate Change, day labour workers, who live on a daily wage, who have been asked not to come to work. Migrant workers returning home also pose a threat to small towns and villages. Some of the sectors affected by climate change include, Agriculture, Water, Tourism, just to mention a few. Social distancing as a result of Covid-19 has prevented such groups from working even when they need to for their livelihoods. A French official has recently said that “avoiding crowded places, meeting places or close contact with groups or other people” is part of social distancing. While the WHO emphasized on “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing”, it is still a near impossible feat for people living in poor communities as their living conditions simply do not allow them to form the advised distances. A few key examples, just to mention a few, relating to communities affected by climate change can be mentioned here.
Adaptation activities in low income communities are often done communally. It simply means no community Adaptation and Resilience planning meetings or tools can no longer be shared from one person to another as they take turns in using agricultural tools.
Unfortunately, climate change has brought another unprecedented challenge to water access. Whilst the 20 second hand-washing rule with soap is noble, availability of and access to water, is another challenge. Many communities in Asia and Africa have been having water availability challenges as a result of low rainfall patterns. Bringing home water is a huge accomplishment as finding water sources require walking for long distances.
Social distancing requires community members to be far apart from each other, that is, a minimum 2 meters. Women in the village clean their containers together before filling it up with fresh water. In Africa, women walk in groups, and laugh whilst touching each other’s shoulders, as they discuss what is happening in their families and communities.
Governments can be challenged this time to think about how water can reach the poor. In some urban areas, the availability of water depends on one’s ability to pay for it, or having a good rainfall season. For a while this has been a challenge. Some mountain communities in India live in fear as their living conditions do not allow maintaining a distance of 2 meters. People belonging to these communities line up in order to fetch water for daily use. The current measures suggested by the government has left them living in fear as the lines would run through narrow streets where maintaining a two meter distance is near impossible.
Community based tourism businesses
In Nepal, the effects of climate change have posed a threat to tourism which is a primary source of livelihood in the mountain community of Nepal. The Nepali government had declared 2020 as the year of “tourism” with the hopes of attracting 2 million tourists, however, in March, due to the rapid increase in Covid-19 cases being reported from Europe and China, the tourism campaign was suspended and borders were closed in order to protect the Nepali rural and urban based citizens. Many small and medium Enterprise tourism businesses had spent a good part of their fortune in advance as preparatory measures for the tourists that would arrive during peak season. These communities have now been left at a loss due to the loss of revenue and have reverted to menial labour in order to feed their families.
Climate solutions for the poor
While rich nations clearly crafted well-thought-out strategies that include financial bail-outs, to assist their citizen’s welfare during lockdown, developing countries have not been able to do so due to unavailability of financial resources. A few countries with the exception of South Africa have come up with a clear social distancing strategy, that takes cognisance of the poor and vulnerable, women and children in the urban and rural settings.
The WHO Chief mentioned that as governments respond to the Covid 19, they must ensure that the poor and vulnerable poor people’s livelihoods would not be affected. It is interesting that, in Africa, Zimbabwe, though it came as an after-thought, a few days after Lock-down, the president pronounced a policy where the Police were asked to stop seizing and burning the farmers’ produce. In his following speech, the President of Zimbabwe, considered the climate vulnerable and poor communities, by mentioning that, all agricultural activities were to remain undisturbed throughout the lockdown and that producers were to continue to feed the nation. He also mentioned that “... field teams working on projects meant to climate proof our agriculture, and towards impending harvests must be facilitated”. While this seemed clear, it in terms of how the communities must interact, it assumes, these can interact unhindered. South Africa’s strategy clearly considered the poor and vulnerable especially the homeless.
Whilst big corporations and businesses will get bailed out or make insurance claims, the poor communities, which are already vulnerable to the effects of climate change, do not have access to such facilities, including proper healthcare or the resources necessary to deal with this pandemic. The physical distancing, as part of the social distancing under the lockdowns, have caused indescribable effect to the social and economic lives of the poor men, women and youths in many urban and rural areas who have always been on the receiving end of climate change impacts within their sectors. This double edged injustice needs to be addressed from now, going forward and there is still an opportunity to still do so.
Sherpard Zvigadza is working in ICCCAD as a Visiting Researcher. His research interest lies in the areas of Climate Change and development, Adaptation and Emergency communication.
Irene Upadhya is a Master's student at IUB and a visiting researcher at ICCCAD. Her research interests are water security, and gender and climate change.