We should not go back to pre Corona situation once Corona lockdown is over. We have many learnings during Corona. This article proposes the need to address root causes of environmental degradation while respecting human rights and planetary limits, restore natural ecosystems including local initiatives for transformation, support sustainable agriculture and peoples responses to healthy food systems leading and supporting people responsive climate actions.

Hemantha Withanage,

Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice

Corona has infected 4.5 million people around the world and about 300,000 people are dead by mid-May 2020. Only 1.6 million people have been recovered. Millions of others so far safe from Corona are suffering from lockdown. Lack of food, access to livelihood, health facilities, discrimination,  human rights violations, domestic violations, loss of small businesses are few issues. Meantime digital world has a boom through online marketing, online education, online meetings etc. Some experts forecast that world online market giant Amazon will make their first  trillion and even Bill Gate will increase his wealth exponentially. Although world is going to lose few hundred thousand people, WHO forecast at least 7 million unintended pregnancies during the lockdown.

Learn from Spanish Flu

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with H1N1 Spanish flu or Influenza virus between 1918- 1919. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. Corona could be equally harmful according to the medical experts.

Spanish flu killed that many people during the peak of the first world war. Although the environmental pollution was very low, poverty was very high during that time. More than 60 percent American lived below the poverty line then. The poverty incidents around the world was some 80 percent. Some research suggests that over 300,000 Sri Lankans died from Spanish flu although official figures are approximately 90,000 persons.

Since the second world war the industrialization began and the poverty situation got better in the Europe and other developed countries, but about 736 million people still live below the poverty line. As of 2018, 55 per cent of the world’s population have no access to at least one social protection cash benefit. Using the most recent data, the World Bank has predicted coronavirus is pushing 40-60 million people into extreme poverty. So called growth has not reached everyone and  Worldwide, 780 million people do not have access to an improved water source. Estimated 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation which is more than 35% of the world’s population or 1 in 3 people.

Industrialization make some people rich. But it made many people poor and working class all the time. Some sustainable economies were disrupted by this industrialization by pollution and over exploitation. Spanish flu in 1918-1919  changed the business world too. Many small and big business lost and some new businesses emerged. Global coal production reduced by 20 percent. Companies such as Coca-cola boomed after this flu. There was no much discussion about the pollution and emissions during Spanish flu.

How Corona made environment cleaner?

During Corona, many people noticed the cleaning of the nature. BBC reported that in China, emissions fell 25% at the start of the year as people were instructed to stay at home, factories shuttered and coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. The proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China, according to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fading away over northern Italy. A similar story is playing out in across the world.

In Sri Lanka Central Environmental Authority claims Kelani river is more cleaner due to the non-operation of the factories. More than 7000 factories operate along the Kelani river with less than half hold an environmental  license.  In a survey CEJ conducted during Corona, 85% of the respondents perceive the environmental changes and impact caused by COVID-19 as moderate to high. Among them most people have noticed reduction of noise pollution, better air quality and regular clear blue skies and reduction of river pollution.

One can imagine the reduction of transport emissions once Sri Lanka’s  7.5 million vehicle fleet is out of the streets and over 20,000 industries are  not in operation for 2 months. But at least 1.4 million people work in these industries. We don’t know how many of them would lose jobs from Corona lockdown. It seems millions of jobs will lose by the time of ending Corona around the world.   In tourism sector alone, up to 75 million jobs are at immediate risk  due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

In April, Oil prices crashed due to Corona. More than 30 million US citizens filed unemployment benefits. US Senate passed a $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill to help workers and businesses. Chinese economy also lost due to the impact of the production sector. World governments started claiming China to pay for the losses. Governments around the world have urged employees to work from home where possible. Shares in technology companies such as Zoom have shot up.

Post COVID 19

According to the medical experts it will take some to regulate Corona. Some believe it will be endemic such as HIV/Aids. It’s a big question how the world will move once the Corona is over.

Most probably every production sector will go back to the pre-corona mode. They will do everything to gain the loses  during corona period. Industries will make more money exploiting natural resources and man power. More forest will be damaged to produce more food, more mining for energy and industrial material. People will forget Corona pandemic such as in the case of Spanish flu. There are 320,000 unknown viruses that infect mammals. Climate change, forest and wildlife destruction will result more future pandemics.

More organized industrial and production sector giants will get ready to such future risks. Sooner more people will lose jobs due to automatization of the production cycles to face those future pandemics. It is possible they will continue to promote 5G technology to operate industries, farming, mining and many other sectors to reduce human jobs. Boom in the IT sector during Corona is a good motivation for using new technologies. Perhaps unemployment will be a major issue in post corona period. Except in the IT sector, is hard to believe there will be  new jobs. Tourism sector jobs will take longer time to recover.

I believe the drop in the fossil burning will not grow much due to availability of alternatives including solar power.  Yet the nuclear power seems still in the rise. Although there is a resting time, Corona will not end over exploitation and pollution.

At the national level there will be more land grabbing as already seen even during the corona time in Sri Lanka or in the Amazon. There are some countries moving into the local production and consider about circular economy. At least for a short period local people will try to produce own food, but I don’t expect this will happen in the long run. It will be hard to maintain local production with high production costs. Unless the supermarket giants fail seriously, there will be no gain in the local economy. They produce cheaper food and other items due to the overexploitation.

Corona lockdown shows how the inequity affect people differently. It showed how the poor and lower middle income families are vulnerable to environmental, health shocks. It proved that lack of local sustainable  food and basic production can pressure the local population. It has also proved that big multinational food chains are not the solution for majority. This also proved that how the lack of social and economic security for majority can leads to discrimination.

Transform the world to make it more livable and sustainable

Corona is a moment to think how we can overcome these issues. It’s time to make our future plans. We have already identified the importance of sustainable development goals which encompasses every sector. We have identified, how strong our health system, but how hard to manage it with few undisciplined people. We have learned that drug addiction is beyond a heath and social issue. We saw that how people easily adapt to the situation and even started growing own food.

Making village units sustainable is a way forward to face future pandemics. Building cities and urban centers will be a mistake in the future. If we are serious about water the industrial pollution should be moved outside the river banks.  They should be moved to the highly regulated industrial zones. Ad-hoc industrial development will make us more vulnerable to the future shocks. Forest only can save humans from future virus pandemics  and climate change. We should let the wildlife to stay in their habitats as they balance the nature.  They should not be destroyed for human settlements or food production. Abandoned agricultural fields can serve food production with new technology. Of course small home gardens is the best way to support the local economy. Although people stared farming there are no local seeds available. Promotion of local seeds  and agoecology is a way forward for food production.

Corona proved that most products in the market are luxury items. It proved that people can easily survive without many of them. Stopping the production and importations of those unnecessary items is vital for the local sustainability and stop overconsumption and over exploitation.

Finally, Globally and locally we should address root causes of environmental degradation while respecting human rights and planetary limits. We have to respect nature unconditionally and restore natural ecosystems including local initiatives for transformation. Governments should support sustainable agriculture and peoples responses to healthy food systems leading. Governments also should support people responsive climate actions. |Photo Credit Ajith Etugala| (END)

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