In this article, I will explore the latest developments in Covid-19 response in the form of lockdowns in the developing world and argue that their use should be limited for the short-term, and that internationally coordinated long-term strategic planning is required to face, or better avoid, similar crises related to environmental degradation in the future.
There is no question that lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions help to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and this holds true for many parts of the world including developing countries like China which is among the first few countries to have contained the outbreak successfully. Many other countries, including Germany, are beginning to cautiously open parts of the economy in steps with the knowledge of a possible resurgence. While the countries maybe running on a thin ice, as Angela Merkel recently put it, there is also hope that we may gradually return to our normal lives as the developments in drugs and vaccines for this disease advance at an unprecedented pace. However, the data remains sketchy to date and the future remains foggy–literally and metaphorically.
The bright side of the mass social distancing and lockdowns is that air quality in many cities around the world have greatly improved. In the news and on the social media, we have been seeing videos and photos of blue skies and wide horizons that were not visible only a few months ago in many areas. It should send a clear message to the climate change skeptics that global warming is real and, at a minimum, partially contributed by humans. It is undeniable that air pollution in major cities lead to breathing problems, cancer and shorten the lives of many. It would also be extremely foolish to deny the fact that pollution is caused by human activities. The global lockdown may now have reminded millions how we contribute to pollution each day by going to schools, work, shops and carrying out other activities that seem trivial at an individual scale. This unintended consequence may have also made it easier for activists to communicate to the public the issues surrounding pollution and climate change in general.
However, the global picture of ramifications on the economy, human rights and individual well-being is rather bleak. Many have raised questions recently about whether lockdowns are equally effective in less developed parts of the world–especially LDCs–and whether they may even be exacerbating poverty as well as the spread of the virus. Many developing countries lack necessary institutional capacities to help those who are out of work, provide adequate medical infrastructure, financial and human resources like doctors and nurses. In some countries, lockdowns have been used as an excuse to restrict civil liberties further as in Viktor Orban’s Hungary and in other cases authorities resorted to violence. The number of deaths due to indirect causes have been so far higher in certain parts of the world.
Lockdowns may not work, as many point out, because of the fact that many of the poor in the world today live in slums which are densely populated. Population density in some of the slums are 20 times higher that of downtown New York. It would be practically impossible to adopt proper social distancing in those circumstances. The other pressing issue is malnutrition and hunger among the global poor. According to the latest report from the World Food Program, 135 million people are in “Crisis” or worse and an additional 183 million are in conflict torn regions like DRC and South Sudan are in “Stress” conditions and at risk of worse conditions if confronted with additional shocks like Covid-19 or worsened economic conditions. In India, a number of migrant workers died from starvation and fatigue as they migrated across the country back to their hometowns. Many others died from several other causes directly or indirectly related to the largest lockdown in human history.
The Covid-19 pandemic should remind us that natural disasters can be much worse for the economies than those triggered by humans such as the recent financial crisis. In 2008-2009, the world economy shrunk by only 0.1%. In 2020, it is expected to shrink by 3% according to the IMF. This pandemic is partly a result of poor environmental regulations. The origin of the virus is widely believed to be from a wet market where wild animals from all over the world are traded in unhygienic conditions. The solution is not in improving the hygiene of such wet markets. The solution does not also lie in imposing lockdowns every now and then. However, it is imperative that wildlife trade is banned worldwide.
With the continued deforestation and loss of habitat for wild animals, we may see multiple outbreaks similar in scale and impact before the end of this century. This should no longer be a matter of political debates. Many countries indeed did not go through prolonged debates before deciding to lockdown. The fact that many politicians around the world themselves are at risk of infection and serious illnesses may have made it easier to pass laws and decrees meant to slow down the spread. The virus does not respect any national border nor social class. The political leaders can learn a lesson from the crisis and take responsibility to plan for the longer term beyond the shortsighted election cycles. Unfortunately, we do not see the same level of urgency when it comes to GHG emissions and other environmental issues. Instead, we are seeing some leaders taking advantage of the crisis to stay longer in power. Indeed, the leaders need not be selfless in pursuing climate goals because their own lives and that of their families are at stake. Another pandemic is just around the corner and, if not tomorrow, it will be coming in a few decades. It is a ticking time bomb.
Just like this virus, there are several other existential risks facing us due to rapid deterioration of ecosystems around the world. Not only are we likely to see more virus outbreaks, people around the world–especially in poor countries– face higher risks of devastating floods, draughts, storms, wildfires and other natural disasters. Just like the virus, these disasters are great equalizers and will have impact on everyone on Earth–rich or poor. If the countries cannot come together to set concrete climate goals and collaborate on achieving them, we may see a greater number of people in “Stress Conditions” or worse. Many more will face the danger of malnutrition and starvation, loss of civil liberties, volatile economies and even worse the return of dictatorships in many countries owing to “emergency laws”. To repeat the message again, the picture is rather bleak. This is not an ill omen for a future generation; it is here and now.