Climate Change

COVID-19, climate change, inequality: Centering rights and environmental protection

Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, climate-induced disasters and extreme weather have continued to wreak havoc in the Global South, adding to the burden of poor countries  

By Amani Ponnaganti, Lucy McKernan
Published: Thursday 16 July 2020
UN human rights experts highlighted the disproportionate harm to women and children caused by COVID-19. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated health and economic crises have revealed the fault lines in our economic and political systems, which are producing intertwining crises of inequality, climate change and environmental destruction.

The consequences of the pandemic have not been equal across our societies, as we saw for instance in India where millions of informal sector workers were forced to flee on foot to their home villages, when the lockdown abruptly eradicated their livelihoods and rendered them destitute.

Similarly, we have seen how the climate crisis has unequal impacts, which exacerbate racial, gender, socio-economic and other inequalities.

The political and economic systems that are reproducing inequalities are also driving the destruction of nature and climate change. COVID-19 has drawn attention to the fact that pandemics are a consequence of large-scale human destruction of nature, driven by an extractivist, growth-obsessed economic system.

Those same systems, after years of austerity and privatisation, have weakened the public health, social security, housing, education and food services and institutions, that are so crucial to tackling inequality and responding to pandemics and climate-induced disasters.

These intertwining and reinforcing crises are linked to our faulty political and economic systems which fail to prioritise human rights and which destroy nature and drive climate change. However, amongst the devastation, solutions and opportunities are also being illuminated, to ‘build back better’, by putting human rights at the centre, protecting the environment and investing in a just transition to a low-carbon regenerative economy.

Intertwining crises

Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, climate-induced disasters and extreme weather have continued to wreak havoc in the Global South, adding to the burden of poor countries.

Cyclone Nisarga struck western India in early June, just weeks after cyclone Amphan led to over 80 deaths in eastern India and Bangladesh.

Locust swarms, exacerbated by rising temperatures, are raging across the Global South, devastating crops and threatening food security and livelihoods.

In May, the Red Cross warned that East Africa faced a complex ‘triple threat’ from the impact of the pandemic, locusts and flooding.

The temporary decline in pollution during lockdowns, reminded us that our extractivist economic system which prioritises growth and overconsumption is the root cause of these intertwining environmental crises.

Further, the pandemic reminds us that human survival is dependent on the health of the planet and that future pandemics and climate disasters can only be avoided through embracing new systems that respect planetary boundaries.

Despite this, there have been rollbacks in environmental protections, bail-outs for big polluters and a rise in land conflicts during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as illegal loggers, land grabbers and corporate interests take advantage of the oversight gap and the inability of indigenous peoples and local communities to protect their lands.

Long-term political and societal change to address the underlying root causes is necessary.

Crises expose and exacerbate existing inequalities

What the COVID-19 and climate crises have in common, is that while they both have the potential to impact anyone, they do not impact everyone equally.

In unequal societies, some are more vulnerable to crises than others due to unequal access to resources and power and discriminatory structures and stereotypes.

The impacts of both COVID-19 and climate change have revealed both vertical inequality (between individuals) and horizontal inequality (between status groups), reinforcing long entrenched paths of discrimination and inequality based on caste, race, and gender and socio-economic situation.

The plight of persons living in poverty during the pandemic, such as those living in informal settlements, in over-crowded homes, with no access to potable water for hand washing, nor internet for online education, is a stark reminder of vertical inequality.

Poor and marginalised communities are also more likely to live near polluting and extractive projects which cause respiratory health issues and make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Similarly, climate-induced disasters and extreme weather disproportionately harm poor communities, especially in the Global South, who have contributed the least to the climate crisis.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty warned of a ‘climate apartheid’, with climate change threatening to push more than 120 million people into poverty by 2030.

The pandemic also reveals and exacerbates group-based inequality. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the pandemic is having a “disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities” and increasing racial intolerance, such as in India, where conspiracy theories falsely implicated Muslims in disproportionately spreading the virus.

Other UN human rights experts have highlighted the disproportionate harm to women and children, the elderly, internally displaced persons, indigenous peoples, caused by COVID-19.

Investing in economic and social rights makes communities resilient

Prioritising economic and social rights is key to responding to these crises. COVID-19 shows us that when governments invest in economic and social rights through universal access to public healthcare, education, housing and social security, people are more resilient and able to cope in times of crises.

Public services are also vital for countering economic inequality, through resource redistribution and ensuring universal access to essential services.

This was the recent message of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN Human Rights experts who called on states to invest in universal healthcare and social protection systems.

For example, in the south Indian state of Kerala, a strong public health system proved essential to containing the virus.

On the flipside, countries that had privatised public services were ill-equipped to respond to the crisis and some states even moved to nationalise or temporarily commandeer private hospitals and healthcare services and railways to ensure their ability to guarantee essential services. 

Investing in economic and social rights also helps reduce vulnerability to other crises.

An analysis of data from 130 countries over three decades on climate vulnerability found that “education (and in particular female education) is the single most important social and economic factor associated with a reduction in vulnerability to natural disasters.”

The way forward — rights, well-being and nature

The intertwining COVID-19, inequality and climate crises are jeopardising our collective future and particularly the lives of poor and marginalised communities.

Continuing with business-as-usual and ignoring the converging crises is no longer an option.

This is a moment to reflect on the current economic model of growth and development and to look to transformative alternatives that centre human rights and dignity and that value and protect nature.

We can start by recognising health, water, food, housing, social protection and education as rights, not commodities and investing in inequality-busting public services; tackling systemic discrimination and taking ambitious rights-respecting climate action.

We must collectively build transformative solutions based on rights and dignity to realise a just and equitable world for present and future generations.

Amani Ponnaganti is a researcher and activist working on socioeconomic rights and environmental justice in South Asia. She is currently a Programme Associate with Nazedeek, a legal empowerment organisation based in Delhi. 

Lucy McKernan is a human rights lawyer with over 20 years experience and she is currently the Geneva Representative for Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR).

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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