Transitioning to a better global ‘new normal’

COVID-19 has changed our world. To mark Earth Day 2020, and the global call to act on climate change, we ask: what lessons can we apply from the pandemic response to help tackle other global crises, including the climate emergency?

Flooding in Bangladesh: like viruses, climate change recognises no boundaries (Photo: dougsyme via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

Both Sheela and I have collaborated with others for many years on how to support the most vulnerable communities in some of the most vulnerable developing countries to pursue locally led action to adapt to climate change.

One of us represents millions of slum dwellers in hundreds of cities across the global South; the other, researchers and university academics in the world’s least developed countries.

While the impacts of the coronavirus are still playing out, the lockdown policies to bring the virus under control are wreaking havoc on the communities where we and our partners work. The urban poor in towns and cities across the world are hit particularly hard.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 to almost every nation brings the recognition that we need to abandon the old, normal way of dealing with global crises. In the immediate term, we need to adopt a new (and better) normal to deal with the pandemic.

And, looking ahead, we need to apply this ‘new normal’ in our approach to tackling the climate emergency – for our planetary crisis continues to escalate; the climate-related disasters causing death, disease and displacement aren’t taking a break simply because a global pandemic has taken hold.

Here, drawing on lessons from the ground, we share some ways forward that will help the world shift to a better new normal in a post-COVID world.

  • Grow global solidarity: the COVID-19 pandemic has made it powerfully clear that no country can isolate itself from a global emergency. As with the virus, so with climate change: the impacts do not recognise geographical borders, no country is immune.This calls for a collective, global effort to prioritise and improve solidarity across all countries, with a specific commitment to be inclusive of the most vulnerable. And as we strengthen global solidarity, we must also enhance solidarity within local geographies, where the needs and priorities of all citizens are listened to and acted on. And we must be prepared to work across divides, to build bridges between the rich and poor, to work through ethnic and religious differences.
  • Listen to science, and value key workers who apply it. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought two major revelations: first, the importance of listening to the science and being quick to respond with action accordingly; second, highlighting society’s most essential workers, namely health practitioners and other key local community leadership workers who provide us with food and other essential items on which our lives depend.The new normal must value science and recognise the city’s essential workers, tasked with actioning the guidance that comes from it.
  • The path to a ‘new normal’ must be clean and green. Since the COVID-19 lockdown and the closing of polluting industries and transport networks, we have seen clear skies emerge and natural habitats be restored. The sudden and dramatic downturn in carbon-emitting activity has shown us that we can indeed cleanse and rebuild our natural environment, if we wish to do so.When we begin to move towards post-COVID recovery, the challenge will be to get back the qualities of life we had before, but without returning to the old polluting ways that brought us the problem in the first place. The path towards the new normal must be clean and green. And charting this path must be a collective effort, driven by leaders, decision-makers and ordinary citizens alike.
  • The power of citizen participation: the countries that have been most successful in stemming the spread of COVID-19 have been those where leaders have made citizens instrumental in the response.The state of Kerala, India, took early action and involved the entire population in taking measures to help contain the virus (Kerala’s population being almost 100% literate made it easier to raise awareness of the problem among citizens, and for them to take up guidance on how to deal with it).Local authorities bringing citizens into confidence and empowering them to take their own measures sensibly has been a far more effective approach than where decisions have been imposed from the top down and enforced by police.And across other parts of India, federations of slum dwellers and urban poor groups, including the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan, have been collecting data from the poorest households in informal settlements in need of food parcels. Citizens were invited to help with distributing the packs of food (a 10-day supply) and volunteers stepped forward in huge numbers.

    This systematic citizen-centric response has been hugely effective and has prevented the rioting over food shortages that has been seen in other countries. Senior national and city politicians have invited the federations to determine how local and national government can best support these efforts to reach the most vulnerable communities.

    Overall, death rates in India have been relatively low, and we have seen similar cases in Vietnam and South Korea where citizen participation has been central to the national response.

The pandemic has produced islands of isolation. But these examples show how local initiatives and leadership have anchored national action; interventions from the grassroots have connected people at local level, and from local level to the rest of the country, on to regions and throughout the world.

A new social compact for a new normal

Drawing on these lessons from the COVID-19 response, we propose a new compact.

Ths is one that recognises the need to strengthen global solidarity, one that recognises the importance of listening to scientists and prioritises the city’s essential workers, and one that puts us on track to a clean, green future where the views and voices of all citizens, including the poorest and most vulnerable, have their say in designing measures that are to be implemented locally.

Stories from the frontline

From cities around the world, grassroots groups are showing their initiative in supporting each other in innovative ways to respond to COVID-19.

In the coming weeks we will bring their stories forward to the global community and work to ensure their ideas and views are considered in future decision making, and that they themselves are involved in implementing any decisions taken.

Deep, global uncertainty – in different forms – will continue. But by adopting this better, genuinely participatory, new normal we will, together, be able to minimise the damage of all global crises, whatever form they take.

Originally this Blog was published on April 22, 2020 at IIED Website

About the author

Saleemul Huq ( is director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development (ICCCAD) and senior fellow in in IIED’s Climate Change research group.

Sheela Patel is the founder and director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) India, based in Mumbai, and a member of IIED’s board of trustees