The double whammy of Covid-19 and climate change

Climate change is only going to make health crises like coronavirus more frequent and worse. PHOTO: REUTERS/CARLOS OSORIO

One of the biggest lessons coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we are living in an interlinked world where no country can cut itself off for very long and no country can tackle the problem by itself. This lesson is even more true as we battle the double whammy of Covid-19 and the climate change.

Therefore, one of the solutions that we need immediately is the operationalising of global solidarity. This needs to happen at multiple levels including governments working through the United Nations, multinational companies working globally, financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as well as many others.

Currently, the most vulnerable communities in cities around the world, mainly in developing countries, are suffering the most from the lockdown measures and economic downturn that many countries are facing. While individuals and households in the slums of Dhaka, Mumbai, Nairobi, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Manila might feel that they are alone and cannot do anything themselves, they are, in fact, linked to the wider citizenry both in their own countries and across the globe.

Over the last couple of years, I have been involved in an effort to link up the communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change under the aegis of the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA). The GCA has come out with seven Action Tracks on Adaptation globally and is currently in its Year of Action for each of the tracks. I have been closely involved with one of these tracks, namely the Locally Led Adaptation Action Track, which is led by two of its commissioners, namely Dr Musa representing both BRAC Bangladesh and BRAC International and Sheela Patel of the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) which links together locally led groups in the major slums of the developing world.

Together with other groups working with the most vulnerable communities such as indigenous people, women, children, waste-pickers and others, we have been linking these grassroots groups with universities and research institutions both locally and globally to share the practical experience and experiential learning emerging out of these disparate but connected groups around the world.

In the last few weeks as the Covid-19 pandemic has been spreading from country to country, the communities with which we have been working have found themselves to be at the forefront of lockdowns being imposed in many countries. Hence, we are immediately moving our work into tackling the Covid-19 while, at the same time, preparing for tackling the climate change impacts that will inevitably affect them.

One way in which we plan to do so is for the researchers from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Universities Consortium on Climate Change (LUCCC) to talk to the representatives of communities in the most vulnerable cities and towns and then tell their stories through social media—and at the same time, to engage with decision-makers at the city and national levels and even the global level. Our contention is that for a better impact of the policies being implemented to deal with the Covid-19 public health problem as well as the economic fallout of the lockdowns, it is absolutely necessary to involve the communities themselves in implementing the policies. The one-size-fits-all approach behind total lockdowns is almost impossible to bear fruit in the most densely populated slums in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The groups we are working with are already engaging with their local and national authorities to ensure that the people are enabled to take action through providing proper information and advice, rather than mere enforcement of regulations by the police.

The other dimension that we will be exploring in the near term is to ensure that the different national economic stimulus packages that are being planned and implemented in every country prioritise investments that are both people- and environment-friendly. It is essential to ensure that we do not return to business as usual, which had caused the public health and climate change emergencies in the first place, but rather move towards a “new normal” where the policies are aimed at helping the most vulnerable citizens of every country as well as reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting the natural environment.

Finally, there is the opportunity that we need to explore, using the potential created by the ongoing shutdowns, to connect with each other over social media and online meeting platforms. We will be undertaking webinars, Zoom meetings and blogs and video logs to share our thoughts and experience with each other and with the rest of the world.

We are trying to follow the great example of the schoolchildren in the Fridays for Future movement, under the leadership of Greta Thunberg, who have been coming out of school in hundreds of cities around the world, including in Bangladesh, every Friday for over a year. They have also adapted their Friday school strikes to take them online after the schools were shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are aiming to link students from many universities in Bangladesh with their counterparts from LUCCC as well as others in the South Asian region and finally other parts of the world. The idea is to engage the university students, who don’t have classes now, with the vulnerable communities in their respective towns and join forces to tackle both Covid-19 and climate change going forward.

Personally, the most important lesson that I can discern from the best practices we are seeing around the world in dealing with Covid-19 is that states like Kerala in India and countries like Vietnam as well as Korea and Germany have relied more on informing their respective populations about what they had to do and why, rather than suddenly announcing decisions and using law enforcement authorities to impose those. Hence, when it comes to the most vulnerable developing countries including Bangladesh, we must rely on informing and educating our populations, particularly the most vulnerable communities, and listen to their concerns when formulating and implementing new policies or regulations. Without an informed and engaged population, we cannot overcome either the Covid-19 pandemic or the climate change emergency.

Originally this article was published on April 23, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).