Opinionista Leanne Govindsamy 25 March 2020

Covid-19 threat is a crisis of inequality

Entrenched inequality, years of exploitation and ineffective policies for wealth redistribution have made millions of people less resilient to health, climate and other risks. It is a situation that should worry everyone because it affects everyone.

Our health and well-being, both physical and mental, has come into sharp focus as governments and nations battle against a global pandemic. It has become clear that early and drastic preventative action is needed to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

What has also come into sharp focus is our physical environment, with public spaces no longer being safe or healthy because of people’s proximity to each other. The most vulnerable among us are required to be especially cautious – a sobering fact that has forced millions into isolation from each other; emptying stadiums, religious spaces, office blocks and busy cities. Issues of vulnerability and exposure permeate discussions and daily anxiety as we collectively navigate uncertain times.

In the midst of this public health crisis, among the environmental and climate activist community to which I belong, has emerged a narrative: “If only governments acted as quickly to address climate change as they have acted against the Covid-19 virus.”

Though we all seek drastic, urgent action to address the climate crisis, the comparison is misplaced at a time when millions are affected by this virus, with more than 10,000 deaths recorded globally by 23 March.

The pandemic’s effects are immediately felt and spread, which is what distinguishes it, and responses to it, from the climate crisis. Moreover, having tested this statement on those less connected to the climate activism sector, it appears that instead of jolting people into concern over climate it distances them further from it. People can only deal with one emergency at a time and further alarmism about an issue that appears less critical seems pointless and unhelpful.

Climate change causes death and destruction via extreme weather events, loss of arable soil and biodiversity, and will eventually be far more devastating to our life on this planet than Covid-19.

Yet comparing the climate crisis to a health pandemic is to ignore the immediacy and trauma of a potentially fatal, rapidly spreading threat to lives and families.

In my view, this undermines the work of climate activists around the world because it highlights the exceptionalism of the climate crisis instead of focusing people and governments on the ordinariness of the impacts of the climate crisis, as well as its interconnectedness to global health.

Perhaps, instead of trying to compare one emergency to another, we should focus on the similarities between the people who bear critical risks from both crises. Perhaps we should be focused on inequality and the inescapable truth of poor, displaced and marginalised people who face increased risks from the Covid-19 virus because of unequal access to quality healthcare, basic services and preventative measures, which include the option of complete self-isolation.

These same communities face unequal risks from extreme weather events and conditions caused by the climate crisis. They will be unable to escape the effects of extreme weather just as they are unable to stockpile goods and work from home, being forced into dangerous situations and conditions in the same way that people are forced into dangerous relationships with pollutant employers.

Instead of measuring responses, we need to acknowledge that the health pandemic and the climate crisis are inseparable from inequality and the vulnerability of millions of people.

Take the community of Embalenhle in Secunda — exposed to some of the highest levels of pollution in the world, with Sasol being the highest single site emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. This community has already faced and borne the effects of pollution for many decades, with children having died from respiratory disease and asthma.

Embalenhle, like communities around the world, faces a much higher risk with Covid-19 because they already bear the health impacts of pollution. Such communities provide essential labour to pollutant industries and their futures are inextricably linked to the success or failure of these industries.  Yet, in Secunda and around the world, people who are essential drivers and supporters of economies are not resilient enough to withstand a pandemic or a climate crisis.

Millions of people are unable to access clean water, avoid overcrowded public transport, skip work — especially at shopping centres and retailers, secure caregiving arrangements for children, the sick and elderly, or avoid the pollution that makes them more susceptible to any number of health risks. Entrenched inequality, years of exploitation and ineffective policies for wealth redistribution have made millions of people less resilient to health, climate and other risks. This situation should worry everyone, because this affects everyone.

We should all be co-existing in a global economy, in harmony with nature and each other, enabling each other to survive and flourish. For nations to be resilient, healthy and well-placed to combat an array of risks, be it climate or health-related, inequality must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

We need to redefine what sustainable development means if we are to safeguard the health and wellbeing of both people and planet. Any response to the climate crisis is hollow if not combined with and aligned to, sustainable strategies to address inequality, just as efforts to address our global health pandemic can only be effective if supported by enabling access to basic services. DM

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