The unprecedented events of the last few months have generated much reflection and many new initiatives in the T2S community. In this blog, Alayna Kasuri brings together the cross-cutting themes from the community’s responses, to suggest new learnings for the post-pandemic world.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a pause, and even though some countries have started creating and adapting to their ‘new normal’, there is still plenty of uncertainty – with people looking to science for answers. As Ian Scoones from the STEPS Centre wrote, “‘The science’ suddenly did not seem so singular and certain, as competing scientific views confronted each other.” Uncertainty, however, has not and will not stop change. In fact, it was the fear of the unknown that accelerated change in March of 2020. Countries went into lockdown, and people left grocery stores empty – stocking up on hand sanitizer, toilet paper and other household essentials – unsure of what to expect in the upcoming months. The more data we have collected, the more the dust has begun to settle, but with the world on the cusp of reopening, managing changes is both more important and more complex than ever.
An emergency such as the current one has sped up transformations that normally might have taken years, or never happened at all. Co-coordinator of the ACKNOWL-EJ network, Ashish Kothari, wrote in a recent op-ed, “we have been handed an incredible opportunity to right many historic wrongs,” related to our treatment of the planet and to our treatment of the communities around us. This unique moment for transformations and rebuilding, though universal in the opportunities for change that it presents, does not have a universal solution. Local contexts and knowledges are more important than ever.
The pandemic has affected all of us, but it has affected all of us differently. In mid-June, New Zealand lifted all COVID-19 restrictions, while the US state of Florida set a new daily case record on 12 July. Some countries were better prepared to cushion the economic shock caused by the pandemic than others, and some have had to work with massive, densely packed populations. In the Global South, pre-existing infrastructure inadequacies make controlling the virus difficult, if not impossible. “For most of us accessing water is as simple as turning on the taps in our kitchens and toilets,” wrote TAPESTRY project leader, Lyla Mehta, “but for one third of humanity, handwashing remains out of reach: 2.5 billion people lack access to safe drinking water; equally distressing, 4.5 billion people, or more than half of humanity, have no access to adequate sanitation facilities, which further increases the risk of a COVID-19 spread.”
Even within countries, socioeconomic inequalities impacting marginalized populations are becoming more and more pronounced. T2SGS (Transformations to Groundwater Sustainability) project researchers have highlighted how women, migrant workers and small-scale farmers are among those who are affected worst by COVID lockdowns in the Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra states of India. The fragile agricultural market, combined with Brahmanical and patriarchal social structures, make it difficult for small-scale farmers to securely practice agriculture on their land. Migrant workers who lost their jobs and were trapped in cities with the public transport shutdown started walking hundreds and thousands of kilometres to get home – in fear of dying of hunger in the cities. Single women are also struggling with hunger, since many of them do not have their own ration cards. The government’s lockdown announcement was sudden and too general for a population of over one billion. “Overall, the government has failed to respond adequately to this crisis, when it comes to the needs of its marginalised population,” say activist-researchers Seema Kulkarni and Sneha Bhat.
In Africa and South America, emergency control measures have disproportionately affected Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Miners (ASGM). The international gold price is strong, while local prices have declined as a result of border closures, transport-line disruptions and non-operational smelters. Though less of a burden for those who practice subsistence agriculture, the miners in Eastern Uganda who do not are more worried about death from hunger, than death from COVID.
Hasty national-level decisions about lockdowns and other such emergency control measures abandon vulnerable and powerless groups. T2S field research has shown how local action can work in tandem with national coordination in Brighton and Hove, a city of 300,000 on the South Coast of England. To combat food insecurity brought by the pandemic, as of early May, the UK government reported delivering about 1 million food boxes to those most at risk from COVID. Simultaneously, a community non-profit called the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership is addressing COVID’s threat to food security using the meaningful relationships and mutual understandings that they have been fostering since 2006 with key groups working in and around the food supply chain. The Partnership has been supporting a citywide emergency food network, using existing food banks and creating new ones. Meanwhile in the villages of Ait Lahbib and Boudjellil located in Morocco and Algeria respectively, a similar community-based approach to combatting COVID and the effects of emergency control measures is being led by the youth due to the villages’ large elderly populations that are at higher risk from COVID. The two different youth organizations in the villages worked on four fronts: protection from the virus, village security to prevent contamination from outside, food supply and awareness building about personal measures to prevent the spread.
Emergency response efforts have been drastic and mostly based on short-term benefits, but to rebuild sustainably, the long term must be kept in mind. If done correctly, however, emergency responses hold the power to dictating how industries develop in the post-pandemic world. Stimulus measures are one such example. Though categorized as an emergency response, stimulus packages that provide incentives for more sustainable activities, adopt a ‘One Health’ approach and fund health systems have the potential to mitigate the risk of future pandemics and bring real transformative change. New intellectual property (IP) models, too, could thrive, bringing new innovation and sustainable technology to the forefront. These are two responses to the COVID crisis that hold the potential to re-centre markets around equitable and sustainable long-term transformations.
What links the action taken in the three different local action cases (Brighton and Hove, Morocco and Algeria) is the personalized framework implemented to best cater to local population dynamics, livelihood activities and needs. Bottom-up thinking generates more equitable solutions and is still compatible with national-level decision-making. Adrian Ely, co-coordinator of the PATHWAYS network and member of the Brighton and Hove Food Strategy Action Plan, said that “Imposing managerialist targets, rigid structures or formal financial arrangements may work in official circles – but they may also neglect the values, trust and community ownership that are central to the functioning of these local initiatives.”
As we move away from the time of emergency responses, we must thoughtfully consider what path we would like to take into the future. In a recent blogpost, PATHWAYS researchers Joanes Atela and Nora Ndege explained how COVID has shown the importance of local knowledges in Africa, and suggest actionable ways to integrate them into future policy cycles. With the mass of scientists having concluded that we sit on the precipice of massive climate change events, and unexpected pandemics like COVID as a result of imbalances with nature, the need to innovate to address disaster mitigation grows increasingly important. Hybrid models meeting local, national and even global needs will be essential if we choose to rebuild a more sustainable and equitable world.
Alayna Kasuri is currently undertaking an internship with the International Science Council, focusing on the Transformations to Sustainability programme. Alayna is a rising junior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA. At Dartmouth, she is studying Environmental Studies and French. Alayna spent parts of her early life in the United States, but completed her high school education in Pakistan, where she lives currently. She is especially interested in issues of environmental justice and how to move towards a future that is sustainable for all.
Photo: KB Mpofu / ILO via Flickr.