Time to turn virus crisis into opportunity

Hakim Hayat

Since its inception in 1970, Earth Day has turned into a global movement that is widely recognised as the largest secular observance in the world. It is earmarked by over a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behaviour and encourage global, national and local policy changes.

With the ravages of climate change becoming more apparent every day, the fight for a clean environment has taken on a more urgent tone.

However, the Earth Day 2020 came at a tumultuous time.

This year has seen countries across the globe grappling with an unprecedented crisis of a seem-ingly innocuous virus that turned into a global pandemic in less than three months.

The SARS-CoV-2 has now infected some 3.62 million people in over 200 countries, claiming at least a quarter of a million lives and bringing most of the economic activities to a standstill.

The main priority for govern-ments is to limit the spread of the coronavirus followed by economic recovery to bring tangible social benefits to the people.

In Southeast and East Asia, authorities have responded deci-sively with a whole-of-government approach. Nonetheless, it has brought disruptions to air travel, community quarantines, stay-at-home orders, temporary business closures and social distancing. Life under the coronavirus containment has become the new normal.

While this year’s Earth Day on April 22 was a markedly more muted affair as a result of an exhaustive list of measures, some experts are seeing a silver lining in the coronavirus crisis.

Among them is Venkatachalam Anbumozhi, senior energy eco-nomist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), who said, “The new normal has resulted in short-term environmental improvements, such as significant reduction in air pollution in mega cities and a decrease in energy use, thus reducing the overall greenhouse gas emissions.”

Anbumozhi, who is based in Jakarta, Indonesia, believes that the spread of COVID-19 has increased public awareness of personal hygiene, public health and the consequences of the lack of resilience and preparedness in dealing with a pandemic shock.

“Climate change, water pollution and drivers of biodiversity loss, such as deforestation and illegal wildlife trade, may increase the likelihood of more pandemics in the future, such as vector borne infections,” he said, noting that “one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months. Seventy-five per cent of these emerging diseases come from animals”. He believed a healthy ecosystem will ward off diseases, as “biological diversity makes it difficult for pathogens to spread rapidly”.

At present, an estimated one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction.

“To fight climate change and biodiversity loss, embracing sus-tainability will help not only our planet but human health as well,” said Anbumozhi.

Governments in the region recently announced stimulus pack-ages of USD3 billion to assist hard-hit industries as well as provide a boost to healthcare systems.

“At the same time,” the economist said, “the window of opportunity to take strong actions on the 2030 Sustainability agenda is closing fast.”

Once the world starts to re-cover from the COVID-19 crisis, stimulus packages “will need to be aligned to ‘build back better’, to capture opportunities for green investments, such as renewable energy, smart housing and green public procurement, guided by the principles, indicators and standards of a sustainable society”.

Anbumozhi sees sustainable societies are being inherently in-clusive and resilient, thus three imperatives are necessary.

“Resilience is essential. It has been heartbreaking to see people risk their lives due to shortages of critical medical and safety equipment, including face masks are cost less than a dollar,” he said.

“This lack of planning and preparation for the COVID-19 out-break has starkly demonstrated the importance of resilience, which is the ability of human systems to anticipate, cope and adapt.”

He added that resilience is also critical for countries and com-munities in response to climate change as “further temperature increases are certain”.

“Policymakers must succeed in planning for and adapting to climate change, or risk further calamities,” he warned.

The second imperative is to make sure that stimulus packages are sustainable.

While “governments in the region are racing to implement economic stimulus and support packages to keep individuals, businesses and economies afloat”, Anbumozhi said this is the opportune point in the pandemic to ensure the various measures adopted do not lock us in to a high-carbon future.

“Periods of high unemployment and low interest rates are the right time for new low-carbon investments and high-quality infra-structure, especially those that support the transition to clean energy, sustainable production and consumption, and a circular economy,” he said.

Anbumnozhi believes the third imperative is the addressing of inequality. “The pandemic is an unprecedented global shock that magnifies the impact of inequality as it hits the poor, women and the elderly the hardest,” he said. “Frontline workers in the service economy of medical, food and hospitality are women, who are among the most exposed to the virus and the least able to absorb its financial impacts.”

In an informal economy, he added, the hardest hit is the poor, especially the already-struggling cleaners and labourers who are often not the beneficiaries of stimu-lus packages or social safety nets.

He urged policymakers to “help these communities immediately. In the long term, they (governments) must redouble efforts to foster sustainable economic systems, including fair trade and socially inclusive investments”.

The three imperatives, he said, are closely tied to the Paris Climate Agreement, the Sustainable Deve-lopment Goals (SDGs) and the ASEAN Community Blueprint. “The scale and complexity,” Anbumozhi said, “demand that countries, corporations and communities continue to work together to achieve the future we want.”

After all, he added, “we share a single planet, drink from the same water and breathe the same air. If there was ever a time in which humanity should finally recognise that we belong to one connected family on Earth, this should be it”.