COVID-19 and the environmental crisis: a reading focused on human rights
By EWB-Ar Climate Crisis Comission
Translated by Andrea Mazzocchi and Grecia Zamateo de Luna
Here we are, this autumn, almost half a year swept away by the pandemic and with the promise of returning to “normality”. This prompts us to think about how we want to proceed along this path and to wonder if there will be any chance of designing other possible development paths focused on human rights and taking the lessons learned from this global crisis as a starting point.
Through some key messages, COVID-19 happened to reinforce the importance of the interdependence that links us as species and to our environment and nature.
We are extremely vulnerable, and our health depends on the ecosystem’s health.
Science has been warning us for a long time about the fact that overstraining the ecosystems along with the loss of biodiversity would result in the spread of zoonotic diseases which are transmitted from animals to humans. Still, we keep on clearing forests to expand the frontiers of agribusiness and its transgenic crops with toxic agrochemicals. We breed livestock massively and improperly, and use an increasing amount of antibiotics in an “arms race” in which bacteria become progressively more resistant until they become a breeding ground for viruses and diseases that get into our daily food. We stress and break up ecosystems disregarding our dependency on their well-being. We invade wildlife and offer animals in large shop windows in trade markets.
Just as we disregard the warnings from science, we disregard the consequences of the way we manufacture, consume, and inhabit on the outbreak of the coronavirus. We make it natural for its impacts to be unequal depending on our location in the social pyramid, whether we are closer to or further away from access to basic human rights such as water, housing, work, and food.
The assumption that productivity can be maximized without taking into account the environmental impact has shown signs of exhaustion.
Over the last few decades, the “just in time” production model has been established. Technology has increased productivity and has led to the clustering of ever larger and more sophisticated production units as a mechanism to maximize productivity at the lowest possible cost and leaving the environmental impact out of the financial equation. This was done by using production lines that need fewer and fewer workers to perform simple and repetitive tasks. These production systems have been automated to support exponential levels of consumption with an extractivist and accumulative vision.
The agglomeration of production resulted in agglomeration of people in increasingly crowded cities, causing higher levels of pollution, centralization, rivalry for resources and also environmental impact. This is so real that the pandemic has not diminished the visibility of the weaknesses of the current paradigm and its production strategies have become evident, for example in the intensive industrial farms in the United States where the virus has spread beyond control.
We need common responses, coordinated amongst countries, aimed at reducing social inequalities through distributive mechanisms.
The economic context of this double crisis, health and environmental, highlighted the interconnection and interdependence that exists amongst countries, as a result of an accelerated process of globalization that brought deep inequalities and affected fundamental human rights. Development models which are unable to give answers, display their own contradictions, for example, in the attempt to accelerate an energy transition in the framework of grants to the extraction of fossil fuels that are amplified. The economic crisis is not only the effect of the pandemic, but one of the causes of its enormous impact.
Facing this scenario, the need to extend assistance in the short term, through emergency income, sustained in extraordinary fiscal tools, arises. Simultaneously generating progressive tax mechanisms that favour the redistribution toward the most vulnerable, giving them new opportunities. To focus state investments in projects with impact that prioritize employment generation, entrepreneurship that focus and/or include aspects of energy transition toward renewable energy, alternative models of food production based on the paradigm of agroecology supporting small-scale producers, projects of circular economy, land-use planning policies that promote a better distribution of the population from these decentralizations in energy generation and food production.
The COVID-19 brought the worst out; the weak pillars on which the system is sustained: border closures, unfair competition for scarce resources (for the health system) and, mainly, an affectation to the workforce that will leave a mark even deeper, becoming necessary the discussion on basic income, an unconditional basic citizen income, as an inclusive and egalitarian mechanism, which would allow to reorient the future of work.
We face an uncertain scenario on which we can build right and fair alternatives.
The challenge is to take this crisis as a window of opportunity for the transformation of current paradigms and the transition toward paths of greater equality and collective well-being. An ambitious vision, of an ecosystem approach of co-creation and integration, which is projected in all its aspects: including education as a tool for collective transformation, ecological and inclusive; supporting the science-based decision-making in articulation with the different areas (civil society organizations, academies, corporations and the Government) for the construction of alliances that understand the socio-environmental problems is key in the affectation of human rights.
Challenges in the government mechanisms also came into play; the need for stronger global agreements and representatives that take into account the planetary boundaries and social inequalities, encouraged by collective actions and socio-environmental movements that are more present and more sustained and growing. The importance of considering the role of communities in decision-making in all their scales, to foster international cooperation and multilateralism, benefiting cross-border and regional relations.
Without a doubt, we have a great challenge ahead: to work for the integration of environmental, economic, and social agenda; on the basis of broad social coalitions with a focus on human rights. We hope that the systemic problems that are brought out into light with the crisis, are the fuel to generate transformations which will allow us to envision and build other possible trajectories.
 By 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned about this problem pointing out that “75% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals and that these conditions are closely related to the health of the ecosystems”.