Covid-19 and Sustainability
A Way Forward
The novel coronavirus, which emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan, has wreaked havoc all over the world. Millions of people have died of the Covid-19 – the disease caused by this virus – showing acute vulnerabilities in the health system, in even those of the world’s most advanced countries. The closure of economic activities has further deepened the cleavages between the rich and the poor. Covid-19 has raised many questions for sustainability as well. Sustainability is concerned with creating balance in, and ensuring responsibility for, actions. The concept of sustainability that has emerged in recent times concerns “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Sustainability is a combination of economic development, social justice, and environmental protection. Moreover, this concept suggests that the current socioeconomic and environmental conditions are developed by individuals so people today and tomorrow must create solutions and adapt to sustainability. Furthermore, the concept has been adopted and reshaped by United Nations (UN) through Sustainable Development Goals. The recent crisis calls for rethinking and redefining sustainability.
Social sustainability propagates that all people must have access to basic necessities, and their universal fundamental rights must be protected. Health is considered a basic social amenity. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that even the developed countries lack a proper mechanism to deal with such a large-scale crisis. For example, the United States has experienced a lack of medical tools to provide urgent medical help to Covid-19 patients. The developing countries, such as India, were hit harder due to lack of medical infrastructure. Even patients with chronic illness faced issues in hospitals and other health facilities due to a rapid surge in Covid-19 cases. Although most countries of the world are vaccinating their people against this killer disease, a source of serious concern is vaccine equity. In January 2021, World Health Organization (WHO) urged the Northern and Southern world to work with harmony in the provision and administration of the vaccine. Lack of supply and inequitable distribution can jeopardize the efforts towards eliminating the virus.
Another equally important aspect is the adverse impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of people.
A new concept of social distancing has been introduced to keep people safe from the virus, but it has increased mental stress. No handshakes, hugs or embrace, reduced human activity, and curtailed social gatherings have led to increased frustration and a spike in domestic violence as well.
But perhaps the worst influence of the pandemic has been on universal education. This has been especially true for developing and poor countries having little or low access to the internet and suffering from other infrastructural weaknesses.
Culturally, children in many poor countries with large family setups became victims of cultural ethos as they were unable to comfortably receive education online. Pandemic showed that technology divide existed not only in developing countries but also in developed ones. Developing countries have experienced dropouts that would ultimately lead towards overall low human capital – another daunting threat to economic sustainability.
Economic sustainability supports the access to financial resources for everyone to meet their basic needs. The pandemic has created an economic fallout globally that contributed towards unemployment due to business closures. Inequalities were further exacerbated by the digital divide; the results of this divide were seen within countries and also within the context of the global North-South divide.
Where marginalised groups suffered the most, the rich industrialists in some areas actually profited from the pandemic. New modes of production were introduced and online educational and business opportunities were also created. That we live in a global village where humanity can be equally affected in spite of stronger economies and defence mechanisms has exposed the vulnerabilities of the mighty nations. Especially the microenterprises are vulnerable groups.
Inequality has widened due to restricted economic activities. According to International Labour Organization (ILO), the lockdown situation has made as much as 62% of the workforce working in informal sectors worldwide vulnerable to economic shocks. Moreover, the women labour force has a greater risk of economic disruptions, especially in developing countries. International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that due to reduced economic activity, the global GDP has declined to 4.6%, and borne a loss of $6.7 trillion. According to United Nations Development Program (UNDP), around 94 million people worldwide have experienced poverty. Moreover, in 2030, people living below the poverty line would reach 44 million solely due to the impacts of the pandemic. On the other hand, according to a research article, the wealthiest people in the United States have become wealthier with the lockdown situation mainly due to online business networks.
Environmental sustainability is another equally significant dimension. It is concerned with maintaining a balance where all natural resources are consumed in a way that they could be present for sufficient use in the future as well. During the Covid-19 pandemic, due to lockdowns and reduced human activity, the environment has improved a lot. Air quality in different areas of the world has improved, emission of greenhouse gases has lessened and pollution was also controlled. The pandemic has restored the ecological system. On the other hand, a huge increase in medical waste and municipal waste has also been witnessed, threatening the environmental balance.
Human health, be it physical or mental, is an integral component of human survival. Health should be added as a fourth dimension in the sustainability framework. Though it is already there in social sustainability, it needs distinctive recognition.
International financial institutions should increase their aid and grants for public health especially for developing and low-income countries. A proper auditing mechanism needs to be devised to check the transparency in spending of these funds in concerned countries.
The world needs to resolve the crisis with solidarity and cohesion. Tariffs and other trade barriers should be eliminated for a free flow of goods and services around the globe. Countries must invest in healthcare systems. This is especially important as many countries, even in pandemic crisis, never stopped spending billions of dollars on their militaries and even on building nuclear arsenals.
Research and surveys must be conducted to analyze the overall socioeconomic situation of the marginalized class that has been hit hard by the pandemic. Concerned governments should develop and expand social safety nets for low-wage workers, labourers working in informal sectors of economy and women in the form of health insurance, pensions and unemployment benefits.
There is a need for gender inclusiveness as well because women are the most vulnerable ones in the global economic shrinkage. Governments must make policies to enhance the participation of women in the decision-making process. Education and training facilities for women should also be increased.
There is a need for economic reconstruction and structural change. Due to the pandemic, the world has heavily relied on e-commerce that opened a new horizon for economic sustainability. Policymakers should formulate such policies so as to encourage people to move their businesses online.
Governments should support small and medium business enterprises through loans and subsidies. Microenterprises are very important for economic activities.
At the local level, civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) must collaborate and cooperate to bring changes at the grassroots level. These groups are active in creating livelihood opportunities, medical services and food delivery.
There is a need to shift industries and factories to less energy-consumption strategies. The use of cleaner fuels and technologies must be introduced. Reliance on renewable energy resources is effective and efficient as it would curtail the use of fossil fuels which are a major cause of environmental degradation.
Furthermore, people should be encouraged to prefer public transport to private transportation. Especially in developing and low-income countries, this strategy would be beneficial, as countries like Pakistan and India have high pollution rates in urban areas.
The Covid-19 pandemic has posed significant threats to the sustainability of mankind. It is mainly true in the socioeconomic domains. Millions have died and millions of other contracted the virus. Vast differences in vaccine administration were seen between rich and poor countries. Even now in many sub-Saharan countries, only a small percentage of people have received jabs. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the world’s health systems and led to an economic crisis which, in turn, created and widened social inequalities. This crisis calls for rethinking and redefining sustainability. Several policy pursuits could be adopted for a sustainable socio-economic aspect with a special focus on the health system.
The writer is an MPhil scholar. She can be reached at: Iqrarz2009@live.com