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COVID -19, Climate Change and Post-Pandemic Ethics By Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha

Well-being and Livelihood amidst Disease and Pollution

We know not whether the Novel Corona Virus is directly “good” or “bad” for the climate, but the insight towards issues of climate change and environment it brings is stark and clear. While threat of droughts, floods, cyclones and extreme storms linked to climate change will throw a constant challenge and need for perennial engagement, the COVID-19 pandemic comes as a sudden, transient, temporary yet notable intervention and obstacle to all things that modernity had taken for granted.

Both these crises are different from one another in many ways. Yet both, I argue, have a philosophical, conceptual and practical similarity: Rising climatic anomalies as well as the Novel Corona Virus have confronted the state, its development paradigms and models including the public health systems with questions that they are unable to answer.

Just as the politics of development compromised the world’s natural resources and thereby harming the environment with widespread, recurrent and highly damaging climate changes, the current global pandemic exposes the chinks in the armour of modern medicine and its limitations over the ‘body’.

In a way, by showing the state as well as the markets, their own limitations, climate change and COVID-19 lay the kingdoms of consumerist fantasies as well as ironies, threadbare: Development has been unable to dominate the environment and medicine is finding it harder and harder to dominate the body. There has been a systematic collapse of modernity’s aspiration over body and environment both.

Development, Modernity, Environment and Medicine: Time for a Paradigm shift?

In the race for development, environmental well-being was relegated to the exigencies of homogenization, ‘one-size fits all’ models of progress and ‘catching up’ to an imagined pinnacle of prosperity. Emulating the west, was touted as the best way forward.

Despite the history and reality of war, violence, loot, colonialism post colonialism, cut-throat competition, profit maximization and racism that it was itself caught in as well as struggling against, the desire of the west over Asia, Africa and Latin America never dwindled.

Not to deny, that we in Asia, Africa and Latin America too committed our own follies and had our dose of eminently entrenched elites and other groups of sell-outs who bought alien development paradigms home in the second half of the twentieth century. Of course, there were pulls and strings attached, not to forget the loan and debt politics of World Bank and International Monetary Fund aside from the many other interventionist institutions, regimes and governments.

Spreading its discursive thrust from the first world to the third, from North to South or from the rich and powerful to the not- so rich and powerful countries and back, – no matter which way we see it-the politics of development overrode many environmental considerations.

End of Cold War, ‘freer’ markets, reinforced profit- maximization policies and neo-liberal resource exploitation regimes acquired a new vigour since the 1990s.  Whether it was forests, waters, land more areas of indigenous and native habitats were put up for sale and principles of environmental justice and well-being further compromised. Because, as the development and governance specialists would have it, – economy is more important!

Environment, natural resources and local communities were taken for granted despite the rising criticisms, discontent and apparent collapse of such models of development the world over. Dark realities of development and modernity also gave courage to many well-being voices, protests and social movements all over the world.

From among the many individual follies of the East and the West, the North and the South, arose not only compelling circumstances but also sound voices and frames of solidarity and alternatives. We therefore see, that not all was or has been dark. There has always been and will still be light at the end of the tunnel. Climate change, rising inequalities, pollution, contamination, aggravation of  diseases and disorders all over the world have served in powerfully challenging the assumptions of the so-called agents of development and governance.

The ongoing pandemic proves how mainstream paradigms and conceptions can be totally flawed, resist common wisdom and crush indigenous and local knowledge systems. The ‘civilisational’ tunnels of modern development paradigms and biomedicine have perhaps been the longest and hardest structural constructs, operating and networking with a steel frame intent.

Covid-19: a strong reminder of Pollution and Climate Change

The threat of COVID-19 appears to be temporary in comparison to environmental stresses that it has put the spotlight on. However, the Novel Corona Virus, confront many an inadequacy of public health and bio-medicine as countries continue to struggle with its medical impacts and implications and challenges.

I argue that herein lie a few conceptual associations between Covid-19 and climate change that give us, as common people, an important insight into our times:

  • The pandemic questions and puts to test the bio-medicinal systems of ‘body’ management alongside their clumsy morality towards public health.
  • The interactions between the environment and COVID-19 have demonstrated how a little change can go a long way in healing the environment. Jason P. Juaregui reports how in 2019, forty billion tons of CO2 were emitted per $88 billions of the world’s GDP.  Further, as CO2 emissions and human mobility stood reduced under the pandemic, air quality and health of millions of people improved. In fact NASA’s satellite images illustrate how 25 per cent of emissions dropped in China, the epicenter of the Novel Corona Virus, in the first four weeks of the pandemic triggered lockdowns. 
  • Human beings are part of nature and all activity that impacts the environment also impacts us. Inevitably, an increase in pollution and contamination of the air, water and soil, will lead to increased sicknessand even death. Respiratory immunity has become one of the most desirable deterrents that could protect us from ill-effects of the Corona Virus Disease.  Out of the thirty most polluted cities of the world, twenty-two fall in India alone. Clean Air surveyed five countries to guage how people feel about air pollution post COVID-19.  It was found that at least two-thirds of the people in Bulgaria, Poland, Great Britain, India, Nigeria and Poland support stricter regulation to control dirty air. Three in four persons think that air quality needs to be improved in their areas. In a recent survey conducted by the Clean Air Fund, more than 90 per cent of those surveyed wanted to see Air Quality improved in their area. And it is easy to see why. Clean air means fewer asthma cases; fewer pollution and immunity related diseases and disorders; longer life spans; healthier crops, forests and ecosystems; less warming; and more predictable rainfall.
  • COVID-19 brings on an accelerated understanding of environmental issues. Just as the planet’s breathing spaces and its green energies have been sabotaged by the diktats of development and consumerism, our bodies and lungs are prey to newer kinds of disorders and diseases. The Novel Corona Virus feeds and feasts on a weak and/or weakened respiratory system and body.
  • Neither modern medicine and nor the State or markets have depicted any special ability or skill to control the pandemic. The ball is in the peoples’ court, whether in the shape of physical distancing, shut downs and lockdowns, reverse migrations, or unemployment and starvation. Majority of the populations are suffering and living through this pandemic in self-isolation with minimal means and meager resources.

Many observers and analysts around the world, wonder, what is so modern about modernity after all? Governments need to put their act together and use COVID-19 recovery packages to clean our air and environment. For that, the assumption and the pre-condition is that the policy makers have a strong public health orientation.

Public Health: Past as reflection of contemporary malaise?

Contemporary public health systems that we are banking upon to glide us through the pandemic have developed from a particular vantage point that continues to dominate their character. The questions remain:

  • What is the history of public health systems
  • How are they positioned in the bio-medicinal paradigms that govern them
  • Will the Public Health systems be able to deliver as they are
  • Should we reform them more in congruence to our times

In its nascent form, the doctrines of public health management were not only systems to study and find cures for diseases based on changing medical paradigms in Europe, but also methods to exercise social divisions, and control over the human ‘body’.

In South Asia for instance, medicine-related control went hand in hand with colonial aims and designs. Medicine and public health were in direct relationship with the political, commercial, and militaristic aspects of colonial power. There were debilitating diseases lurking in the tropical colonies: malaria, cholera, dengue, chikungunya —the list goes on. Outbreaks and epidemics could have ruined the colonial journeys and adventure into the native and indigenous world.

Medical science was therefore seen as a panacea, a means towards acquiring a more comprehensive understanding and hold over the lives and labour of the colonized. Knowledge gathering had been part of the colonial project for some time. To know the subject was to rule the subject—in the past this had meant amassing state knowledge about language, culture, and religion.

The nascent science of public health transformed this impulse into the need to control and devise empirical data regarding disease and cure.  Medical knowledge became yet another frontier in the ever-expanding quest to govern and control the colonized through doctrines of power, race and class. Medicine and public health were in direct relationship with the political, commercial, and militaristic aspects of colonial power.

Re-thinking for post-pandemic Ethics

Although working through previous models of public health to diversify and democratize them has never been an easy task, yet COVID-19 has imparted a new vigour and zest to challenge their domineering paradigms.  Consequently, holding states, and public health management bodies accountable for their role in ensuring well-being of the human body and environment seems to be acquiring an empowered approach and support base the world over.

COVID-19 comes with a sinister price to our lives, healthcare systems, and mental health, especially of the most vulnerable communities the world over. At the same time, it has also shown that communities which care for one another and the environment around them to switch on their systems of self-help, can make a greater difference.

Experts and observers analyse that this could be one of the most valuable lessons to manage not only the menace of the pandemic but also tackling the larger issue of climate change with renewed transparencies and accountabilities so that we can build a newer world based on a contemporary post-pandemic ethics:

  • Check Environmental damage, prevent pollution and switch to clean energies and fuels
  • Rethink development and work with local communities to document local knowledges with a collateral focus on environment and well-being
  • Devise participatory strategies by involving local communities in recycling, reducing and managing solid waste and effects of pollutants
  • Abide by doctrines of human rights and environmental justice so that natives and locals continue to enjoy a peaceful and sustainable use of their traditional resources and heritage

Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha is Senior Vice President-Research, at Osianama Learning Experience (OLE), Delhi.  An independent Political Scientist and Social Anthropologist keen on Migration Studies and Environmental issues.

(The views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion, beliefs and view point of the owners of asiannewsmakers.com)

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