By Vijayalakshmi Viswanathan
Independent consultant – Social sector analysis, learning and communications
2020 changed much about how the world interacts, works and even delivers social sector programmes. Even amid new waves of the virus, there is talk in many privileged quarters that the world will soon turn the tide.
Returning to the pre-covid status quo is deeply problematic. Yet, discussion around how ‘normal was the problem’ that was often heard in the early days of the pandemic has been replaced by projected timelines to ‘get back to normal’, with a few cosmetic changes of course. For millions of others, however, life has already been affected beyond recognition and there is no going back.
Here are a few of the big picture issues that loom large in the months and years ahead.
1. Health and beyond: Longer-term pandemic impacts
Different variants are being identified and several countries are still experiencing new spikes of Covid-19 cases. The post-Covid era will come with a legacy of compromised health, both from physical and mental perspectives. In fact, the intensity and variation of long-term symptoms of Covid-19 (Long Covid) are still emerging.
Apart from health, there are three direct impacts which are of immense significance for any progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Slide into poverty (SDG 1): The crisis combined with the shutdowns has wiped out savings, even for those in the lower middle class. Daily wage workers and MSMEs in the informal sector have been hit particularly hard. The loss of work and / or the loss of a sole earning member of the family has meant immense struggles to survive. If more robust social safety nets are not prioritised, these families will be pushed back into crippling poverty.
Getting back to school (SDG 4): With schools having been shut down for long periods in most countries and struggles to how to reopen safely across the board (maintaining Covid protocols), millions of children have been attending school online. For those with fewer technological means, however, the situation is much more dire. Children without access to a device or the means to connect to the internet are being left behind, magnifying the existing gap.
Patterns from previous emergencies show that children from poorer families (particularly girls) who face a long break in their studies are more likely to never return to school. This has some casual links with early marriage and child trafficking – both of which have been reported to have increased through the pandemic. Families who have had their income wiped out may also not be able to afford to send their children back to school – exacerbating problems of child labour.
A widening gender gap (SDG 5): While women have been at the frontline of the crisis (70% of all healthcare workers, support staff in clinics and care workers are women according to the ILO), the pandemic has widened inequalities.
Across cultural and economic strata, most of the unpaid work has always and continues to fall on women. Lockdowns gave rise to overwhelming spikes in domestic violence and abuse. Perhaps most telling has been the withdrawal of women from the formal workforce, a trend reported even by LinkedIn.
2. Simultaneous crises with compounding effects – disasters, pandemics, conflict and ‘development’
While coverage of disaster events in 2020 was overshadowed by the pandemic, the need to deal with multiple crises at once was made clear. Kenya for example, dealt with locust infections, floods and the pandemic at the same time. Cyclone Amphan hit the coasts of West Bengal and Odisha in India on May 20, 2020. In more remote locations, where emergency shelters were already being used to quarantine, this meant tough decisions had to be made about how to evacuate.
Through 2020, the world saw the impact of 195 flood events; 35 cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons; 15 earthquakes and 8 major wildfire events, among others (EM-DAT, CRED / UCLouvain). This leaves aside highly localised, smaller scale events which affected specific neighbourhoods or communities.
At the same time, displacement – due to both conflict and disasters – is keeping people away from their homes for increasingly extended periods. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) recorded 50.8 million people internally displaced at the end of 2019. They tracked 14.6 million new internal displacements just between January and June 2020, over 67% of which were due to disasters. Internal displacement also comes at a cost, estimated by the IDMC to the tune of USD 20 billion in 2019 alone.
This comes in the backdrop of a sobering thought. Epidemiologists are clear that this is not going to be the last pandemic. As forests vanish, cities expand and humans & wild animals live in closer contact, there are chances for more zoonotic diseases to spread. The impacts of climate change and warming temperatures will also bring new health crises. Climate action is also about human health.
Humanitarian work, infrastructure initiatives, government policies and even mainstream businesses should all account for these inter-connected issues in their planning. All development either creates, reduces or exacerbates these risks.
2021 has already given us several vital examples of how critical it is to bring these aspects together. An extended cold wave in Texas, USA, ended up with burst water pipes and widespread electricity outages due to unwinterized pipes. This triggered a massive crisis that disproportionately affected marginalised neighbourhoods.
Or take the flash flood that took place in Uttarakhand, India in February 2021. Scientists believe it was a landslide of ice, rock and snow that started the flood. Temperatures had been high for that time of year. The damage was exacerbated by the dam construction underway – as the flood hit these and gathered momentum with the debris as it swept downstream.
There has been much talk about the development – climate – humanitarian nexus. For the people affected, these siloes are meaningless separations. Will Covid-19 be the event to finally allow more holistic thinking, that more effectively addresses the needs of communities?
3. Still an ambiguous climate for transformative change?
In the spring of 2020, an unprecedented carbon crash was spurred by the lockdowns around the world. The reduction in production, manufacturing, road traffic and even electricity usage allowed clear views even in cities such as Delhi and Beijing. Yet, this was all fleeting.
Cautious optimism prevails in the net zero declarations that are being mulled and declared, most significantly by the EU where it is being backed with legislation. Major car companies around the world are all investing in electric vehicles. Financing is evolving with the growing issuance of green bonds. The green new deal which incorporates infrastructure is still at the forefront of conversations in the US.
These are all essential and welcome initiatives. Yet, this overarching focus on technology as the saviour is still problematic. It fails (as yet) to complete the loop on how the new kind of waste it will generate – used solar panels and electric car batteries for example – will be recycled and addressed. How do we avoid another battle as we see with the growing mounds of e-waste? It also holds a distinct flavour of exporting risk to places like the cobalt mines mainly found across Central Africa and lithium mines in areas like South America. Are safeguards being put in place before the new gold rush (as some call it) wreaks a different kind of environmental and social disaster on the communities where it is mined?
Turning all our attention to emission cuts also overlooks a fundamental fact – the most vulnerable communities are already facing the brunt of the climate crisis. Net zero emissions talk of 2040 and 2050 but people are suffering now. Yet, much of this global talk has not reflected in immediate national and local budgets or actions. Multi-year focussed funding for climate adaptation and long-term resilience building still lags. In fact, the last year has seen rollbacks in environmental protections, widespread cutting of forests, development in previously protected areas, and even the opening of new coal and offshore drilling plants.
Till all aspects of the environment – earth, air, water, forest, wildlife – and our interaction with these elements is considered, simply replacing the means of production might not be enough. A holistic ecosystem approach is still sorely missing. This leads to a broader question – can our current system based on ever-increasing consumption and high inequity really become sustainable?
4. The space for dissent and civil society voices
There have been several social and environmental movements over the last couple of years that have been both persistent and gained traction. The youth-led Fridays for Future; Black Lives Matter in the US and UK; pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Russia, and Myanmar; anti-CAA and famers demonstrations in India, just to name a few.
Yet, at the same time, the pandemic has given cover to push through controversial laws and clamp down on dissent.
This shrinking space comes in a variety of ways across the globe. New regulations for protests, increased police powers, surveillance of social media and use of internet shutdowns, a widening scope of ‘national interest’ to override the need for environmental concerns, and a broad-brush use of the notion of sedition, among others. This has been coupled with increased restrictions on funding (and use of funds) for non-profit organisations and media.
In fact, the Civicus Monitor estimates that only 3.4% of the world’s population (across 42 out of 196 rated countries) now live in open societies. This looks at freedom of assembly, expression and association, and overall civic space.
5. A renewed focus on localisation and decolonisation
When the pandemic hit, humanitarian and development organisations had to quickly pivot their programming, adjusting to lockdowns, and finding new ways of delivering on projects. With travel ground to a halt, it was finally those already on the ground within the targeted communities who were in the spotlight. This meant a conscious effort to look at how they were doing their work and to celebrate local actors. Bolstered with indigenous environmental movements and networks such as Black Lives Matter, there are renewed discussions around localisation and decolonisation.
However, almost five years on from the Grand Bargain, there still seems to be no clear (or widely accepted) understanding of what ‘localisation’ looks like in practice. The verbal support, messaging shifts and countless conferences have yet to really translate to financial flows or actual changes in decision making protocols and ways of working at a broader scale. These discussions become even more critical as institutional donors change their strategies to focus more on market-oriented issues.
2019 saw the funding flows directly to national and local organisations drop marginally to 2.1% of all humanitarian aid – a far cry from the promised 25%, no matter the competing definitions of local.
Perhaps even more sadly, only 14% of the funding to UN agencies was unearmarked, making it hard to contextualise to specific situations or enable local partners to do so (Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020).
As countries rush to get the engines of the economy running as fast as possible to make up for lost time, which of these issues will truly remain on the broader agenda?
Which ones will the social sector continue to be vocal about and back with resources and funding?
Amidst the chorus of ‘build forward better’, will we truly take the chance to steel against more storms while still striving for sunnier days?