COVID-19: Our People’s Health is an Environmental Issue

SOUTH AFRICA is one of the few countries to have secured the right to a healthy environment alongside the right to health in its constitution, yet it took the crisis of a global pandemic for apartheid-era hostels in Alexander township to be deep cleaned. As our own Department of Health moved to contain the spread of COVID-19, questions were being raised as to why the Minister had waited so long, and why had the Department of Health (DOH) not acted with similar vigour during previous TB and Pneumonia epidemics?

As the nation went into lock-down, many found cause to question the apartheid spatial planning which meant that black South Africans were disproportionately affected by problems related to access to food, lack of water, sanitation and ablution facilities. As one mother put it, ‘Our family share a single tap with four other households, social distancing is problematic for us.’ While most white folk were hunkering down in luxury apartment blocks, the poor were being relegated to townships and informal settlements where little has changed during the democratic period.

The cause is a virus which many scientists believe has come to the fore because of the same underlying factors effecting climate change. One should talk here about the ecology of disease.

“The interconnectedness of our globalised world facilitated the spread of COVID-19. The disruption this continues to cause has made evident societal dependence on global production systems,” says Vijay Kolinjivadi, a  post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp.

He observes a disjuncture in our response to the double crisis: “Although both COVID-19 and climate change are rooted in the same abusive economic behaviour and both have proven to be deadly for humans, governments have seen them as separate and unconnected phenomena and have therefore responded rather differently to them.”

“While we do not get daily updates on the death toll caused by climate change, as we do with COVID-19, it is much deadlier than the virus.”

Although a lot has been made about animal rights and the beneficial decrease in pollution caused by the pandemic, the result of what researchers such as Kolinjivi see as a ‘positive degrowth’. Now is not the time for complacency on air standards, emissions and climate change.

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland writing with Daya Reddy, President of the International Science Council, says: “The COVID-19 threat has shown that governments can act swiftly and resolutely in a crisis, and that people are ready to change their behavior for the good of humanity. The world must now urgently adopt the same approach to the existential challenge of climate change.”

In South Africa the ruling party has instead utilised the pandemic as an opportunity to escape commitments made during successive UN Conference of the Parties (COP) rounds. Readers awoke last week to find that Gwede Mantashe, had published new amendments to the Mineral Resources Development Act (MPRDA) on the first day of the Covid-19 emergency lock-down in order to escape accountability, while air pollution standards had been gutted, enabling Eskom and SASOL to double sulphur emissions.

There is palpable fear amongst activists, that in focusing on the pandemic, the nation will lose its impetus on climate change alongside its civil liberties.

“The disruption brought on by Covid-19 could reverse efforts made by governments thus far to reduce carbon emissions to tackle the climate crisis. What is needed is a way to connect the two calamities to capacitate a sustainable revival in the aftermath” writes Luveshni Odayar, a Machel-Mandela Fellow at The Brenthurst Foundation.

It is therefore imperative that we view public health (literally the people’s health) as an environmental issue, in the same way that apartheid was linked to the struggle for environmental justice by myself and others, back in the 1980s, resulting in the emergence of Earthlife Africa and other activist formations.

In fact the two health struggles, that of the public in general (and body in particular), and that of the environment at large, are so closely interlinked and intertwined, that they cannot be seen as distant relatives.

Whether food security, urban and peri-urban spatial planning, climate change or coronovirus, the rights of all citizens to live in harmony with nature, while enjoying quality of life, free from disease and illness is non-negotiable.

The result of this crisis must be an expanded concept of health and health-care-for-all, and thus a public policy which encompasses physical well-being as much as it does the Earth. That it has taken a virus to make us all aware of this deep connection, can only be seen as one of the positive lessons to be drawn from the pandemic.

Our recovery and future is dependent upon making this profound realisation a reality, and thus a yardstick which motivates and drives our country.

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