From soaring death-tolls to the threat of global famine, COVID-19, designated by the World Health Organisation as a pandemic only a month ago, has brought about the rapid disruption of our world economy like no other event in human history.
This is a public health crisis, but it’s also an unprecedented crisis of inequality, as lockdown guidelines, implemented around the world, are followed by the collapse of entire industries, unprecedented spikes in unemployment, a growing scarcity of essential commodities as a consequence of the ongoing disruption to global supply chains, and huge social dislocation arising from these.
A worldwide crisis is being exposed, of lack of access to even basic infrastructure – housing, clean water, energy and food – that would make a lockdown viable for many millions of people around the world. As the negative impacts of disruption set in, it’s the people most deprived of this basic infrastructure that feel the hardest impacts.
Inequalities of race, gender, age and ability are being exacerbated. Those with the means and security to self-isolate and access medical support are able to do so, while those without are left to suffer the consequences.
There are currently more than 70 million people around the world that have been forcibly displaced from their homes. 3 billion people have no access to hand-washing facilities.
This devastating level of deprivation undermines our collective power to contain and suppress the ongoing spread of new disease. We’ve seen no clearer illustration of the way that global inequality threatens the collective security of all of us.
The COVID-19 crisis and the inequalities it exposes are set against the backdrop of our greater ecological crisis. As the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has warned us, this crisis sees humanity on course for a century of “climate apartheid” as the impacts of rising temperatures fall with violent disproportionality between the wealthy and the poor.
As the repercussions of this pandemic plunge the world into deeper economic turmoil, we know that it’s those living already on the frontlines of climate crisis – indigenous communities, subsistence farmers, coastal communities and the urban poor, particularly in the global south – whose lives and livelihoods will again be most at risk.
Even before this pandemic, COP26 was billed as a crucial staging post in the challenge of bringing the world’s political leaders and civil society organisations together to achieve consensus on a pathway to rapidly reducing carbon emissions while building global resilience in the face of climate breakdown.
Necessarily postponed until 2021, COP26 will now be the first meeting of the world’s climate leaders in the wake of COVID-19. We will have survived one of the world’s worst public health crises in a century and we will be seeking a pathway to recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
COP26 will now be a vital arena in which to demand that this recovery, as yet to be imagined, be both a green recovery, and crucially a just recovery, that tackles the scourge of global inequality at the root, while reducing carbon emissions.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the deep inequalities in our structures, and highlighted the vulnerabilities of ecological, social and economic systems. But it has also shown how we can and must respond to crises. Our response must put the most vulnerable and marginalised first. It must be urgent and ambitious. It must be democratic, and we must resist authoritarian attempts to use crisis responses to increase their power and control. It must be based on transformative, people-centered solutions rather than political and economic business as usual, and it must be informed by whole systems thinking to ensure a truly just transition.
As we’re now discovering so vividly, our futures are deeply interconnected; whether we acknowledge that or not, there is no path to ecological balance that doesn’t start by putting the goals of social and economic justice front and centre.
Now is not the time to stop talking about climate change. Now is the time to raise our voices even louder, to call out the profiteers, to resist exploitation, to build power and stand in global solidarity as we prepare to tackle multiple crises and fight common injustices.