Matter of Life and Death

A sustainable future will depend on whether we can draw potent lessons from past blunders in respect of climate change, inequality, a fairer sharing of the fruits of prosperity, governance or of arrogantly trying to play god

By Mrinal Roy

The world is in a state of emergency owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the global spread of the virus is accelerating. Across the world more and more governments are realizing, in the light of the exponential spread of Covid-19 in their countries, that a total lockdown of their country, social distancing and a strict confinement of people in their homes as well as rigorous hygiene precautions are the only efficient measures to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rising toll of deaths. However, what is particularly galling is that large swathes of people still throng the streets or crowd public places and supermarkets despite governments’ calls to the people in various countries to remain confined at home to prevent the spread of the disease through human contact in crowds and mass gatherings.

The upshot of such irresponsible behaviour is that instead of being contained, Covid-19 is spreading exponentially. Blatant indiscipline by people in applying strict confinement measures is causing more persons to be infected and more casualties especially among the elderly, who, statistics reveal, are more vulnerable to the disease. This is akin to the irresponsible behaviour of those corporations who despite the potent risks of an impending climate change catastrophe continue to belch carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Such wanton behaviour by some is causing Covid-19 to spread to more and more countries, infecting more and more people and causing more deaths every day. The statistics are grim. In the face of such irresponsible behaviour, an increasing number of countries are therefore enacting new laws to give powers to the police to enforce the confinement at home rules and prosecute those who do not abide by the law.

Strict confinement at home

More than 2.5 billion people or about 32% of the world population are now confined to their homes in more than 35 countries by mandatory government lockdown orders. France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and other European countries have ordered people to stay at home, threatening fines and other sanctions in some cases. The success of the strict confinement measures imposed by China on people in the Hubei province following the outbreak of Covid-19 in its capital Wuhan, to contain the spread of the disease in the country is acting as a model which is being emulated by many countries in the world.

This week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a complete three-week lockdown of the United Kingdom, in the wake of evidence that thousands of people continue to gather in large numbers in public parks and elsewhere in the country in defiance of the government’s calls to stay at home to contain the pandemic. Henceforth, people will not be allowed to leave their homes except for a few specific and essential reasons such as buying food or seeking medical treatment, etc.

In the United States, more than 75 million people representing about a quarter of the U.S. population have been ordered by states such as California, New York, Illinois, Connecticut or New Jersey to stay in confinement at home to enforce social-distancing measures. As elsewhere in the world, they are only allowed to go out for specific reasons such as to buy groceries or medicine.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imposed a 21-day lockdown until 14 April on 1.3 billion people in the fight against Covid-19. Delivery of all essential goods including food, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment will be effected through e-commerce.

The lockdown imposed by more and more countries to fight Covid-19 aims at saving lives. In a bid to prevent the spread of the disease though large gatherings of athletes and people from all over the world, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have logically been rescheduled to 2021 and will be held by summer 2021.

Breaking the chain of contamination

Mauritius has also ordered people to remain confined at home and has imposed a complete lockdown on the country till 2 April. The lockdown was decreed as some people were still flouting the confinement rules and therefore facilitating the spread of Covid-19 and endangering their lives and those of other people in the country. The law has thus been amended to give powers to the police to enforce the confinement at home rules and prosecute those who do not abide by the law. Supermarkets should in the context of the lockdown envisage putting in place a delivery service for groceries ordered on an e-platform to prevent people from leaving the safety of their homes during the lockdown, especially as the confinement period could be extended. Crowds at supermarkets enhance the risks of person to person contamination.

The virus is now in the country. It has entered the country through visitors from abroad and Mauritians working on cruise vessels. We must remember that humans are the carrier and vector of propagation of Covid-19. Contact tracing has helped map out the footprint and the spread of the disease in the country. Its spread can only be contained by preventing person to person contact among people through a strict confinement of people in their homes, social distancing, a rigid control over the movement of people and rigorous hygiene precautions such as regularly washing our hands with soap. People must keep at a distance of 1-1.5 metre from other persons. Social distancing must in particular protect the elderly who are more vulnerable to the disease.

It is evident that if people adopt strict confinement measures and eliminate person to person contact by adopting a rigorous social distancing protocol and rigorous hygiene precautions, the chain of contamination of the virus can be broken and its spread in the country halted. The life span of the virus is short. If the virus cannot contaminate other persons, its spread will be thwarted. If as a nation we show national solidarity and safeguard each other from the risk of contamination by Covid-19 by staying confined at home during the whole of the curfew period until no new cases are detected, we can quash the threat of the pandemic in the country. This battle could however be longer than expected.

Positive fallout

A major positive fallout of the confinement of people at home and the reduction or shutting down of industrial output across the world is that carbon emissions and air pollution levels have fallen drastically in some of the most polluting countries in the world. The European Space Agency released new video footage this weekend which shows that air pollution is markedly lower in South Korea, Italy, the UK and China during the Covid-19 lockdown than in the same period last year. For climate scientists, this is a real world scale experiment and reality check of the immense benefits of a ban on the use and burning of highly polluting coal and fossil fuels by industrial countries on air pollution and on eliminating their adverse impact on climate change.

According to Stanford Earth Sciences Professor Marshall Burke the two months of coronavirus lockdown had saved the lives of 77,000 Chinese children and elderly from air pollution alone.

A new mode of governance

Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of mankind to a tiny virus which is wreaking havoc in the world. This week has seen the totality of the 195 countries of the world infected. The virus has forced lockdowns, the confinement of people at home, grounded airlines, shut down economic activities and disrupted trade flows and supply chains. All these unprecedented and extreme actions were taken to combat the virus and save humanity from the pandemic. They have dire consequences on the world economy.

Why have such robust actions not been taken as yet by the polluting countries of the world to halve global carbon emissions by 2030 and reach Net-Zero by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C and save Planet Earth from the dire fallouts of an impending climate change catastrophe? Is Covid-19 Nature’s backlash against wanton corporate polluters who are responsible for the havoc being wreaked by climate change? Is it not therefore time for retrospection and reflection on the manner in which we tinker with and despoil the environment and endanger our homeland, Planet Earth?

Life on earth is a delicate balance. The insatiable thirst for Mammon and the decried actions of those responsible for the dire consequences of climate change on Earth are putting this balance in jeopardy. A sustainable future will therefore depend on whether we can draw potent lessons from past blunders in respect of inter alia climate change, inequality, a fairer sharing of the fruits of prosperity, governance or of arrogantly trying to play god.

The battle against Covid-19 and the dire fallouts of climate change on the future of the young and mankind are matters of life and death. It is only when the battle against Covid-19 is won that we will be able to comprehensively tackle the resulting economic crisis. Will it not then be imperatively time to adopt a new approach, a new mode of governance and make game changing choices for a new policy framework which not only reverse the adverse fallouts of climate change on Earth but also assure a future for all which is sustainable, inclusive, progressive and in harmony with nature?

* Published in print edition on 27 March 2020

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