Poor countries are facing a storm of coronavirus and climate change impacts – but commitments to help may be weakening

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Youba Sokona

Covid-19 has upended life as we know it, devastating livelihoods and economies around the world. It has delivered a devastating indictment on how little we have done to address existing problems around human rights and injustice. The loss of human life is already clear. As of mid-August there were more than 21 million cases and 750,000 deaths. Borders that had opened are now closing again. Lockdowns advertised for a few weeks are now running into months.

While the United States, China, Brazil and Europe are dominating global media coverage, the impacts are felt acutely in the world’s 47 poorest countries. Suffering from weak economies, ragged welfare nets, poor healthcare provision and battered by increasing climate change impacts, these nations were already struggling. They rely heavily on global cooperation, the United Nations, World Health Organisation and multilateral agencies to support their development. Yet with no vaccine in sight and second waves of the pandemic spiking, these processes are on hold.

Cancelling the 2020 UN climate summit in the context of Covid-19 may have made sense to the United Kingdom, but to poor countries it seems tackling climate has been postponed again while they suffer. We know that as countries grapple with domestic concerns, there has been a slowdown in regional and global cooperation, leaving the most vulnerable countries in a fragile state of danger. 

Despite economic and diplomatic ties, China, the European Union and G20 countries are sending mixed signals to vulnerable country partners. Indeed, many countries now talk of cutting back on overseas aid as they fund domestic relief projects.

Listening to the African business community, as I have been in recent months, it is clear they feel investment in critical infrastructure and welfare systems is vital for countries to flourish. According to a June World Trade Organisation (WTO) briefing, poor countries are facing a ‘significant decline in export earnings’. For example: tourists visiting Tanzania’s Serengeti have fallen from 6,000 to 24 a day, devastating local economies. Countries due to graduate to full WTO membership such as Bangladesh and Angola have been hit so hard that this now looks unlikely, undermining efforts towards economic security and independence.

What’s the answer? Development aid and investment is vital. One lesson of Covid-19 is that prevention is cheaper than cure. If we fail to prevent the collapse of economies across Africa and beyond the repercussions will be felt globally.

East Africa is facing a triple shock this summer. The pandemic has smashed healthcare facilities and the economy. Locusts are eating crops that farmers already struggled to manage. On top of that, extreme floods now threaten lives and basic infrastructure. These compound shocks will be more common in the future unless we acknowledge that while the Covid and climate are different, their challenges – as well as many of their root causes – are linked.  Both the pandemic and climate crisis reveal the need for profound transformation in all aspects of society, starting with rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, infrastructure and industry.

That much is clear from the 2018 report on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Leading global economists and development experts are clear: any response to Covid must deliver a cleaner, healthier and safer planet for our children. People who are the most vulnerable, most marginalised, and least empowered are the hardest hit by both Covid-19 and climate change. A delayed response makes both problems more difficult and dangerous and will result in higher economic and social costs, negatively impact human health and food security, and cause the loss of human lives.  

The irony is that it is the least developed countries who are leading. Look at who has already submitted a climate plan to the UN: among them number Jamaica, Rwanda and Zambia. Last time I checked they were all battling Covid-19 too. That leadership must be mirrored by G20 nations. Where are they? Stronger political will, diplomatic and economic efforts are needed.

All countries must be held accountable to align their climate change goals and Covid-19 recovery plans. The target is a just, resilient, and sustainable world. And to paraphrase UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, ‘that doesn’t’ mean coal’. The onus is on the G20 to ensure investments and trade do not build new coal plants, drive forest loss and ecosystem damage. The onus is on the G20 to deliver credible clean alternative plans. 

We know these create more jobs, transferring and mobilising the necessary skillset, and address the critical development needs not just now but decades in the future. Ignoring developing countries is a false choice and a flawed choice. These nations are fighting against the odds, they are delivering against the odds – but they need help. Covid proves that old truism. No man is an island. No country is truly an island on our planet. What affects my neighbour affects me – that is why as we build back, we cannot forget the poorest.

(The author is vice-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a senior advisor for sustainable development at the South Centre)

         Thoughts and views expressed in guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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