Why the coronavirus pandemic should not put all other crises on hold

Picture: Carla Ladau

The coronavirus pandemic does not mean that other crises are less urgent but it has rapidly restricted work with development cooperation, humanitarian aid, peacebuilding and climate change. We now have to fight many battles at the same time.

When the severity of the coronavirus dawned upon the world, I was in a remote location in South Sudan. In New Fangak’s swamp, movement is possible either by foot or boat. There are no roads or cars, and the isolation is sealed with only one flight a week.

New Fangak was severely hit by the conflict that broke out in South Sudan in 2013. The ruins of a hospital serve as a reminder of the crisis – and of its vulnerability to yet another one.

For the time being, New Fangak’s inaccessibility might keep it safe from the coronavirus. The people are currently concerned about the severe lack of food. Unprecedented floods had wiped out crops and drowned cattle. Many survive on porridge made from tree leaves.

Imagine being at the brink of famine, at the frontlines of climate change and on top of that facing the threat of a deadly global pandemic.

The pandemic poses a severe risk to work against climate change

The battle against the coronavirus has put the world in a difficult position with respect to its most vulnerable people.

People in countries with existing humanitarian crises are particularly exposed to the coronavirus, especially the world’s 65 million refugees and internally displaced people. Development and humanitarian aid operations have to adapt to tackle the virus.

At the same time, organisations are forced to scale back their operations and call home international staff. Education projects are halted when governments close schools, peace efforts are delayed with bans on gatherings, and humanitarian aid workers avoid travelling to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus to remote locations with no healthcare.

Some of the restrictions designed for tackling the pandemic might look like they would serve the battle against climate change. The coronavirus has rapidly restricted global travel and consumption, far more abruptly and efficiently than the anti-climate change movement. But it is not an achievement. The pandemic actually poses severe risks for work against climate change as prosperity declines and suffering economies urgently need stimulation. Emissions can even increase when industries are back in business.

The political will for financial commitments to tackling climate change might decrease as a result of the cost of fighting the coronavirus. The same risk is evident for any other crisis as major donors fear a global recession might hit them at home.

But the economic decline will have more severe effects on low-income countries, like those in Sub-Saharan Africa. Millions of families live from hand to mouth. A woman working at any local market usually spends her daily income to feed her family in the evening. When she is forced to close her business her family suffers the consequences the very next day.

A prolonged crisis with societal lockdowns risks exacerbating poverty and cause discontent.

People in fragile countries like South Sudan are facing multiple crises but governments and organisations are forced to restrict development cooperation and humanitarian work to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

We have to respond to many crises at the same time

It is clear that we need to fight the coronavirus today. The need for health care support, dissemination of information, thorough hygiene practices and social distancing is acute.

But we cannot afford to forget everything else. At the other end of the urgency-scale are much-needed systemic changes to battle the climate crisis. We cannot give up on the need to rethink transport, infrastructure, food and energy production and much more. We also need to continue peacebuilding efforts and respond to food crises that are key for stability.

While the battle against the coronavirus is a hundred-meter sprint – and the race is well underway – the battle against climate change is a marathon, and all other crises fall in between. We just have to run all races at the same time.

Because all crises are bound together by the need for global cooperation and resilient societies.

Erik Nyström is Finn Church Aid’s Manager of International Communications.