Multiple crises: The cost of wasted time

The world is paying for years of procrastination and prevarication. Already multiple back-breaking crises are unfolding, simply because we did not fix what was broken in the past. So, on the one hand, we are confronted with Covid-19 — leading to both health crisis and massive economic collapse, driving down the livelihoods of the poorest and the most vulnerable. As we can see from the upheavals across the world — from India to the US — it is the poor (black or brown) who have been disproportionately hit by the virus. They have suffered twice: They lost lives to the contagion and they lost livelihoods.

But even as this heart-breaking crisis is unfolding in front of our eyes, there is another looming disaster that is waving a red flag — climate change. In the last 15 days, the eastern side of India has been hit by a super cyclone, which has devastated lives and property. But this is not all, the western side — Covid-hit city of Mumbai had a near escape from Cyclone Nisarga — but coastal districts of Maharashtra were not so lucky. This, when we know the aftermath of these events is worse because it takes away the development dividend and years of investment in building infrastructure to improve the lives of people.

But this is also not all. There are swarms of locusts already devouring fields in the western and now northern states of India and countries of Africa, and threaten to do much more damage in the coming months as their inexorable flight continues across the continents.

The link of these disparate events to climate change is incontrovertible. What we are seeing today is the result of increased frequency and intensity of cyclones and variable and extreme rain events. This weather disruption is because of changes in temperatures on land and on sea. Not only is the number increasing and now, Indian scientists say there is “rapidification” of cyclones because of changes in temperature between land and sea. This, in turn, is adding to the force of destruction and the unpredictability of the event.

The locust infestation is linked to this phenomenon. First in 2018, and then in 2019, there were a series of cyclones and extreme rain events in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and eastern Africa. Then, in 2019 and now in 2020, the same African regions and Indian deserts saw unseasonal rain and extended monsoons. The desert critter became ideal breeding grounds, and its growth went from what is called the individual stage to gregarious, and the infestation grew from being categorised as an outbreak to an upsurge. Much like Covid-19 — when the World Health Organization hummed and hawed about when it would upgrade the threat to pandemic — the Food and Agriculture Organization too is “considering” when to declare the locust upsurge as a plague.

Covid-19 is the result of our progressively worsening dystopian relationship with nature. It is also the result of years of lost time, when we could have invested in public health and in building a more equitable society where the poor are not doubly hit. It is the same with climate change and every other issue that stares us in the face today. Too much time has been wasted in denial or just not to get our act together to function at the speed and scale that is needed. We do not have the luxury of time any more. My generation has squandered the privilege away.

And, this, please be clear, is only the beginning. Right now, the poor in the world — in the rich or the emerging world — are the worst sufferers; they live on the margins of survival in the best of times. Now we are in the midst of the worst of times. But as I keep saying, Covid-19 and climate change teach us that we are as strong as the weakest link.

So, what should we do? I can repeat all that we know. But I want to lay out, in my view, one non-negotiable fundamental that we must not do any more. We must not deny or cover up the problem. The multiple crises happening together are going to make the world more insecure; they will make governments yearn to be more authoritarian and intolerant. We are seeing it everywhere. In India, our top law officer has called people who draw attention to societal and governance problems vultures — likening critics to birds of prey. There is also a fine line between what governments consider needless denouncement and what they consider unnecessary during a national crisis — this then becomes that time when it is best to self-censor, otherwise it will weaken governmental resolve!

But this will not do. We need more information, not less. We also need to know what is happening on the ground so that our actions can be guided better; so that we do not make mistakes or repeat them. Let’s always remember that Covid-19 is a global pandemic today because scientists in China or at the WHO did not have the courage to speak truth to power. Making us all cheerleaders will not make the problem go away. It will exacerbate the many crises that are here to stay. 

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment
Twitter: @sunitanar

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