I have a simple belief: that the Covid epidemic is a message from the Earth pleading with us to stop destroying her.
Since the start of the industrial revolution, the Earth’s health has declined rapidly, but has now made a partial recovery, thanks to Covid. However, there has been another setback…. an announcement that yet another of the 9 planetary boundaries has been exceeded. To date, the boundaries that have been exceeded are: climate change, biodiversity loss, land system change, biogeochemical flows (nitrates and phosphates); and now we include novel entities, which has plastic pollution as a major component. It appears that She will never fully recover until our species is able to live in harmony with her or….. we become extinct.
It is not just the environment that is under stress. We too, have suffered. The epidemic has been a long and stressful grind. Is the end in sight or are we just waiting for the next variant?
‘During the lockdown, we didn’t die without shopping for new clothes every week, and even our shiny car couldn’t bring us joy. Instead what did bring happiness was a chat with our loved ones, learning how to bake, and maybe just watching the clouds fly by. The consumerism and materialism that fuels carbon emissions and climate change should die along with this virus.’
So why can we not learn to live in harmony with the Earth?
The immediate changes to lives
‘When the lockdowns occurred in In Cape Town South Africa, communities quickly organized themselves in what became known as Community Action Networks (CANs), starting with a few people on WhatsApp and growing from there in order to support the specific needs of neighbours and community members. Initially they addressed needs like access to food, water and safe ways to self-isolate. Eventually there were over 170 CANs in the city.’
There have been a slew of lockdowns and movement restrictions in an effort to control the spread of the virus, as well as the implementation of face masks, distancing, vaccinations and so on. We have had massive hospital overloads. The direct costs to control the virus, including hospitalizations, vaccines, loss of tax revenue etc. has been enormous. Indirect costs have also been extensive, with the businesses most affected being in the travel and tourism sector, not to mention restaurants, luxury goods etc. We have had to change our ‘modus operandi’ by using on-line ordering and delivery services much more, and work from home with the help of various online tools such as Zoom, while the poorer members of our community simply focused on staying alive supported by donations and attempting to grow their own food.
The effects of the Covid pandemic
The effects on the environment and a reduction in global warming has, on the whole, been positive. For example:
- Covid reduced global energy demand by 8%
- CO2 emissions were reduced by 6%, largely due to less transport activity such as flights and shipping
- Rhino poaching stopped (killing for the horns)
- Penguins walked the streets of suburbs while humans stayed indoors – reminiscent of some of Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons
- Whale birth rates increased. With less shipping activity, whales and other sea creatures could hear over longer distances and find mates more easily.
However, the effect on excesses to the Earth’s planetary boundaries has not stopped.
Poverty alleviation has had a major setback, particularly in Africa, with long supply chains for food aid. Some food programs are now only feeding the starving by taking from the needy.
Bankruptcy has been at an all time high. Job losses have also been high. It is devastating that there have even been suicides related to financial difficulties.
Long distance supply lines have been disrupted, resulting in some supply lines going local. Local supply lines developed in the epidemic are now being cemented. The electronics industry has been hard hit with components made in one country and used in the manufacture of products, such as cars and phones, in another country. Production was seriously disrupted.
Rethink and Recover (R&R)
‘Species and populations are being driven to extinction every year at so high a rate, that Earth’s assemblage of plants and animals is now well into a sixth mass extinction episode’
Now what? Man has to carefully think about what to do so as not to provoke Mother Earth any further. We have to try to curtail the forest fires, storms, melting ice and the destruction of coral reefs. We have to reduce the probability of the next epidemic and at the same time prepare for when it comes.
We need to take advantage of the situation in a positive way and turn short-term crisis relief into longer-term social innovation. So, after Covid, the question is….. how do we turn the benefits of the short term crisis relief process into longer term benefits to the community? There are a few possibilities.
A shift from volunteering to ‘social entrepreneuring’
The pandemic has triggered a number of volunteering projects, but these cannot be maintained long-term. Hopefully, once the volunteering dries up, many of these projects will be adapted into models which are income-generating.
In South Africa, FoodFlow, a new nonprofit organization, endeavoured to address the issue of food shortages by using donor funding to purchase produce from small farmers and then pass it on to organizations that distribute food to communities in need. In this way, it created an entirely new supply chain that connects small, poor farmers with vulnerable communities in need of food.
‘FoodFlow is an initiative enabling small-scale farmers and fishers to viably feed their local communities during the COVID-19 hunger crisis. To date, we have paid over 1.6 million rands in purchases benefiting 400+ farmers and fishers and delivered more than fourteen thousand harvest bags to 30+ communities in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.’
Build an economy around local food value chains
During the lockdowns, food chains rapidly became local. Networks of food gardens mushroomed in some places. Government and larger, established organizations also recognize the need to build local, resilient food systems. Two such enterprises, again from South Africa, are changing the way produce is marketed.
In Cape Town, the CANs previously mentioned, created a vibrant network of food gardens that both supply produce to the community kitchens and sell to the market to raise funds. Poorer suburbs supplied more affluent suburbs with their excess veggies which in turn paid for producing them.
The Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, a nonprofit which brings together government, business, and civil society, used funding from the Western Cape Government and a private donor to transfer bi-monthly digital vouchers to 225 community kitchens, on the condition that the kitchens purchase their produce from small, local vendors, wholesalers, and informal traders in the townships, rather than large formal retailers.
In the USA, local food markets are now making a major comeback.
Develop and use local knowledge and partnerships
In establishing local solidarity economies, civil society activists are also seeking to make use of, and further enhance, two important resources developed during the crisis response: local knowledge and social networks. These networks enabled the exchange of diverse resources within vulnerable communities, and between vulnerable communities and wealthier suburbs. Civil society groups are now proactively building on these local knowledge resources and networks with the longer-term in mind.
Promote evolving ecosystem of social innovation networks
The strengthening of established networks and the emergence of novel connections has included networks within communities (bonding social capital), connections between different communities (bridging social capital) and between communities and influential institutions like government (linking social capital).
As the pandemic evolved, some of these groups considered registering as formal organizations in order to gain access to grants from larger civil society organizations, government agencies, and other funding sources that require registration and formal accountability mechanisms. Others balked at the prospect, mostly because of the administrative burdens that attend registration, but a promising, in-between model is emerging, in which community groups partner with established, registered organizations.
Engage the government in diverse ways
Some of the interactions between new civil society groups and government have been complementary and supportive. These diverse approaches to engagement, fostered by the broader ecosystem of civil society activists emerging from the crisis, are promoting state accountability.
In the USA The Sunrise Movement is a youth group working to stop climate change while creating millions of good jobs in the process. They want to make climate change an urgent priority across America, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.
Change attitudes: Don’t go back to ‘Business as Usual’.
A return to ‘business as usual’ and environmentally destructive investment activities must be avoided at all cost, for the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis to be durable and resilient.
We need to use social media to influence people to become more conscious of what they are doing to the environment and others. It is starting to work by influencing politics in a number of countries. Why not apply it to changing people’s attitudes?
A great tool used by the Amsterdam Doughnut project was a framework of questions with local/ global and social/ ecological components as shown here:
The questions focus both on the people and the habitat within which they live.
Take advantage of new business opportunities
In India, dozens of virtual markets opened up during the lockdown as quickly as the street markets shut. Many of them were community farming initiatives that are now using the internet to connect farmers directly with consumers, cutting out the middlemen. These new digital platforms are now gearing up for a longer shelf life.
‘The local wholesalers were offering such low rates, and the produce was rotting. That was when I got a call from A-Bani suggesting I market my produce online.’
Other examples of individuals taking the initiative.
- A retrenched oil engineer in Scotland started a hand sanitizer company now valued at a million pounds. His sanitizer does not dry the skin like some other similar products on the market.
- In South Africa, a cancer victim started growing vegetables in used plastic shopping bags. Not only has it garnered her an award, it has now been scaled into a viable, profitable, business.
Numerous opportunities for sustainable energy are becoming available. Solar and wind farms are mushrooming.
There is a move towards so-called Eco-tourism, which, among other things, aims to benefit indigenous groups.
Technological innovations are offering up some surprises and cross industry cooperation has created solutions to some tough problems. These are just a few that I’ve come across:
- Concrete Chemicals GmbH, is a joint venture which combines green hydrogen and CO2 from cement plants to produce green aviation fuel .
- An innovative Indian Company, Graviky Labs, has invented technology to remove carbon from exhausts to produce printer ink, called Air-Ink.
- Meatless burgers, which actually taste just like real meat but are plant-based, are being produced by companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
Optimize the use of restrained financial resources
During the pandemic the World Bank unlocked funding not normally available to small businesses. Some examples.
In Cambodia artisan Vorachith Keoxayayong has continued his village’s long tradition of wood sculpture. His company, Vorachith Wood Carving, employees 23 people – providing meaningful and sustainable employment in his community. Small enterprises, like his, as well as medium-sized enterprises, account for more than 80 percent of employment and some 94 percent of all registered firms in Lao PDR.
Pakistani entrepreneur Maliha Khalid and her team run Doctory, a hotline service that helps patients avoid the multiple referrals often required for treatment by connecting people to the right doctor immediately. When the pandemic reached Pakistan, the Doctory team sprang into action, launching Pakistan’s National COVID-19 Helpline, connecting people across the country to fast, high-quality care – saving them both time and money.
When the Kenyan government implemented lockdown measures to help contain the spread of COVID-19, the economic side effects were felt especially by poor communities. Finding opportunity in crisis, the government created the National Hygiene Program – known colloquially as Kazi Mtaani (loosely translated as “jobs in our hood”) – which finds meaningful employment for the most vulnerable, especially youth, in jobs that improve their environments. These programs include bush clearance, fumigation, disinfection, street cleaning, garbage collection, and drainage clearance.
At the other end of the funding scale, at COP26, a $100 billion ‘a just transition’ fund was established by developed nations to help lesser developed nations mitigate their emissions and move to net zero. It has an infrastructure focus: power, water, transport, sanitation and communication.
Funding in many areas is still difficult to obtain and allocation of very limited funds is an issue. The Doughnut economic model focuses on key areas which improve the wellbeing of people while simultaneously trying not to exceed the earth’s planetary boundaries. Limited funds can thus be channeled more effectively in this way. More cities have adopted the Doughnut model since the breakout of the Covid pandemic: Amsterdam, Sidney, Melbourne, Berlin and Brussels, and a role out for companies is also in the making.
Both patients need to live in harmony. Mother Earth has been very accommodating but there are limits. It is now time for mankind to do our bit to recover.
The opportunities are there and financial support is available. We need to take immediate action to grasp them while they are there. We must not go back to ‘Business as Usual’.