By Laksiri Fernando –
The world appears to be in a virtual mess. This is not purely due to the COVID crisis, but also for the reasons underlying its eruption, and the conflictual nature of reactions on the part of national and international leaders. The leaders are obviously reflecting the larger society depending on their personal interests, preferences and ideologies.
It is ironic that while the COVID largely erupted due to the environmental degradation, the present pandemic has already reduced carbon emissions to a significant extent. When the present economies stop, it appears that the environment regenerates. There is an apparent relationship. This has happened during the other recessions as well. The prediction is for the carbon emissions to reduce by 1600 million tons this year, to mean 5.5 percent of the last year’s global emissions (Carbon Brief).
The cynics might argue that there is no connection or direct connection between COVID eruption and global emissions. But global emissions should not be taken in isolation to the environmental degradation in general to mean (1) over population (2) deforestation and (3) carbon emissions, among other factors.
Since the end of the destructive Second World War, the world population has increased in more than three times from around 2.5 billion to 7.8 billion today. The present pandemic might reduce it by .5 or .25 billion! Yet the population will remain high for the world to stomach. In addition to the population growth, the population density, urbanization, concrete buildings and the craze for megapolis have aggravated the situation.
Exact figures for deforestation are hardly available. They are often manipulated. It is estimated that about 35% of Earth’s land surface was covered by forests after the end of the WW2. That must have been a fair amount. But for the last past 50 years, around 17% of this forest area has been destroyed. The remaining may be around 29% of the earth’s land surface. It is estimated that “Between 15-18 million hectares of forest, an area the size of Belgium, are destroyed every year, on average 2,400 trees are cut down each minute” (Worldwildlife). Almost all zoonotic diseases, meaning diseases transferred from animals to humans, are considered largely due to deforestation and illicit wildlife trade.
The global emissions are not a recent phenomenon although after the WW2 they have increased exponentially. Emissions have increased by ten times from around 1,000 million tons in 1945 to 10,000 million tons in 2019 (US Environmental Protection Agency). The main sectors responsible are: (1) Electricity and energy, 35%, (2) Agriculture and deforestation, 24%, (3) Industry, 21%, (4) Transportation, 14%, (5) Building and other, 6%. It is not possible to bring emissions to zero. Although the pandemic lockdowns have reduced the emissions temporarily, the highly polluted environments have facilitated the spread of the virus and increased the suffering of the victims.
Apart from creating conducive conditions for the eruption and spread of coronaviruses, the above three factors (over population, deforestation and carbon emissions) have their own repercussions on humans. Without understanding these conditions and cooperating with each other in resolving them, the world leaders and countries have been accusing and competing with each other, in the most despicable fashion, since the eruption of the present disease.
There is no doubt that China had its own responsibilities and duties as the country in which the pandemic first originated/irrupted. It failed in stopping the ‘infected’ or the ‘travelers’ going to Europe, America and other countries. The borders were not closed. Even now it should lend its hand to others with its own experiences, findings and money.
However, the characterization of the pandemic as Chinese and accusing the country completely for its spread, is not only beyond facts but xenophobic in its worst kind. Blaming China for almost everything of course started in the US before the pandemic. This is the nature of the mess that we have in the world today. Blaming others for our own failures. Fighting each other instead of cooperation.
As of 20 October, there have been 40, 251, 950 confirmed cases worldwide reported to the WHO with 1, 116, 131 deaths. The estimates of other sources are much higher. The death rate to the cases may appear low (2.8%), but the suffering of others and the strain on health sectors are enormous, placing many systems reaching a breakdown point. The long-term effects on people’s health are prominent. Of course, there are countries like New Zealand or Australia who have managed the pandemic well, but the situation in Europe, America, Latin America, India, Indonesia and Iran are quite unfortunate. The major dilemma appears to be the contradiction between controlling the virus and running the present business economies.
Pressure to relax lockdowns, curfews and restrictions has endangered the virus control and has led to the outbreaks of second or repeated waves threatening Europe and other countries. The businesses or the nature of the present businesses are the prominent reasons for the opposition to the lockdowns. In addition, the work forces are also in disarray under lockdowns with terminations and unemployment.
During the last four decades or so the world economy has changed a lot. The service and informal sectors have enlarged compared to the necessary industries and agriculture. To facilitate these transformations, the welfare measures or welfare states have been largely dismantled. We are in bubble economies. As a result, when the outbreaks took place the economies were not in a position to support the workforces. When you close; the people have to suffer in income. When you open; the people again have to suffer in health. Australia and New Zealand have been able to fairly balance between the two poles thanks to the remaining features of welfare measures although there are apparent challenges and controversies emerging particularly in Australia.
What has mostly come to the forefront as a consequence of the pandemic is our misunderstandings about human rights and human freedoms. Most rights are not absolutes and should be balanced with responsibilities. It is the best principle to respect other’s rights first, before shouting about our own rights. This is another reason for the enlarging mess in the world today. Do we have a word called ‘altruism’ in our vocabulary? What is Altruism? “Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual” (Wikipedia).
There has been a considerable moral degeneration in our society in recent decades or even centuries. There are people who consider virus lockdowns or restrictions related to them as violations of human rights. Of course, the imposition of lockdowns should respect human rights and human freedoms. On the other hand, there are authoritarian rulers and politicians who have taken the opportunity to impose restrictions for other reasons. All should change.
We may refer to the matter in general terms taking a most current example. The question of ‘rights and responsibilities’ has come to a sharp controversy in France today with the brutal killing of a teacher who used cartoons of Prophet Mohamed to ‘teach freedom of expression.’ There is no question that on the part of the killer, there has been no respect for the freedom of expression or human life. But on the part of the teacher, there should also have been much respect for other people’s religions and rights. Secularism that the French President Emmanuel Macron advocates is not a license for such disrespect. At least given the present conditions of extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam, the teacher should have been much cautious and careful. All these adds to the evolving world mess.
A Bleak Future?
The future of the world is quite bleak unless people and the leaders act responsibly. Only criticizing the leaders is not enough. Self-criticisms also necessary on the part of the civil society and civil society organizations. There are considerable differences in the world today over political, social, economic and ethnic issues. The economic repercussions of the evolving pandemic would come to the open with dire consequences soon. Unemployment, poverty and hunger are already on the rise. The health systems are under immense pressure and educational systems are lagging-behind schedules or even collapsing. People might rebel. Negotiations are necessary with peace.
The whole of past growth and development models have come under serious doubts. What the world need is not competitive growth, development or business goals, nationally and internationally. But economies with reasonable living conditions for the nearly 8 billion people in the world as a whole. The United Nations should be forthright. Instead of just preaching, the UN should put its ‘theories’ like Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) into action and practice. The differences and gaps between developed and developing countries should be eliminated. The economic conditions of the people should be equalized. These are the key human rights issues today without neglecting the civil, political and cultural rights of the people.