A time for planetary solidarity

Rather than fortress worlds, nations need to focus on building shared programmes of knowledge and collective welfare

Updated - April 23, 2020 09:39 am IST

Published - April 23, 2020 12:02 am IST

Self-help gurus say it takes 21 days to develop a new habit. However, in a crisis, we may learn quite a few overnight. The microscopic SARS-CoV-2, by causing a global pandemic, has forced much of humanity to cease everyday practices and jump-start new ones. It has also reminded us of certain tenets that we have always known. For instance, it is possible for individuals, communities, and nations to respond to a planetary crisis within days. The nature of the response in different settings, however, depends on leadership, the quality and strength of local institutions, resources deployed and the ability to deliver straightforward and meaningful messages regarding behavioural change.

More reassuringly, empathy for fellow travellers around the world turns out to be at least as widespread as avarice and insularity. Compassion and structured forms of support by different kinds of non-state actors have been amply demonstrated across the world, with people enduring personal threats to life to assist the most vulnerable.

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As in any crisis, the poorest — daily-wage workers, the homeless, migrants and operators of micro-enterprises — are the worst affected. Even so, in the present instance, their fate is especially dire. Any person whose livelihood is directly connected with their physical labour has been left with zero options unless they are somehow connected with health care, food or sanitation. It is the old privileging of mental over manual labour, but the inequities and disparities are starker now and in more brutal circumstances than ever before.

Learning lessons

For knowledge workers, one of the new social norms being created is extensive Internet use for learning and work. While some of this was happening earlier, the scale of international video meetings and virtual classes taking place now is unprecedented. In certain sectors such as accounting, desk-based research and software development, working remotely turns out to be profitable to companies.

There are some guidelines to infer from this. The drastic reduction in flights, for instance, has affected the airline industry adversely but also highlighted the fact that many flight trips during ‘normal’ times are in fact unnecessary. Before the pandemic, business meetings, including international conferences and climate change meetings, were responsible for a bulk of flight travel. For example, a return flight, economy class, from Delhi to New York releases about 0.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide (it is twice as much in premium economy). This is half of India’s per capita annual emissions.

The same can be said of many vehicle trips. The lockdown has shown that up to half of these trips are dispensable, especially if commuting and education trips can be cut down severely.

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For a sizeable fraction of the workforce, conducting tasks from home ought to be encouraged, better organised and provide more freedom for people, not less. It should be the norm in many sectors and people could work from home at least half the time, thus reducing travel needs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and simplifying child care and other domestic services.

An even more revolutionary approach to education and learning is conceivable. Online schooling and college education without paywalls is already available, but if it were expanded to develop open access schools and universities, the scam of high admissions fees can be altogether eliminated.

Industrial production and electricity generation also do not have to go back to pre-COVID-19 levels. Life under lockdown has already demonstrated that there are essentials, superfluous items and luxuries. Responsible consumer action and new social norms to limit the last two can make a dent on greenhouse gas emissions while promoting simpler and potentially happier ways of life.

Fundamental change

There are many encouraging signs of truly ‘green’ alternatives to the current economic system and the beliefs that govern it. Becoming sustainable is vital for ensuring that the worst effects of climate change — another planetary crisis lurking just over the horizon of the present one — also do not fall on the already underprivileged.

Unfortunately, the popular version of ‘green growth’ is flawed because it assumes that normal business activity can be made more sustainable merely by adding renewable technology and trees to it, for instance. But such spiritless measures often harm economic or social welfare even if they improve environmental outcomes. Sustainability will need not just decoupling economic growth from pollution but ultimately decoupling planetary welfare from economic growth while fostering social progress.

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s $2-trillion stimulus plan turns out to be mostly another corporate bailout. India cannot afford to do the same. The true losers are low wage and daily wage earners, who need assistance along with the farming community. Vehicle manufacturers, fossil-fuel companies, airlines and large businesses and even banks should not even be on the bailout queue.

For the vast majority of the working class, the provision of universal basic income would be the first step towards reducing their precarity. Such change requires bold measures to reduce financial speculation and the hoarding of wealth by the rentier class by reintroducing the estate tax and putting brakes on high-speed trading, for instance.

A transformation of work is also needed for the entrepreneurial class, where greater flexibility, coordination and access to markets are made easier. In addition, social measures must be strengthened to protect the health and safety of the poorest. Public hospitals need to be improved and have the capacity to respond to pandemics and related crises. Access to care in the emergency and beyond should be equally available to all. By focussing on the delivery of basic services, we will discover new opportunities for equitable action.

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What is also quite clear, and shared with the climate change crisis, is that if you ignore science, it will come back to bite you. Mixed and confusing messages from the government add fuel to a flaming pandemic. Ignoring or denying the science of climate change does the same. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said: “This is, above all, a crisis that calls for solidarity.” That implies building shared programmes of knowledge and action for collective welfare, not fortress worlds.

Sujatha Byravan is a scientist based in Chennai. Sudhir Chella Rajan is Professor, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras

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