Gravely addressing a small cluster of journalists in Mexico City and the rest of the nation on live video, Mexico’s Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell perhaps unwittingly took up the philosophies and rhetoric employed by climate activists for decades: ‘In an active, synchronised, and consistent way’, he said, ‘we will need to adopt all of the instructive measures, not only those which pertain to personal protection, or to our immediate environment.’
This idea is familiar to the environmentalists – often indigenous leaders on the front lines of the impacts of environmental destruction – who have been fighting to prevent and mitigate the climate crisis in which we find ourselves. A willingness to look beyond one’s own ‘back-yard’ and act for the benefit of something beyond our present day-to-day life is essential to progressive environmental and societal change. The dire reality of the climate crisis, recently a burgeoning topic of international urgency, has been (perhaps rightfully, for once) pushed to the back-burner as we grapple with the similarly fatal threat of coronavirus.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic bears some key resemblances to the environmental crisis – much like climate change, its impact will be felt most keenly by the poorest members of society, whose limited access to healthcare and to sanitation facilities will lead to disproportionate suffering. Resulting shifts in migration predicted by experts echo reports we’re already seeing of rising numbers of climate refugees across the globe as whole communities flee their increasingly uninhabitable ancestral lands. Both crises will see many hundreds of thousands, or even millions, die.
But while the threat of the climate crisis is easy to perceive as far-off for many, the coronavirus pandemic has a distinct sense of urgency – we are talking in terms of hours and days, rather than years and decades.
This urgency, invoked by López-Gatell in his stern warning that we have arrived at ‘our final opportunity to do it, and to do it now’, has brought about immediate action by companies and communities all over the world. Conscientious businesses have voluntarily closed their doors; local-scale mutual aid groups and initiatives have sprung up in their thousands. Aside from being commendable reminders of a powerful, shared human desire to help one another in times of need, these actions will significantly reduce the spread of the virus. Most surprising of all, though, have been the swift changes in policy carried out by governments desperate to turn the tide on this unfolding disaster. As has been noted time and again, moments of crisis offer up space for the drastic re-imagining of current systems. These circumstances can sometimes be preyed upon by opportunistic leaders hoping to further the interests of a chosen few by way of ‘shock doctrine’ politics, but with the involvement of engaged, hopeful and active communities and individuals, can instead hold the potential for genuine transformative change.
While the drop in carbon emissions and other forms of air pollution seen in the wake of COVID-19’s spread across China, Italy, the UK, and beyond looks good on the surface from an environmental perspective, it’s important to remember that the conditions of our current economic systems, dependent on constant cycles of demand and consumption, are not built to withstand such a slowdown. Yet again, the workers at the far end of supply chains sustaining these systems will suffer the most. A drop in carbon emissions due to a reduction in exports, for example, is of no benefit to the laid-off factory workers who were employed to match the huge demand we have come to expect and cater for, and so a straightforward cut to economic production would be of no sustainable benefit without significant systemic change.
Moreover, it has become clear through ongoing failures to meet carbon emissions targets that we will not be able to halt the climate crisis without drastically rethinking the way our society functions, both culturally and economically. A seismic change such as this might have seemed unimaginable a few short months ago, and understandably – the march of capitalism, globalisation and the dominance of transnational mega-conglomerates has been steady almost throughout living memory, in retrospect barely faltering even during the 2008 financial crash. Now, though, we have a wealth of examples of collective action and instant shifts in policy played out over the past few weeks fresh in our minds – with many more sure to come – demonstrating the scope for huge, fast structural change in order to avert looming disaster.
Speaking at an online panel discussion hosted by climate litigation charity Plan B last week, the chair of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Sir Michael Marmot, expressed his belief in the need for a new form of ‘wellbeing economy’. ‘What the Covid crisis exposes’, he continued, ‘is that we can do things differently. We must not go back to the status quo, we cannot do that.’ Perhaps this glimpse of societal transformation can act as a springboard from which we aim to tackle the other era-defining crisis facing humankind.
There are, of course, worrying gaps in López-Gatell’s instructions – how will companies pay for the wages he advises they pay to employees who are to stay at home for the next month? And, even more pressing, what does this mean for the informally-employed who make up as much as 60% of Mexico’s workforce, without fixed contracts or salaries? But, these serious issues notwithstanding, in his recent communications López-Gatell has tapped into the idea that collective will is the vital element necessary to respond to a crisis on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps – just perhaps – this shift in global perspective could be the biggest phoenix to rise from the pandemic ashes.
For The Yucatan Times
Harriet Wood is an environmental and human rights activist working across Latin America. She writes regular news pieces and features which highlight local situations in a global context.