The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to wreak havoc around the world while exposing the vast inequalities of our global system. The worst effects of the pandemic will be felt in countries with vulnerable populations.
As developed nations put together economic packages to limit the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, the opposite is true in the developing world, where the impact could be much worse.
The World Food Program (WFP) notes that these countries, already burdened by extreme poverty, food insecurity, weak health systems, lack of financial resources, including access to clean technologies, could face “multiple famines of biblical proportions.”
The Rome-based agency estimates that “the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.” The WFP argues that food insecurity and lack of access to healthcare are likely to increase malnutrition rates, particularly among children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly.
In developing countries, where women are usually responsible for household chores and cooking, the pandemic is exacerbating existing gender inequalities in terms of unpaid household chores, income, safety, access to services and healthcare.
Women who provide family income through small businesses are not only heavily impacted but have seen a dramatic rise in gender-based violence (GBV) perpetrated against them and worsened by cramped and confined living conditions they find themselves in. The virus is not gender-blind and neither should the responses to this crisis.
Millions of people living in extreme poverty lack access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy. The lack of access to energy and clean energy solutions impacts negatively on their livelihood, well-being and health. Access to reliable electricity in healthcare facilities is an important enabler for women, children and their families, particularly during the pandemic. Yet, tens of thousands of facilities lack electricity and when present, frequent blackouts are normal.
Indoor air pollution
Globally 940 million people live without electricity, while almost 3 billion people still do not have access to clean cooking.
According to the World Health Organisation, the use of traditional biomass, such as wood, charcoal, dung, or inefficient and highly polluting stoves for cooking and heating has resulted in about 4 million deaths due to household air pollution predominantly from using firewood for cooking purposes out of 7 million premature deaths from air pollution every year. The data is extremely worrying in the light of the current pandemic crisis, as people without access to clean services may be more susceptible to this respiratory disease.
A recent research published by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health shows that in the US, people who live in regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the coronavirus than people who live in a cleaner environment.
Similar studies on the linkage between the high mortality rate in northern Italy and the level of air pollution in the same region have been carried out from Aarhus University. Other previous studies have shown that the exposure to air pollutants leads to a wide range of adverse health outcomes, including respiratory illnesses.
A just energy transition
In this context, understanding cross-sectoral impacts is vital to ensure a sustainable and inclusive development. A misinterpretation of the linkages between clean cooking, energy access, poverty, hunger, healthcare, climate change and how these relate to the global pandemic could lead to poor concrete actions and push vulnerable people even more into a deeper crisis, while amplifying the pre-existing inequalities. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations General Assembly and the ambitious 1.5C target of the Paris Climate Change Agreement offers a clear roadmap towards a sustainable future.
The response to the crisis should not put the world off track to reach the climate goals, a just energy transition and an equal and inclusive society. We must prevent temporary measures having long lasting structural impacts. Calls from international actors to “build back better” and to ensure “Green Recovery” are good starting points to take concrete action, and need to be inclusive, to also support informal and small business and ensure that peoples voices are heard in designing these responses.
A sustainable future
As governments respond to the pandemic with economic stimulus packages, they must ensure energy access and clean cooking solutions are part of the crucial blocks needed for building a sustainable future for poor rural and peri-urban families. We must prevent people using modern cooking fuels like LPG or electricity falling back on cooking on open fires and using solid fuels such as firewood, as result of lack of income and work.
In parallel, we must ensure that investments in sustainable cooking solutions such as biogas and solar based electric cooking are not jeopardised. A just energy transition requires a multi-pronged approach. For this, decentralised renewable energy, electricity capacity on-grid, off-grid and stand-alone, together with sustainable cooking solutions offer multiple benefits to all sectors, from healthcare to entrepreneurship.
We also need to recognize the central role that women entrepreneurs play in the energy sector. Multiple studies have shown that they are in a unique position to connect with their customers, increase awareness in their communities and deliver energy products and services, also among untapped female markets.
At the same time, structural energy investments are needed to speed up the transition towards low carbon economy. Low oil price can be used to reduce or even abandon fossil fuels subsidies that are too broad to only support lowest income groups. The energy part of social protection packages can be used to compensate the lowest income groups after the economic crisis is over.
Governments must ensure that the most vulnerable and the prime victims of this crisis are included in designing energy policies and programs. Most of all, concrete actions are required to reducing existing inequalities and catalyzing change, beyond energy.
The rights of civil society must be respected and not be undermined amidst this pandemic. To ensure no one is left behind, diverse voices must be heard and understood, and their needs addressed. Inclusion requires national and international solidarity, as underscored in a joint appeal by 50 development, human rights, and emergency aid organisations, including Hivos.
* This article was originally published in the New African Magazine.