Guest Column

OPINION: Forging a better South Africa post Covid-19 that puts the vulnerable first

2020-04-22 12:30
Covid-19 shows us that  vulnerable communities bear an unproportioned impact of any crisis, the writers say. (Gallo Images, Ziyaad Douglas)

Covid-19 shows us that vulnerable communities bear an unproportioned impact of any crisis, the writers say. (Gallo Images, Ziyaad Douglas)

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Unless we break with our past now, we will likely face similar economic impacts from future crises, fuelled by our changing climate, and inability to rethink our present economic paradigm, writes Prabhat Upadhyaya and Reinhardt Arp.

If the past were another country, then what country will we wake up in at the end of this nightmare? 

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we find ourselves disoriented, isolated and panicked on account of a virus that knows no boundaries.

The Covid-19 is turning out to be a stealth killer, an adversary par excellence that does not care for boundaries - national, social, economic, cultural - whatsoever.

All that it is interested in is to propagate – by exposing and exploiting our existing socio-economic fault lines in fuelling its single-minded objective.

It is holding up a mirror to our unsustainable practices that extract huge costs from our natural world and yet fuel inequality across the planet. 

In spite of being an equal opportunity infector, the impact of Covid-19 has laid bare persistent inequalities in stark detail.

It has very swiftly exposed the ugly underbelly of our unequal societies that pay little attention to our vulnerable populations and our natural ecosystems.

It has proved fatal for the older people in Europe and African-Americans in the US.

The policy response to slow down the spread of Covid-19 is also extracting huge costs from the marginalised, whether they be economically worse-off in South Africa, or the religious minorities and migrants in India.

In choosing its prey it has ripped apart our shallow claims of progress and sustainable development, rendering hollow any justification for the current socio-economic structures that privileges short-term economic gains over securing long-term resilience and public goods. 

Covid-19 is a health crisis that is bringing healthcare systems to its knees.

However, in responding to this health crisis, from social distancing through to lockdowns of entire economies that restrict non-essential economic activities, the global economy is being pushed into a global recession, resulting in significant job losses.

The global free-market economy, addicted to short-termism, has been admitted to intensive care and is being kept alive by the proverbial state- funded ventilator. 

While a global recession would demand a coordinated global response, it will have different ramifications in different country contexts.

With international relations being determined over twitter, coordination and cooperation in global governance are unfortunately in rare supply.

This is particularly bad for emerging economies, including South Africa, that are inadequately prepared to protect themselves from the virus and the ensuing recession. 

On top of that, South Africa’s pre-existing financial situation makes it even harder to respond to a crisis that has "gone viral".

Simply put, we are staring down a double-barrel shotgun with Covid-19 loaded in one barrel and a looming economic recession in the other.

One has already exposed our existing socio-economic fault lines and the other, if not handled judiciously, will widen them further.

Never mind that ticking time-bomb in the background - the climate crisis.  

While one can argue that policymakers and businesses have been blindsided by Covid-19, it is not the case with inequality and climate crisis. Policymakers and businesses have had enough scientific evidence urging them to address them urgently. And yet it has been difficult to break free from our fossilised, inequitable past. 

In coming out of this lockdown, we would therefore need to simultaneously respond to three global crises - the short-term Covid-19 health crisis, the medium-term socio-economic crisis and the long-term climate crisis.

Not to mention, the unforeseen crisis, the unknown-unknowns, which we may be fuelling in our response measures.

Like a chess grandmaster we need to carefully think through our next moves, lest we fall into traps that leave us with little room other than to just react to one crisis after another.

The current situation demands that we take a deep look into our policy apparatus to build back better in a way that facilitates a just transition for addressing climate crisis and socio-economic inequalities. 

Up to now, South Africa has been praised for its clinical response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The response to the Covid-19 crisis is also showcasing that, when imperatives are life-threatening, South Africa's political leadership, guided by science, is willing to make difficult decisions.

The key lesson coming from this experience is that science matters, political will matters and foresightedness matters. 

However, the national lockdown has had its fair share of unintended negative consequences, particularly on the vulnerable strata of society.

It seems to have slowed down the contagion rate but the cost has been dearly paid by people for whom social distancing translates into hunger, livelihood loss and social conflict.

The hammer has landed heavily on the vulnerable but we will continue to dance to the tune of this virus until a vaccine is developed. 

Acknowledging that we are not out of the woods yet, it is important that, in the midst of this crisis, we keep one eye on the future and begin to forge a better South Africa that works for our vulnerable and marginalised citizens.

Although we are uncertain of how the post-Covid-19 world will look like, the choices that brought us to this confluence of crises (Covid-19, global recession and the climate crisis) cannot be expected to liberate us from them.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Instead we must strive for a stakeholder centric economy, where people, employees, communities and climate are placed at the centre of our post-Covid-19 recovery plans. 

We need to ensure that in our eagerness to revive the economy we don’t fall victim to the lure of dismantling environmental and social safeguards.

Our responses to these crises need to keep sight of the future we want to create, rather than reacting to short-term financial gains at the expense of long-term value creation.

We must accept that dragging the deadweight of fossil fuels while celebrating future Earth Day days will literally drown our future beneath rising sea levels.

Indeed, unless we break with our past now, we will likely face similar economic impacts from future crises, fuelled by our changing climate, and inability to rethink our present economic paradigm.  

For the leadership being forged in the midst of this crisis, Covid-19 provides the opportunity to sow the seeds for an equitable, just and low-carbon South Africa.

Public goods such as healthcare, education, social welfare, housing and provision of other essential services, that largely remain inaccessible to the majority of South Africans, truly need to be prioritised in coming out of this crisis.

Fiscal stimulus, for example, must be directed at green infrastructure projects that boost clean, accessible and affordable public transport, generate decent jobs, enable a circular economy and, most importantly, transition away from a fossil fuel-based energy system. 

Going forward, our responses and investments need to be guided by three broad objectives.

Firstly, we must protect the vulnerable from the impact of both Covid-19 and our responses to it. Covid-19 shows us that the vulnerable communities bear an unproportioned impact of crisis.

Secondly, we must ensure that economic recovery, post-Covid-19, prioritises building resilience within our society to better deal with future crises, uncertainty and complexity.

And finally, we must decisively move towards decarbonising our society. If we do this, we will truly be on the path to building back a better South Africa that puts our vulnerable first.  

Covid-19 shows us that the vulnerable communities bear an unproportioned impact of any crisis.

A large stratum of our society is highly vulnerable to climate crisis.

There is no better way to celebrate the 50th Earth Day than to put them first in our response. In the end, we are only as strong as the weakest amongst us. 

- Prabhat Upadhyaya (Ph.D), Senior Policy Analyst, Climate and Energy, WWF-South Africa (; Reinhardt Arp, Environmental Economist, WWF-South Africa ( 

Read more on:    economy  |  environment  |  poverty


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