Climate stress and Covid-19 gang up on world’s most vulnerable

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As the world faces disaster after disaster the vulnerable will be the forgotten. Picture: iStock
As the world faces disaster after disaster the vulnerable will be the forgotten. Picture: iStock

With friends falling ill, another passing away and his movements restricted, the Covid-19 coronavirus had already stretched Giordano Alpi physically and mentally when another disaster struck his 30-hectare farm in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy.

A sudden plunge in night-time temperatures to below zero late last month caused extensive frost, damaging swathes of his fruit trees, including apricots, nectarines and peaches.

“The tendency of these anomalies in the climate is growing,” said the 56-year-old. “We are very worried about these two phenomena,” he said of extreme weather events and Covid-19.

The fast-spreading virus has killed more than 13 000 people in Italy, making it the country with the highest death toll in the world.

I think we are just now going to see the Covid-19 impact unfold in Africa and developing countries
Christina Chan, climate resilience director at the World Resources Institute

The recent frost damaged 50% to 90% of fruit in Emilia-Romagna alone, with Italian agricultural association Confagricoltura estimating losses at €130 million (R2.6 billion).

From Italy to India and from Vietnam to Kenya, countries around the world are reeling from a double whammy of erratic weather – in many cases linked to the climate crisis – and a deadly pandemic, both of which threaten lives and jobs.

Christine Parthemore, a former adviser at the US department of defence during international efforts to contain west Africa’s 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak said: “This is the new normal, absolutely. We’re in a world of converging risks.”

She pointed to Yemen, which is simultaneously being hammered by war, disease, water scarcity and economic woes, and northern Nigeria, where migration brought on by long-term drought is coinciding with attacks from Boko Haram fundamentalists.

“We should assume – as part of all of our planning and strategy – that you’re not going to see threats manifest in isolation of one another anymore,” said Parthemore, who leads the Washington-based Council on Strategic Risks.

With even wealthy nations struggling to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, the UN and other aid experts fear the harm it could do in places already beset by poverty, conflict and disasters.

Christina Chan, climate resilience director at the World Resources Institute, a US-based think-tank, said: “I think we are just now going to see the Covid-19 impact unfold in Africa and developing countries.”

It is “unfathomable” how poor populations will manage and respond to the virus, Chan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With epidemiologists predicting the pandemic could last for months, Chan also warned that island states in the Atlantic Ocean were at risk from the virus as well as the hurricane season, which starts in June.

Nearly 100 000 households face water shortages in Vietnam, about 40 000ha of cropland have been damaged and there is little sign of the crisis abating
According to the UN

Food price spikes?

A similar scenario is already playing out in Vietnam, where the fertile Mekong Delta, famous for its rice and shrimp production, has battled severe drought and saltwater intrusion since late last year.

Nearly 100 000 households face water shortages, about 40 000ha of cropland have been damaged and there is little sign of the crisis abating, according to the UN.

The government’s timely moves to provide water and sow rice earlier have helped vulnerable farmers, a UN official said.

But the virus is now hiking pressure on scarce water resources as cleanliness is stepped up, said Caitlin Wiesen, the UN Development Programme representative in Vietnam.

“The delta was under stress before Covid-19 came in. There was the issue of the lack of water for food production, as well as for personal consumption and hygiene,” she added.

Food experts have already flagged that the pandemic will most likely put stress on production around the world.

A UN paper released last week said hunger and malnutrition levels were “alarming” before this health crisis, which is “leading to instability in both local and global food markets, causing a disruption to food supply and availability”.

Martin Cole, chair of the expert panel that produced the report, spoke of potential disruption to farm labour and agricultural inputs like seeds at a critical time for planting.

“Predominantly, the immediate impact of Covid-19 has been in countries with a rather developed food supply chain and sophisticated health service,” said Cole, who heads the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine in Australia.

“The big unknown is how this is going to impact less-developed regions,” he said.

If there’s disruption ... to the informal trader on the bike or the buses bringing food into the markets, you can imagine prices will triple and quadruple
Sara Mbago-Bhunu

Sara Mbago-Bhunu, east and southern Africa director at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, noted that the virus was threatening families there who already had little to eat and bought about half their food from informal traders and markets.

East Africa is also suffering from an invasion of desert locusts, which have ravaged crops and decimated pastures, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people.

“If there’s disruption ... to the informal trader on the bike or the buses bringing food into the markets, you can imagine prices will triple and quadruple,” said Mbago-Bhunu.

“That would have a devastating impact on the purchasing capacity of households,” she added.

‘Threat multipliers’

Charles Iceland, the World Resources Institute’s director of water initiatives, said the fast-moving coronavirus was “upending civilisation”, but dealing with it should not mean ditching goals to tackle the climate crisis, which would have a similar but slower effect.

“Covid-19 will go at some point. Climate change is going to be with us permanently,” he said.

Both phenomena are “threat multipliers” because of their ability to aggravate existing tensions and problems, and cause far-reaching negative consequences, said Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Centre for Climate and Security, a think-tank in the US.

The fear is that the lesson learnt is that we need more authoritarianism – that we need to harden our borders, restrict immigration and be much more nationalistic
Charles Iceland

While there is no direct connection between the climate crisis and Covid-19, there is “clear evidence that climate change is likely to exacerbate and potentially increase the likelihood of pandemics around the world”, he said.

“If our health infrastructure is not ready for Covid-19, then it’s certainly not ready for a changed world that has an increased likelihood of pandemics in the future.”

Covid-19 offers a crucial opportunity for the world to consider how to prepare for simultaneous crises in future, he said.

“The fear is that the lesson learnt is that we need more authoritarianism – that we need to harden our borders, restrict immigration and be much more nationalistic,” he said.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. It covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org


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