We could either choose the way that leads to better institutions and global systems, or the other, which compromises on environmental, social and ethical standards in the pursuit of growth.
This article is part of the series — India and the World in 2021.
The year 2020 was cataclysmic for global human security and the sustainable development agenda. In its first quarter, the COVID-19 broke out from ground-zero in China, swiftly reaching the level of a pandemic and causing massive losses in lives and economies across the world. The World Bank’s prediction of a 5.2-percent shrink in the global economy due to the pandemic is alarming: it would represent the deepest recession the world has suffered since the Second World War, and can potentially derail the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and make it harder to achieve them by 2030. While underdeveloped countries — reeling from scarce resources, to begin with — have borne the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, bigger economies including the United States (US) and some European nations have not been spared. The US alone has seen more than 300,000 COVID-19 deaths by mid-December 2020; data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that eight of every ten of those deaths were of people 65 years and older.
In the midst of all the deaths and the disruption, there is also an opportunity to rethink our priorities and create a world that puts global health, human security, and the SDGs more clearly at the heart of decision-making. At this forking path, we could either choose the way that leads to better institutions and global systems, or the other, which compromises on environmental, social and ethical standards in the pursuit of growth.
For India, the indicators so far have not been encouraging. For example, several Indian states have progressively weakened their labour laws since the pandemic began, rather than fortifying measures that would alleviate the hardships that migrant workers faced during the prolonged lockdown. The three labour codes passed by Parliament without discussion in September 2020 amend existing laws and stand to benefit corporations and investors at the expense of labour. The Indian government, in an effort to boost the economy and reduce imports, has opened up for commercial mining, 40 new coal fields in environmentally fragile zones like forests. The quality of air in North India has deteriorated further, and Delhi’s air pollution levels reached higher levels in November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed our fundamentally unsustainable relationship with nature. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is the third zoonotic virus transferred to humans after SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV; its outbreak has showed the increasing threat of animal-to-human transmission of diseases with the potential to cause a pandemic. Studies have shown that the risk of zoonosis increases as the buffer between humans and wildlife are eroded through loss of habitat and degradation of forests. Furthermore, there is a need to re-examine the functioning and production of food systems that are possible sites for the emergence of viruses that people do not yet have immunity against.
The rise of industrial production systems designed to feed the growing population are associated with an increase in human–livestock, human–wild animal, and livestock–wild animal contact rates, which are in turn magnifying the chances of transmission of pathogens to newer populations. For instance, recent zoonotic diseases that were influenced by current industrial production systems include the Avian Influenza, Newcastle disease, Swine Flu, and the Nipah virus. As the COVID-19 pandemic ebbed and flowed in the second half of 2020, reports emerged around strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that were associated with farmed minks in Denmark.
The United Nations (UN) has issued a clarion call for “building back better” after COVID-19. If India is to imagine itself anew, green recovery should be an important aspect of the rebuilding. The UN has reported that the “temporary” green recovery experienced during the pandemic could help slow down climate change. The operative word is “temporary”: the current growth paradigm and recovery mechanisms indicate that the world is still heading for a 3-degrees Celsius rise in global average temperature.
Yet just any kind of economic recovery will not necessarily translate to human security. Weak investment in critical areas such as health, education, water and sanitation has limited the capacity of most countries to respond effectively to the pandemic as it exposed the manifold weaknesses in national health systems. India’s expenditure on health in 2019-20 was a meagre 1.29 percent of its GDP, which is lower than many other countries. In order to fill the gaps in public health infrastructure, governments are employing technological tools to bolster their response to the pandemic. While India, too, is rushing to adopt technological innovations to tackle COVID-19, the lack of legal and policy framework is making them vulnerable to potential abuse such as privacy violations and misuse of data. It will be critical to ensure that tech tools do not compromise the human security agenda and result in heightened surveillance.
The impacts of climate change were felt visibly in 2020 with an increase in the number of extreme weather events such as severe forest fires as experienced in Australia. An estimated 21 percent of Australia’s forested area were caught in the bush fires during the 2019-20 fire season; more than 3 billion animals were killed. Recent fires in California, and cyclones across the East and West coast of India are similar reminders of the catastrophic changes that are being brought upon us by changing weather patterns.
In November 2020, the US administration under outgoing President Donald Trump formally concluded its exit from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Trump’s announcement and his undermining of the agreement set the tone for championing the fossil fuel industry, questioning the science of climate change, and further weakening efforts to build a green economy. The world watched in disbelief as American democracy danced on the precipice following the US elections, which temporarily derailed rebuilding efforts at its crucial time. The new administration under Joe Biden has committed to re-join the Paris Agreement.
At a global level, the socio-economic costs due to the pandemic can be addressed through multilateral cooperation. The UN is already estimating a global reduction in foreign direct investment of 30-40 percent in 2020 — this will have serious implications on the global value chain, and by extension, impact large populations the world over. To mitigate the costs of the pandemic especially amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised, the active functioning of international bodies like the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is essential. The institutional task for the UN lies in addressing the disproportionate economic effects of the disruption and ensuring free flow of goods and health services. It will need to safeguard equity in access to medicines. Unfortunately, the US has been undermining WHO and other such forums including the World Trade Organisation (WTO), highlighting their deep-rooted frailties. Multilateral forums can ensure concerted global effort to respond to crises through research cooperation and information sharing, and India could play a key role by asserting its commitment to international cooperation in the fight against COVID-19.
Regional and global alliances and forums like the G20, BRICS, and SAARC — whose focus until now has been towards strengthening security and addressing strategic relations — can play a larger role in the global development agenda. To realise a sustainable world, regional alliances need to be strengthened and better relationships built amongst neighbours, including increased solidarity with G-77 and developing nations.
This first year of the decade in the runup to 2030, when the global community made a commitment to fulfill the SDGs, is critical. It is crucial to create a roadmap to realign our goals with the new world that we now imagine to build. As Arundhati Roy wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and reimagine their world anew. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” If the world is indeed facing a crossroad, we can respond by justifying a more insular world; we can choose to possess weaker commitment to global goals, institutions and climate action, and compromise on environmental and social standards to boost short-term recovery. Or we can imagine a different world: we can fundamentally alter our relationship with nature, invest in multilateral institutions, put healthcare, education and human well-being at the centrestage of policymaking, and build societal resilience and global solidarity.
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Vikrom Mathur is Senior Fellow at ORF. Vikrom curates research at ORF’s Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED). He also guides and mentors researchers at CNED. ...Read More +