What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on the peoples, communities and allies that Friends of the Earth works with? How have government interventions helped or harmed our communities, and what have we done in response?
In September-November 2020 Friends of the Earth International and Real World Radio invited comrades from across the world to share their experiences of the pandemic in roundtable radio shows – in English, Spanish and French. They reported on the strategies that governments and grassroots organisations adopted, and reflected on what the crisis tells us about current economic and political system. Finally, they offered their analyses of the options for rebuilding better after the pandemic.
In this article, we bring together the key themes and lessons that emerged from the discussions.
IMPACTS OF THE PANDEMIC
The pandemic, and responses to it, have not hit everyone equally.
“Although the Covid pandemic initially showed how vulnerable we all are – that a virus will not discriminate if you are from the North or South, if you are poor or rich – it was quickly established that material conditions do generate differences in the impacts of Covid.” – Alejandra Laprea, Venezuela.
Poorer countries and poorer people – women, Indigenous Peoples, working classes and frontline workers – tend to have been worst affected by the pandemic. These groups – amounting to billions of people across the world – have experienced not only the health impacts of Covid most acutely, but the effects of government responses and the economic slump caused by lockdowns. Hunger and unemployment have become a sudden reality for millions, revealing the precarity of the economic system as well as the inequality and injustices that underpin it.
The immediate effects on health and livelihoods are seen wherever Friends of the Earth has a presence. For example, across South East Asia migrant communities are among the hardest hit. “We saw this in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, even in India when the government announced a lockdown and massive numbers of people had to walk miles back to their villages because there were no jobs in the cities,” says Meena.
In the Philippines, indigenous communities have been hurt by quarantine. “They are highly dependent on the modern market – to trade their produce and for manual labour,” says Jayson. “With the lockdown, income totally stopped. Many are on a daily wage, without savings and with very few physical assets. There was hunger in the uplands.”
The impact of inequality is stark in Brazil. “We are a rather unequal country, so policies restricting movement have affected some parts, some classes,” says Tchenna. “The first to die were workers in sectors such as mining. The people in informal work, which are the majority, have no income so face a very serious hunger crisis – and there are no policies, there is no state for these people.”
“As we start from a situation of profound inequality,” says Karin, “this leads to some social classes – women, Indigenous Peoples, afro-descendent communities, and migrants – being the ones who suffer most from the crisis.”
Underlying social and economic structures create vulnerability
The crisis has come at a time of austerity in many countries, when health and social security structures are already weak. “This makes the situation even worse,” says Rosa in Costa Rica. “Levels of inequality and unemployment are very high. We are seeing essential services, health, education and food becoming worse and worse.”
The preparedness, or otherwise, of health systems is critical. “The Philippines in general, and its health system, was not ready to face this crisis so the response was slow and inadequate,” says Jayson. “We have less than 1,500 hospitals, and 65% of these are private. Hospital care is a luxury in the Philippines.”
Populations in middle- and high-income countries may, on the whole, be faring better: Meena reports that public access to health facilities in Malaysia, for example, was “quite good”. But inequalities are evident even in higher-income countries. According to Liliane, in Spain “there are inequalities when it comes to losing one’s job, or being temporarily unemployed. We have seen a crisis in elderly care homes, where people’s well-being has not been a priority.”
In short, the health and economic impacts have their roots in politics. Infection and death rates, but also economic security, have been hugely influenced by pre-existing inequalities, by the condition of health care systems and by responses of governments.
Tchenna in Brazil points to the political choices that lie behind a country’s ability to keep its population safe: “We have seen different responses from governments in Latin America which are more committed to the people, to collective interests, and that invest in key sectors like health. We have the very good example of Cuba, which invests in health and has a large number of doctors.” Alejandra, in Venezuela, adds: “Our peoples are organised. We have been resisting a war and the blockade, and it has given us an advantage because it has allowed us to react more as a collective more quickly and put in place containment measures.”
Impacts on women
Women are under extreme duress on multiple fronts – confronting a crisis in care, an increased domestic burden and rising violence. With men losing jobs, and difficulties with food supplies, life has become harder for many women who manage household budgets.
In Cote d’Ivoire it is women who are the most affected in the households, says Larissa. “When a husband is off work it is the woman who provides for the family.” They also play an important role in everything related to agriculture, from field to market.
Women’s role may often encompass home education. In Paraguay women have “too much to do because education became virtual, via WhatsApp,” says Perla. “The mother became a home educator, and when there is more than one child, that becomes more complicated – for example with a single mobile phone, sometimes without connectivity.”
Participants from Venezuela, Costa Rica and the Philippines report that women have suffered a rise in macho violence. Juliette says the explosion in domestic violence against women shows the crisis exacerbating “pre-existing violations”. “The only thing left standing in the quarantine is the machismo of the patriarchy,” says Perla. She adds that Venezuelan institutions are failing to protect women victims of violence.
Immediate impacts on the environment
Some countries saw direct impacts on their local environment straight away.
In Ghana, people moving from cities back to rural areas may have little choice but to get involved in activities such as illegal mining. “This is devastating our water, ecosystems and our forest. Youth are also getting involved in illegal logging,” reports Amos.
In the Philippines, too, economic pressures have led to a rise in illegal activities in the uplands. “More poaching, more cases of illegal wildlife trade,” says Jayson.
In Cote d’Ivoire some rural communities whose access to markets has been constrained by lockdowns have started to use chemical fertilisers in an effort to boost yields, according to Larissa.
Beyond the immediate responses of communities who may have little choice but to exploit local resources, there is concern that governments will go for quick economic fixes at the expense of the environment in the longer term. In Ghana, it is feared that onshore oil drilling – long resisted on environmental and social grounds – might now be expedited without the consent of the local communities.
“The current situation is being used to enact policies that commodify and financialise nature, saying it is necessary to control unemployment,” says Alejandra, in Costa Rica.
Government responses differ according to wealth and politics
The economic gulf between high- and low-income countries is writ large in the impact of the pandemic and in government responses to it.
High-income France and the UK, for example, quickly introduced support measures such as partial unemployment benefits for many. “Even if the economic crisis that followed hit part of the population hard, social welfare helps more than in other countries,” Juliette says of the French government’s response. Malaysia is a middle-income country that has been able to introduce a stimulus package.
Even if governments in the global North are borrowing massively to fund support measures, they are not in the same predicament as those in the South already saddled with unpayable debt and structural adjustment. “To the extent that there are neoliberal adjustment policies, in many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean,” says Karin, “it leads to the impacts of the pandemic being very unequal, and it leads to greater violation of fundamental rights, and to greater destruction of our territories and means of livelihood.”
“Where resources are really limited – for example Haiti – some businesses have had no government support, and are closing down,” says Aldrin. “Employees have had to go home.” Paraguay has taken on debt in order to be able to respond to Covid-19. Ghana initially allocated US$100 million to state infrastructure, decided to build an additional intensive care unit in Accra and gave loans to small and medium-sized enterprises to keep them in business. But the country suffered hundreds of thousands of job losses in the summer of 2020.
Alejandra in Costa Rica explains that in some countries of Central America economic austerity is deepening the crisis. The pandemic has come “when the health systems are weakened and when levels of inequality and unemployment are very high. We are seeing essential services, health, education and food, becoming worse and worse. We are not seeing effective government responses.”
The neoliberal instinct of governments is exacerbating the crisis for many. “Privileges are being directed towards the private sector,” she says. “Everyone’s rights have been weakened. We are facing a wave of illegal reforms to our right to mobilise, strike, demonstrate.”
Add authoritarianism and you have a toxic mix, as in Brazil. “The president announced the privatisation of public health. Who privatises public health during a health crisis?” asks Tchenna.
Countries that don’t fit the neoliberal paradigm can find themselves prevented from responding to the crisis. Alejandra Laprea says Venezuela “has suffered an intensification of blockade measures, in the middle of this global health crisis. This has made it difficult for the revolutionary government to get access to medicines and equipment needed to provide respiratory care.”
The tightening of neoliberalism at the expense of the public is exemplified in bailouts for big corporations headquartered in Europe. Melik says governments are “continuing to defend the interests of a global elite that is out of touch with reality. This aid appears more likely to favour large, publicly traded companies, which continue to pay dividends to their shareholders.”
In France big companies have been seeking to capture what Juliette describes as the “manna of public money being released to face the crisis”. The French state underwrote a 7 billion euros loan to Air France without binding conditions and took a stake in the Valorec para-petroleum company – “a company that should disappear as part of the fight against climate change” she says.
HOW FRIENDS OF THE EARTH GROUPS ARE RESPONDING TO THE CRISIS
The Covid-19 pandemic has elicited a range of responses from groups across the federation – both in our ways of working and the issues we’re tackling. Common threads include solidarity and collective organising to support communities, quickly establishing local projects on the ground to address immediate problems, ensuring communities have access to information and health protection measures, and moving training, capacity building and activism online. Many have also been developing an analysis of what the crisis reveals must change in the long-term.
Like all workplaces, Friends of the Earth groups and allied organisations have had to adapt quickly to the health crisis and restrictions on movement – taking care of staff and family, many switching to home working. The group in the UK immediately thought about the safety of its network of over 200 local groups, and of the wider society that they engage with. They created guidelines for groups, based on government information, stopped in-person events and activities, and carried out training webinars to show how to move events online.
Across the network, groups innovated with small-scale, local initiatives. Friends of the Earth Haiti arranged deliveries of water to households so that people did not need to congregate at water points. Alejandra, in Venezuela, established an urban medicinal garden with residents in her neighbourhood. In the Philippines, Jayson’s foundation (linked to a consortium for territories and areas conserved by Indigenous Peoples and local communities), provided training and computers to indigenous women who were suddenly expected to facilitate their children’s online learning.
Many have, of course, turned to digital technology, setting up networks to share public health care information – in Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire and the Philippines, for example. They have also used digital channels to continue to support the development of partner organisations and communities, for example in Haiti where the group helped communities access financial assistance remotely.
Taking campaigning online
In Europe groups transformed existing campaign plans to work online. “We reinvented ourselves,” says Juliette. With restrictions on demonstrating, Friends of the Earth France turned to online mobilisations, for example to defend the rights of workers to health protection. “In a legal action with a trade union, we succeeded in closing the Amazon warehouses. This was thanks to our legal action but also to the pressure of a communications campaign on social networks and in the media,” says Juliette.
The crisis has given rise to new work too. Bringing together some 30 social, environmental and trade union organisations in France, the Never Again coalition (#PlusJamaisCa) published a plan to get out of the crisis, covering the economy, health care and other areas. In Paraguay, La Via Campesina promoted solidarity under the banner #StayHomeButNotSilent.
Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland made new alliances. “Suddenly we were seeing that the key workers were the ones driving the buses, the nurses for the national health service, and that they haven’t been valued by the government,” says Jamie. “We’ve been trying to stand up for their rights. We’ve been trying to make sure Friends of the Earth was a champion for those rather than just talking about climate change or environmental issues, showing how these different injustices intersect. We wanted to show that we stood in solidarity with groups and other communities that have been affected here.”
The widening digital divide
The UK group had the resources to make the switch to online campaigning quickly. “We recognise the privilege we’ve got. This is not a pandemic that has affected all people the same way,” Jamie says. Other participants see lack of connectivity and digital access for millions of people as another inequality that this crisis has highlighted.
One of the main constituencies for Friends of the Earth Malaysia are Indigenous Peoples in the forest of Sarawak. “We’ve not been able to go there during lockdown,” Meena reveals. “Internet access in these areas is not good. In a rich world you have fibre optics, you have digital technology, and you can have virtual lessons.”
WHAT THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC TELLS US ABOUT EXISTING SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STRUCTURES
“The system has no answers” – Tchenna, Brazil.
Participants pinpoint the role of biodiversity loss and the food system in creating the conditions for the virus to arise. But they stress that these are products of underlying injustices and structural failures in politics and economics that we must tackle if we are to build a just recovery.
‘A world out of sync’
The pandemic’s origins are systemic and global. It is a crisis related to the other systemic crises – of the climate, food, water and biodiversity – which participants regard as lying behind the Covid-19 pandemic. “It is a sign that the world is out of sync – the way we abuse resources, with the rich plundering resources at the expense of the poor,” says Meena. It is a system that “privileges the accumulation of capital over the rights of our peoples, over the health of the planet”.
“It is because of this system that we have a pandemic with these characteristics,” says Perla. “It is a system that does not service the needs of humans or the environment.”
Trashing of ecosystems through the expansion of agribusiness, industrial agriculture, mining, oil activities, mega-dams has gone on even in the face of repeated warnings about the risks. “We know there are many viruses that are going to be revealed if we encroach into habitats which should not be touched,” says Meena.
Global production chains – for food especially – helped give rise to the pandemic. “As we are developing these production chains, we are going to have many more virus cycles,” says Tchenna. “What we have to rethink is the production model.”
Fragility of the economic model
That ‘production model’ is part of the market economy now showing itself to be critically flawed by its over-reliance on consumerism and relocation of production. Melik points to forecasts that the global economy may shrink by 3% in 2020, with the livelihoods of 1.6 billion informal sector workers at risk. “The situation is worse in the countries of the South, whose economies are largely dependent on exports and/or tourism,” he says.
The private sector’s role emerges as a core problem. Juliette describes how in France the pandemic has accentuated the capture of political decision-making by transnational corporations. Large companies have been “directly invited into crisis cells by the government, while trade unions or civil society organisations were sidelined”. Big business lobbies have taken advantage of the crisis to do two things, she says. On the one hand they are pressing their demands for deregulation, attacking social and environmental regulations; and on the other, “trying to grab money from stimulus packages and crisis exit plans”. In the UK too, state aid has been used “inappropriately in terms of huge bailouts to polluting industries”, according to Jamie.
The private sector even stands to benefit from control of vaccines and other health resources, Meena warns. Patenting, and the WTO Trade and Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, could make many medicines expensive and inaccessible for some countries.
State intervention proves its worth
Where governments have failed is where the state has been rolled back, primarily because of conditionalities imposed by the IMF and World Bank. “Most states have been stripped of their prerogatives and means, with the establishment of a single development model – neoliberalism – over the past several decades,” says Melik.
The resulting economic paralysis is having a direct impact on rights. Millions of people are deprived of the right to life, food, health, healthy housing, education, decent work and an adequate standard of living, argued Melik. This is especially the case in “countries that do not have public services worthy of the name, or that have cut their budgets in obedience to the so-called market economy”.
Where governments have the means and the will they are better placed to deal with the pandemic than those where politics or resources don’t allow it. “Countries that could respond were where the state apparatus had investments that it could use to help its people, particularly in the health sector, or even to provide some kind of social safety net,” says Meena.
HOW CAN WE USE THIS MOMENT TO BUILD A JUST RECOVERY AND A BETTER WORLD?
“We have to put the sustainability of life at the centre” – Karin Nansen
System change driven by grassroots action and internationalist solidarity will be crucial to delivering basic rights, and transformed food and energy systems, where people – not profit – are sovereign. Participants point to the urgent need to cancel debt, invest in green infrastructure, build food sovereignty, and dismantle the power of transnational corporations.
A recovery based on justice and rights
Recovery from the pandemic must be based on “justice in all its dimensions, on the sovereignty of our peoples, on the construction of peoples’ power which allows for real change”, asserts Karin, the federation’s Chair. This demands abandoning neoliberal policies, fighting systems of oppression, and advancing multilateral cooperation and internationalism “to create a new global agreement which will allow us to face systemic crises, to strengthen democracy and the realisation of peoples’ rights”.
The new economy, Karin says, must be based on the principles of “solidarity, of regenerating our natural systems and their functions, of recovering greater sovereignty as peoples, which is based on social organisation and the defence of the public as fundamental, of public services to guarantee the rights of our peoples”.
Transforming our energy system is key. “It means an economy that is not dependent on fossil fuels, and a change in terms of who controls, who owns, the energy system, who decides how to produce our energy, for what, and for whom. It has to do with energy as a right and not a commodity,” Karin says.
Building a better world also demands that we “rethink the way we manage biodiversity, and the importance of collective, community management of biodiversity, forests, our seeds, and the world’s ecosystems, which are fundamental to life,” she says.
Central to this is feminist economics, Karin says, which is about reversing the sexual division of labour, sharing care work and “ending this dichotomy between production and reproduction. Our territories must be spaces for the production and reproduction of life. The public must be a function of the production and reproduction of life. We must break with this dichotomy between society and nature, guarantee the economic autonomy of women, and once and for all confront this crisis of care, which has become manifest in the pandemic.”
Other participants bring their own perspectives to these broad strategies.
A focus for any recovery must be what Melik calls the “social determinants of health”. These include the right to food, health, housing, education, decent work, and an adequate standard of living. “What would be the use of a Covid-19 vaccine for people suffering from famine or malnutrition?” he says. “It is of no use.” Basic rights therefore need to be implemented “without discrimination”.
Regarding the right to food, Melik wants to see priority given to short production and marketing chains. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, which codifies the rights of family peasantry and other food producers, also advocates food sovereignty – that is, peoples’ right to define their food and agricultural system, and the right to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced with sustainable methods that respect human rights. “This declaration constitutes a roadmap for public authorities in this field,” Melik says.
For the way forward on food sovereignty participants also look to the work led by La Via Campesina. This recognises the central role that women play in production, and the accumulated knowledge of peasant communities, Indigenous Peoples, fisherfolk, and nomads. Building food sovereignty also allows for a new relationship “between the working classes of the countryside and the city; and to build peoples’ power around the food system,” says Karin. We need to work from the “logic of food as a fundamental right, and not as a commodity”.
The World March of Women too sees a pressing need to change the food system. The pandemic has shown that “those who feed the world are women and men and a variety of sexes that work in urban gardens. We farmers are the ones who have not stopped,” says Alejandra.
Guests from Cameroon and Paraguay called for agrarian reform to support food sovereignty. In Cameroon, for example, the government should implement land reform “that is inclusive and that recognises the rights of Indigenous Peoples to the lands and territories they occupy,” says Flora. “The forest is their main source of income.”
Financing the recovery
If poorer countries are to make a just transition, move away from fossil fuels and provide jobs, they need financial support. This implies “financial measures like a global Marshall plan for really sustainable development,” says Meena. “We have seen the rich world say they will postpone poor countries’ debt payments. We should be cancelling the debt.”
There are calls for action on finance at national level. In France, for example, Friends of the Earth has been advocating tax justice – regulating banking activities, taxing financial transactions – so that money is available to deal with this crisis and others.
In the UK the pandemic has revealed that the resources can be found. “Do we want to go back to the polluting jobs? Do we want to invest in cycling, in decarbonising the energy system, in creating new long-term sustainable jobs?” Jamie asks. “Covid has taught us that when there is a huge crisis facing humanity, we can find the money. When there are huge challenges we can come together.”
This must translate into solidarity across borders. “It is not enough just to look at your own country,” Jamie says. Those with the most resources need to provide that support “whether it is health support or economic support, or looking at how we want to build back our national and global economies”.
Melik describes “good-faith international cooperation” as crucial. “States that have the means must stand in solidarity with others to ensure the enjoyment of human rights for the entire population.”
Public good vs private profit
Refocusing the economy toward the collective good emerges as a central concern. For Alejandra, current social organisation, politics and state structures are determined by the drive to create profit for the few. “The response has to be more organisation, building more peoples’ power, assuming leadership,” she says.
Tchenna considers it more important than ever to “move forward with other governments that are truly committed to a political agenda for the people, an agenda that values what is public”.
One manifestation of this would be to pool research, knowledge and patents internationally. “Once we have safe vaccines and safe medicines, they should be easily accessible to the world’s population,” says Juliette. “Let there be no unhealthy negotiations that benefit the pharmaceutical industry.”
The power of corporations more broadly is under the spotlight. Juliette says that now is the time to dismantle the architecture of impunity enjoyed by transnational corporations – “in particular the protection and dispute settlement mechanism, ISDS, which was used a lot during the crisis by transnational corporations”.
Melik underscores the role that a truly independent civil society must play in refocusing power, and working for social and environmental justice and the implementation of all human rights – “provided, of course, that civil society refrains from any influence from the partisan policies of governments and the private sector”.
Role of local and indigenous knowledge
Emerging from the pandemic is an opportunity to build a better future; but it could fuel existing inequalities and drivers of environmental destruction. For example, indigenous and rural communities in Cameroon without access to hydro-alcohol gels and soaps have relied on traditional pharmacopoeia during the crisis. Yet such know-how could be threatened as pressures to revive the economy target forest resources. What is needed, says Flora, is recognition of the status and rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous Peoples in the uplands of the Philippines, meanwhile, should attract government investment to support livelihoods and green jobs. According to Jayson this should go hand in hand with investment in the remaining forest. “This can potentially take them out of poverty while protecting our natural resources and enhancing the country’s resilience against future pandemics, as well as the negative impacts of global climate change.”
Civil society and Friends of the Earth’s track record
Among the range of pathways to recovery that participants identify, many are founded on work that Friends of the Earth, its allies and communities have been doing since long before the pandemic.
“Many of us have been pushing our governments to do what is needed – not bailing out corporations, helping the poorer sections of society, ensuring that people are able to feed themselves,” says Meena.
“We have been pushing them to recognise the environmentally sustainable solutions we have been talking about for a long time,” she says – “the options that Friends of the Earth International and its members around the world have been campaigning on in every facet of our economy and our lives.”
The three radio shows are available to listen on the Real World Radio website:
- Jamie Peters, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- Meena Ramen, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)/Friends of the Earth Malaysia and Third World Network.
- Jayson Ibanez, Philippine Eagle Foundation, Philippines.
- Amos Yesutembul, Friends of the Earth Ghana.
French language show, with:
- Aldrin Calixte, Haiti Survie/Friends of the Earth Haiti.
- Flora Lamero, Centre for Environment and Development (CED)/Friends of the Earth Cameroon
- Melik ÖZDEN, Europe Third World Centre (CETIM), Switzerland.
- Juliette Renaud, Friends of the Earth France.
- Larissa Yapo, Young Volunteers for the Environment (JVE) Cote d’Ivoire.
Spanish language show, with:
- Perla Alvarez, National Coordination of Rural and Indigenous Women Workers’ Organisations (CONAMURI) part of CLOC-La Via Campesina, Paraguay.
- Alejandra Laprea, World March of Women, Venezuela.
- Tchenna Masso, Movement of Peoples Affected by Dams (MAB), Brazil.
- Karin Nansen, Chair of Friends of the Earth International, based in Uruguay.
- Alejandra Rozas, Coecoceiba/Friends of the Earth Costa Rica.
- Liliane Spendeler, Friends of the Earth Spain.
Chairing the discussions were:
- José Elosegui, Real World Radio.
- Kwami Kpondzo, Friends of the Earth Togo and Africa.
- Madeleine Race, Friends of the Earth International.
Writing by Adam Bradbury.