India’s Covid-19 emergency gives us a dark glimpse into the climate future
Covid-19 may be consuming minds and media right now, but we must not forget that we are also in the midst of another crisis.
Last week a new world record number of daily deaths from Covid-19 was hit, in India. The situation in India is bleak, with rising cases, overflowing hospitals, shortages of oxygen, and mass cremations taking place in car parks to deal with overwhelming piles of bodies.
Yet, rewind just a few months to the start of 2021, and Covid-19 was thought to be under control in India, with very low cases. So what happened? Of course, it’s impossible to pinpoint the reason for this huge second surge. But, it’s clear that there were numerous ways in which India was vulnerable.
Despite being one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world and the primary manufacturer for Covid-19 vaccines, the vaccination rollout in India itself was painfully slow. This was partly due to complacency, as the government believed the worst of the pandemic was over in India and so were not prepared for mass vaccination. At the same time, there has been low uptake in the vaccines which are available, largely because appointments must be booked via an online app and a substantial portion of the population do not have access to internet.
The new surge in Covid-19 cases originated in Mumbai, a city with several densely populated slums where the virus was able to spread incredibly quickly. Much of the population living in these areas could not afford to take time off work to isolate or quarantine — a luxury we take for granted.
Laveesh Bhandari, senior fellow at The Centre for Social and Economic Progress, for instance, has highlighted that the centralised power structure of India, which the vast majority of power and policy decisions sitting with the prime minister, has been partly to blame for the ineffective response to Covid-19. He has argued that India needs to move to more localised government structures, such as electing mayors to cities, to allow for quicker and more targeted responses to health emergencies.
India’s healthcare system is also massively underfunded. Just over 1% of the country’s GDP is spent on healthcare, making it one of the lowest in the world. Factors such as disease surveillance and contact tracing which are commonplace in other countries, don’t exist in India. There is also a high variance in care across the country, with health systems lacking particularly in urban, poorer areas — those already more vulnerable to disease.
These are vulnerabilities in our systems which Covid-19 has well and truly made visible — and not just in India.
Wealthy countries have administered more than 80% of the vaccines administered globally, with the lowest income countries left behind and vulnerable to further outbreaks.
There has been huge inequality in the response to Covid-19 globally. At the same time, the pandemic has also demonstrated how interconnected the health of every person across the world is. Again and again, outbreaks and spreading variants have been traced back to flight paths between countries. And those still taking flights during the pandemic are, of course, largely the wealthy population.
The two key lessons? One: our systems are vulnerable to and unprepared for global healthcare emergencies. Two: a collective approach and action to such emergencies is needed to prevent the problem worsening and deepening.
We’ve failed to effectively tackle Covid-19. But the bigger concern must be the climate crisis, which will have far more deadly and far reaching consequences in the months and years to come — which may well, as with Covid-19, be worsened by our unpreparedness and fragmented approach.
What’s taking place in India right now is a glimpse into the horrendous future of climate change. India is a country which depends on monsoons, bringing rain from June to September that allows crops like rice and soybeans to thrive and feed the population. The monsoon season is already becoming increasingly consistent, and this is going to get worse.
Flooding used to be a one in 100 year event in India. By 2020 the country was projected to see 10 floods every year. In 2016 the Ganges flooded, killing 40, displacing thousands of families, and polluting homes with polluted waters.
On the other extreme, record-breaking heat waves are now a regular occurrence each summer in India — with thousands dying each summer. Crops are disrupted and damaged, leaving the population at threat of starvation, and farmers tragically resorting to suicide. Scientists also fear that India’s water supply will dry up in coming years, with rising temperatures causing the glaciers of the Himalayas to melt.
Covid-19 may be consuming our minds and our media right now, but we must not forget that we are also in the midst of another crisis: the climate crisis. How we respond now and what lessons we take from the pandemic could well dictate the future of climate impacts and response.