Nesha Humes

Coronavirus: What is the Climate Change Link?

“In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, and the foolish build dams.” This African proverb encapsulates what Africa and the rest of the world is earnestly doing, as the battle against the highly infectious coronavirus disease rages – building bridges to transition nearly 8 billion citizens out of danger. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March of this year by the World Health Organization. So high is its rate of infection that one case can spawn as many as 3,500 new cases in a matter of days. The health impacts are simply exponential.

Is there any link with climate change?

With climate change projected to shrink incomes in developing countries, the majority being in Africa – by up to 75%, questions continue to arise whether COVID-19 is part of this climate change apocalypse. There is no clear evidence that climate change is directly linked to the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

However, what we know is that as the climate changes, many animal species are likely to change their behaviour or migrate to new areas. For instance, warming may force species to migrate to higher altitudes or higher elevations where temperatures are more conducive to their survival. As this happens, they encounter other animals they normally wouldn’t. And this creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts – some of which are domesticated by man.

Second, climate change interacts with threats such as habitat loss and overharvesting to further exacerbate species decline. The decline of species and ecosystems can then accelerate climate change, creating a feedback loop that further aggravates the situation.

Third, coronavirus has been recorded to particularly affect the medically fragile, with weakened immunity. While this is the case, over 60% of populations in Africa depend upon the food they eat, for their micro-nutrient supplementation that is critical to increasing immunity. Under the changing climate, increased carbon dioxide concentrations have been recorded to lower the nutritional quality of food. Meaning food becomes less nutritious exposing populations to deficient immunity.

Wider economic impacts

This global pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern-day global economy which thrives on increasing interconnectedness and interdependencies as well as human productivity. While China, the epicenter of COVID-19 is thousands of miles away from Africa, the unfolding impact on the region’s economies continues to grow significantly. As of today, a 1.4% decline in GDP is projected – a total of $29 billion lost. These losses translate to lost jobs, income and enterprise opportunities to over 1.2 billion citizens in Africa. This is a region that urgently needs to create every year up to 12 million jobs.

COVID-19 needs gatherings to spread. (Evandro Sudré)

Even more alarming, are impacts to the informal economy – which account for over 80% of all employment in sub-Saharan Africa. At local groceries, shortages in critical consumer goods – driven first by panic buying and second, by the slowing down of the global supply chain in replenishing what was consumed – are becoming a common feature.

Seeing the small groceries, the open-air traders, close shop for a week or so now, makes for very chilling prospects. How will these people, who depend upon daily sales for their sustenance, be able to provide for themselves and their families? For those who open shop, and who mostly deal in perishable food items, how will they buffer the losses of rotting stock that ends up unsold at the end of the day due to reduced clientele as middle-class clients choose to panic buy and remain indoors?

This directly links to climate vulnerability in Africa which is primarily socio-economic. The poor remain in the fringes of vulnerability because they lack the financial wherewithal, to buffer themselves against the worst of the changing climate effects including the ability to afford emergency medical care that is critical to buffer populations against infections.

Driving solutions through transformational climate action

These realities then tie in with the logic of driving climate action as an investment opportunity and accelerator of socio-economic transformation. This to ensure we buffer the most vulnerable in our economies against such economic shocks. And for this, the following are the key takeaways.

First, target maximizing productivity of Africa’s catalytic sectors. These are economically inclusive sectors – meaning they engage the majority of the population – including in the informal sector. This implies that maximizing the productivity of these sectors through value addition means putting more money in more pockets. In addition, these sectors can meet both climate and socio-economic priorities simultaneously.

For example, decentralizing solar driers among cassava farmers – where cassava is converted into dried cassava chips that can be preserved for longer, sold to millers to be further processed into cassava flour or eaten as is/or fried into cassava chips, has seen incomes increase by 150% and loss reduce by 30%. Decentralizing solar driers to farmers in local markets, to enable them to dehydrate and preserve their harvest that remains unsold at end of day and sell when demand peaks is not only cutting post-harvest losses but increasing earning up to 30 times. It is such earnings that will address the root causes of vulnerability in Africa – which are low levels of socio-economic growth.

Second, considering that COVID-19 particularly affects the medically fragile, and majority in Africa depend upon food for nutritional supplementation, focus also needs to be on how to make food nutritious under changing climate. Using ecosystems-based adaptation approaches to cultivate food has been proven to not only strengthen the ecological base of food production, to maintain the health of ecosystems and biodiversity thus stay species migration, but also result in foods with better immune-boosting compounds. This then underscores the crucial importance of sustainable agriculture as critical to building resilient populations against modern-day climate and health shocks.

Third, leverage an enterprise approach where the youth are engaged. Decentralizing of clean energy to power value addition needs to take on a market approach and be youth-driven, rather than socially driven. The stimulus packages being proposed to buffer local economies against the shocks of the COVID-19, for instance, should be channeled as much as possible to target the informal sector players and enterprising youth. For example, leveraging on the structure of local cooperatives, these can be incentivized by the stimulus, to give low priced debt financing to members/farmers to then work with youth entrepreneurs to invest in clean energy solutions – like solar dryers, solar fridges, etc., to power their own agro-value addition.

Fourth, increase intra-Africa trade to buffer the continent’s trade against shocks that are external to the continent. By and large, COVID-19 originated from outside of Africa. While this is the case, insulating the continent’s economies from supply-chain shocks proved difficult because of dependence on goods and services originating from stricken areas. The continent should develop its own competitive enterprises that adequately supply the local demand markets to buffer against such shocks resulting from overdependence on imports. For this, we cannot do without engaging our youth to be the climate action actors in leading this charge of climate-preneurship.

Fifth, invest in coherent policy incentives across diverse sectors, to ensure they deliver coherent policy signals to incentivize the above solutions. Right now, this could start with policies by ministries of finance and central banks that are formulating stimulus packages, that such packages will not be delivered wholly as social cash transfers but applied to buffer enterprises in the informal sector to enable them to stay afloat. This can, for instance, be channeled to facilitate tax breaks for players in this sector. Trade and industry, agriculture and energy ministries could then second such a policy through their own set of incentives aimed at stimulating value-added solutions in the informal sector.

While COVID-19 has come as a shock to the globe, transformational climate action can be a timely and viable channel, by which we all pull through and emerge stronger.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.