Earth Today | COVID-19: An Opportunity To ‘Build Back Better’ In The Caribbean

By Jamaica Gleaner,

COVID-19 HAS landed the Caribbean between the proverbial rock and a hard place, that is, between a seemingly irrepressible global pandemic and prevailing environmental challenges, chief among them being climate change.

Still, stakeholders believe it is possible to emerge from the pandemic better, even while sporting some bruises.

“I am concerned that efforts to rebuild economies and societies will be prioritised, without an understanding that the lack of concern for man’s interaction with nature caused this pandemic and some other outbreaks in recent years,” said Dr Lorna Inniss, coordinator for the Cartagena Convention Secretariat, Ecosystems Division of United Nations Environment in the Caribbean.

“Consideration of biodiversity and habitats must be mainstreamed within our economic consciousness, not just for human health, but for the health of the only planet we call home,” she added.

The solution, Inniss believes, resides in the ‘building back better’ philosophy trumpeted by the UN.

“In the short term, as persons pick back up the strands of their lives, nature will be a medium to low priority. Therefore, during the immediate (one-year) aftermath of this crisis, governments and relevant civil society will need to be the sole custodians of nature in terms of setting policy for the economy that sets natural capital at its core, and begin the widespread education process of citizens and the private sector in an effort to divert similar situations,” she told The Gleaner.

“In the medium to long term, it is important that all sectors view the global expression ‘building back better’ as an opportunity to change governance and behaviours from just a consumer of natural resources for economic gain, to practising moderation, conservation and consideration of the future,” Inniss added.

She suggested, too, that financing will need to be reserved for what many consider the ‘elephant in the room’ – climate change – and in a time of COVID-19, which has demanded an unprecedented level of resources for health systems strengthening, and other interventions, to save lives or otherwise support vulnerable and/or newly vulnerable persons.

Still, with impacts, including severe hurricanes, that could deal a severe blow to Caribbean economies while devastating livelihoods and taking lives, climate change requires money.

“We are now in the 2020 hurricane season, and already, we have a country in the Americas counting its losses from two back-to-back tropical storms (including some) 27 people dead. How does a country deal with this while still fighting COVID-19? For developing countries with small resources, I would argue that it is impossible. It is at times like this that Caribbean island states must be able to access resources to augment their already-small economies,” Inniss noted.

“When pandemics and natural hazards overwhelm our capacity to recover on our own, we cannot be viewed by the donors of the world as middle-income countries, but as countries at severe economic risk. So far, this is the strong message I have been hearing from CARICOM leaders at the global level, and they are doing very well, in my opinion, in negotiating with international finance institutions to support these fragile island systems while the region recovers,” she added.

The need to focus on building back better is a point that has been made by Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres.

“The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call,” he said in a message delivered for Earth Day 2020 on April 20.

“We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future,” he added.

Guterres also advanced six actions that countries need to take to remain on course with resilience building.

The first was that “the huge amounts of money to be spent on recovery” from the COVID-19 deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition; and that where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, that they be tied to “achieving green jobs and sustainable growth”.

Additional actions include that fiscal firepower drive a shift from the grey to green economy, empowering societies and people to be more resilient; and that public funds be used to invest in the future, not the past, and flow to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate.

Further, Guterres recommended that climate risks and opportunities must be incorporated into the financial system, as well as all aspects of public policymaking and infrastructure; and that all need to work together as an international community.

Photo: Dr Lorna Inniss

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