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The COVID19 crisis: the perils of separating environmental health from human health

The COVID19 crisis: the perils of separating environmental health from human health

pradnya mangala ore


Pradnya Mangala 

(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)

pradnya mangala ore Anu RamdasWhat is the global conversation about the climate/weather change as a result of the lockdown in most of the heavily industrialized countries?

Pradnya Mangala: Broadly there are two kinds of narratives around climate change/environment related to the coronavirus outbreak: Marxist and Western liberal perspectives.

1. From a Marxist environmental sociology perspective, economy and ecology are entangled in complex ways in capitalist social relations. Thus, the origin and spread of the virus is connected to the larger question of the political economy of the intensive agribusiness which has led to intrusion and exploitation of natural systems and wilderness in a manner in which the emergence of harmful pathogens has become a recurring phenomenon (Wallace, 2020; Foster, 2020). In other words, we can say that capitalism, through the rearing of animals on a large scale for profitmaking, has altered ecological conditions in ways that have contributed to the development of new forms of pathogenic diseases. This perspective helps us to situate the pandemic on a broader systemic level.

2. Conversations on climate change from a Western liberal perspective have focused disproportionately on reductions in air, water and land pollution and carbon emissions during the lockdown period. The images of clear skies and clean waterways are circulating on social media. These images, in my opinion, signify the central problem we face in the mainstream discourse around climate change which problematizes developing countries for their high emission levels without considering the role of colonialism and imperialism by developed countries in accelerating the climate crisis in the first place.

If we are concerned about the effects of the climate crisis in the future, we have to foreground social justice in every climate debate and action. Relating a lockdown imposed by the state without providing the basic needs of the most vulnerable communities to a kind of climate action is inhumane. Data in the U.S. have shown that African Americans, indigenous people, migrants, undocumented people, and other poor and marginalized communities are the worst affected in this outbreak. Given the lack of access to free or subsidized health care facilities coupled with the loss of livelihoods and instances of state violence, working-class communities face an altogether different set of realities in which abiding by social distancing is structurally constrained or virtually impossible in cramped living spaces. Similarly, as many authors on RTI have articulated, Dalit Bahujan Adivasi communities in the Indian context have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic.

Based on these issues, reiterating a vision for climate action that espouses the principles of justice where the most marginalized communities who have contributed the least to the crisis should be protected is crucial.

AnuDoes the Bahujan’s/marginalized’s health figure in the debates around the lockdown’s impact on the environment?

Pradnya Mangala: As I had written in a Facebook post, we cannot neatly separate environmental and human health. It is impossible. What we are seeing among the environmental enthusiasts is exactly that kind of false binary that comes out of a ruling class imagination. Research has shown that people working in coal mines, chemical industries, and the construction industry are more susceptible to pulmonary disorders, and given this, these workers are vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 on respiratory organs. Now in India it is a no-brainer that the majority of workers employed in these industries are from Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi backgrounds who, irrespective of the COVID-19 crisis, get exposed to respiratory disorders due to their work conditions. The inability to separate environmental and human health is clear given that the above-mentioned industries are considered as potentially harmful to both.

So, if we need to mitigate the impacts of these polluting industries, we must think about the impacts these industries cause to workers, the environment, and people living around these industries. Mahul area in Mumbai is a classic example here as it is infamously called a ‘toxic hell’. The area is inhabited mostly by Dalit Bahujan residents relocated from slums who are landlocked by the most dangerously polluting chemical industries and oil refineries. Due to the continuous exposure of pollutants from these industries, almost every household has members suffering from respiratory disorders while some are afflicted by cancer. Not only the residents but also the workers in the industries are exposed to these harmful chemicals. For these Dalit Bahujans, immediate health threats are part of everyday life.

The point I am trying to make is that for DBA communities, environmental questions are intricately enmeshed with our daily lives. So how can we envision climate action to combat pollution without considering questions of health, livelihood, and housing of the DBA communities? Only ruling classes who do not have these kinds of immediate concerns related to basic human needs can celebrate the clearing of the sky in the midst of a pandemic.



Pradnya Mangala is a geographer interested in the human-environment relationship. 

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