COVID-19: The Right to a Healthy Environment


Blogpost on COVID-19 and the right to a healthy environment by Walter F. Baber, Affiliated Professor 

As with all human challenges, the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 has demanded more of some than of others. For some, circumstances are dire. For others, spring break partying came on schedule. National responses varied as well. The response in China struck many in the West as draconian.

The results, however, were impressive (even when adjusted for the tendency of the “Peoples” Republic to shade the truth). In Great Britain, the slogan remained Keep Calm and Carry On – at least for a while.

‘Fake News’

In the United States, the Administration frittered away weeks trying to sell the notion that the pandemic sweeping Asia was fake news, concocted by the political opposition searching for a new way to overturn the 2016 election after failing to impeach the President. It then reversed course, with the claim that our ‘Dear Leader’ [Donald Trump] had seen the problem coming even before the medical professionals. The consequences of this dithering and deception are likely to become clear only with time.

Shut Down

At a practical level, however, COVID -19 response has been more mundane. People are staying home, consuming less and relying more on what local supply chains can provide. Governments are shutting down economic activity within the limits of their ability to do so (and, sometimes, a bit beyond those limits).

Predictably enough, the consequences are falling disproportionately on those least able to bear them – the poor, the under-employed, migrant populations, the young and the elderly. However, the planet that evolved this deadly virus is responding in other ways.

Lower Levels Of Pollution Save Lives

With the dramatic decline in tourism, the canals of Venice have begun to run clear. Less travel has also meant that greenhouse gas emissions around the world have declined significantly. The air pollution for which Beijing is notorious has moderated, along with air pollution levels around the world.

In China alone, environmental resource economist Marshall Burke calculates that two months of pollution reduction has probably saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70. If those figures are even approximately true, the Chinese government saved far more lives by curtailing air pollution than they did by limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Of course, COVID -19 response has not been an unalloyed positive from either a human or an environmental perspective. The disposal of medical wastes, a problem in the best of times, will be a much greater challenge over the coming months.

And it is not at all clear that a dramatic increase in the use of disinfectants and sanitizers will always and everywhere be handled in environmentally responsible ways.

Moreover, the distributional inequities associated with these problems can be counted on to mirror the same patterns of discrimination that direct COVID-19 effects exhibit – largely for the same reasons.

New Consumption Patterns

However, some of the attitudinal changes that COVID-19 has wrought might be worth examining for their long-term value. To the extent that people have reduced their consumption (particularly of luxury goods) and largely restricted themselves to the goods and amenities that their local communities can provide, many are finding that the benefits are simultaneously personal, economic, and environmental. Moreover, it would not be a betrayal of our progressive and cosmopolitan commitments to seek more of our cultural satisfaction in the plurality of our own locality.

And, of equal importance, it would be well for us to consider how quickly adversity causes us to shift our focus from the individual and personal to the collective and official.

The much heightened focus on the performance of the state is an as yet underappreciated aspect of the COVID-19 response story. If we are willing to curtail our own consumption and travel for the sake of disease control, why should we continue resisting such measures as a response to the more tenacious and deadly plague of climate change?

Both of these attitudinal features of COVID-19 response carry with them important human rights questions – as all exercises of public authority inevitably do. But before we condemn them as potential features of the post-pandemic “new normal,” we should consider the human rights advantages of healing the planet as we heal ourselves.

Best regards,
Walter F. Baber