Climate Migration: Effects of COVID-19 lockdown measures
Lydia Howard Chevalier
6th October 2020
Unfortunate, though it may be, the initially positive reactions of eco-activists after the introduction of strict lockdown measures may have been premature. Online reports of crystal-clear water running through the canals of Venice and visible starry skies in China proved to be the glimmer of hope we were all desperately searching for in the midst of these unprecedented times. That sense of hope was short-lived, however, and data soon emerged showing that although levels of carbon emissions declined somewhat thanks to lockdown measures, this was merely a temporary slowdown – and environmental damage from the burning of fossil fuels is continuing, unabated. Indeed, pandemic safety measures, such as the wearing of PPE, is contributing even further waste – non-recyclable face masks and gloves can be found discarded carelessly on our streets and in our landfills. Whilst our attention has been almost exclusively focused on COVID-19 during these past few months, we must not forget that nothing on our planet exists in a vacuum – climate change is inextricably linked with public health as well as with migration.
In 2019 alone, extreme weather events displaced 24 million people within their own countries – an alarmingly high number, serving as a stark reminder that we must not ignore the seriousness of the issue. Climate change is likely to result in even more frequent and intense weather events in the future, which will inevitably lead to a dramatic shift in the demographics of our planet. The displacement of large numbers of people is a high-risk scenario, particularly during a global pandemic – how can migrants obey stay-at-home orders when their homes have been destroyed by hurricanes, bush fires and major floods? Can we reasonably expect social distancing in cramped refugee camps or frequent handwashing in places where soapy water is often unavailable due to damage to infrastructure? Consider the example of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti; survivors in crowded camps were often forced to drink water that had been contaminated by flooded rivers and latrines, resulting in a serious cholera outbreak, killing many of those who already displaced. If we wish to suppress the spread of COVID-19, we must also simultaneously address climate change.
Hurricane Matthew: the impact on housing in Corail and Jeremie, Haiti (BBC, 2016)
Migration due to environmental change is not a new concept; however, the levels of climate migration have increased dramatically in recent years. According to the Migration Data Portal, in 2019 alone, nearly 2,000 disasters triggered 24.9 million new internal displacements, the highest number since 2012. These were mostly the result of tropical storms and monsoon rains in South Asia and East Asia and Pacific. While it is difficult to measure exactly how many have fled their homes as a direct result of climate change, it is categorised as a “threat amplifier”: something which exacerbates an existing situation, such as conflict or competition over scarce resources. Those who are forced to flee their homes as a direct result of sudden-onset weather changes face a complex legal situation when attempting to access assistance or seek asylum; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) currently refuses these migrants refugee status, designating them merely as “environmental migrants” and leaving them out in the cold without legal protection.
Unlike the measures introduced to tackle the pandemic, there is no organised effort to monitor the migrant population, and the UN lacks the resources to address their needs. The Sustainable Development Goals mention climate action and the urgent need to address it; however, the refusal of the US to adopt the Global Compact and its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement are not very encouraging signs of a commitment to future action. The Global Compact on Migration represents a unique opportunity for the international community to understand the climatic drivers of migration as well as the impact of migration on the environment, while the Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to climate change by setting out goals involving carbon-emission mitigation, new technologies and the reinforcing of countries’ adaptive abilities in the face of severe weather events.
How a situation is perceived is critical when planning an effective response. Too much doom-and-gloom on the news can lead to “crisis fatigue” – a phenomenon many are already familiar with, watching the ever-rising death toll on television every night. This can lead to a sense of hopelessness, which is only amplified when the population also views extreme weather events as “acts of God” over which they feel no sense of control. Utilising a crisis-narrative inhibits effective action, as crises are typically short-term, unexpected events of which we could have had no prior knowledge or indeed, any level of preparedness. This can be applied to both COVID-19, which proved to be the “Disease X” public health experts have warned us about for many years, as well as climate change, the effects of which we have long been aware of. We cannot keep burying our heads in the sand when faced with mounting evidence of the effects of both of these threats.
COVID-19 and climate change pose immediate and long-term challenges to our well-being and everyday survival; the New York Times estimates that in South Asia alone, the living conditions of 800 million people could dramatically diminish due to climate change. Therefore, both must be addressed with an equal amount of urgency, long-term planning and multilateral cooperation. One significant difference must be acknowledged, however: flattening the curve of climate change will take many years, as opposed to mere weeks, and will require effective, pre-emptive intervention. International organisations such as the UN should specifically target the most vulnerable populations when planning to provide assistance and support, as it is often the countries with the lowest adaptive capacities who suffer disproportionately from the effects of flooding, droughts and desertification.
“The lockdown measures we have all recently been subjected to has offered us a brief insight into the impact on human wellbeing of restrictions on mobility.”
The idea that closed borders represents safety while open borders bring chaos and danger is a flawed and dangerous one that right-wing populists across the developed world have capitalised on throughout both the 2015 refugee crisis and the current pandemic. The lockdown measures we have all recently been subjected to has offered us a brief insight into the impact on human wellbeing of restrictions on mobility – a mere snapshot of what it is like for those fleeing parts of the world rendered uninhabitable by the devastating effects of climate change. Whilst all public health experts recommend travel and border restrictions as a necessary part of the pandemic response, they emphasise that this must be done on a test-and-trace basis, instead of an all-encompassing blanket ban. Such measures could lead people to fear “outsiders” or “foreigners” as potential sources of infection, a fear which could translate into a long-term policy if we are not careful. We need to remember the opportunities and benefits of welcoming migrants into our communities: many societies are experiencing a demographic decline and ageing populations – a fresh injection of migrant workers can provide a significant boost to local economies, a much-needed necessity in many post-COVID nations. The irony seemed lost on U.K. politicians recently when many applauded and expressed gratitude to the NHS for saving lives throughout the pandemic, despite the fact that many of its healthcare workers are migrants living in a nation whose Home Office is fighting to maintain policies that promote a “hostile environment” for such workers in order to deter any future influx.
And so, we have arrived at our current situation, through a combination of denial, ignorance (politically motivated or otherwise) and a preference for short-term gain, all whilst ignoring the true long-term pain. This myopic attitude must change if we are to ensure the survival and quality of life of the inhabitants of this Earth. We cannot simply relocate the problem, irresponsibly dispose of our waste in developing nations, and perpetuate an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. The evidence is clear: the developed world may be more capable (but perhaps not always willing) to prepare for and manage the effects of extreme weather events, while many in underdeveloped nations lack this capacity. Yet as true as it is that we will all suffer through our own inaction, this conversely means that we will surely all benefit through positive, coordinated action.
To learn more about ‘Climate Migration’ check out STAND’s online student festival taking place between the 12th – 24th of October 2020. To register for online workshops, creative events and panel discussions, click here!
Featured photo by Wallpaper Flare