Working at home, I notice that air pollution levels have come down dramatically. Take for instance pollution levels in the Ganges have significantly been reduced—achieving in a few weeks what decades of clean-up campaign failed to do. Wild animals are walking freely on vehicle-free roads. People in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, can enjoy, from more than 200 Kilometres distance, the majestic Himalayan peaks after 30 years. The COVID-19 lockdown has put a brief pause to our assault on the environment and reminded us what it would be like to live in harmony with nature.
Today’s pandemic has also reminded us, in the starkest way possible, of the inequality and vulnerability in our health systems, social protection systems and public services. The plight of the migrant workers is a clear indication that the growth process left out this segment of the economic workforce. There is every possibility that many of these workers and their families will fall into poverty.
Meanwhile, the “new normal” is emerging. In pre-COVID time, we flocked to restaurants, malls, concert halls, and travelled freely. It was normal to commute and report to work every day. Three months into the crisis, we are learning how to keep social distance with a mask on and work from home. We are experiencing that digital technology is rapidly changing every aspect of our life.
Those who have less capability to use technology, however, are being left behind. A new generation of inequalities is rapidly created around technology. The worst affected are women and girls by this rapidly expanding digital divide in the aftermath of COVID-19. According to an OECD report released in March, globally 327 million fewer women than men have access to smartphone with internet connectivity - especially in developing countries in Asia and Africa.
For the past few months, the pandemic has unequivocally highlighted these growing tensions between people and the nature, between the haves and the have-nots, and between people and technology. Our response to the crisis must reduce these tensions, so that our new normal will be more harmonious and inclusive.
Policy makers and the business community should come together to make this crisis the turning point for the country to introduce a more inclusive economy and society. In mid-May, the Government of India announced an economic stimulus package equivalent to about 265 billion US dollars. One of the most critical issues it could address is the protection of the 450 million informal workers who have either lost their jobs or are out of work at this moment.
Social protection schemes can be set up in a way that they reach everyone. For example, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme could further strengthen government’s social protection system amid the pandemic effects. It could reduce the transaction costs of managing the multiple schemes under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) - the largest ongoing social protection programme in India. COVID-19 has proved once again - that addressing inequality is one of humanity’s biggest unfinished business.
The private sector can also take appropriate steps to protect the interests of informal workers – they are an asset. We are already hearing concerns how business cannot restart unless the migrant workers return.
The lockdowns have shown that nature can still flourish if we give it the chance. For that, we need to accelerate the shift from a brown to green economy. More public funds and investment should target sustainable sectors and businesses that are environment and climate sensitive. This will help in achieving our goals for sustainable growth as well as solving the air and water pollution crisis. Some scientists say COVID-19 may have originated with wildlife. Our over-encroachment into the nature needs to be better regulated. We have to live as part of the nature, not as predominant creatures exploiting it.
Digital solutions will be increasingly applied even more rapidly, and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) will be accelerated. AI could bring improved access to social services such as health care, economic development and other gains. However, diminished privacy, less human agency and accountability, and emerging new skill sets required in job market will pose significant risk, thus require mitigation measures and policies for responsible innovations. While technology is increasingly playing a predominant role in our life, ‘human’ factors become even more important to drive and receive the benefits of the technology.
COVID-19 is a wakeup call for all; it has given us a moment to pause, reflect and recreate our way of life. There should be no repeat of business as usual of pre-COVID times. We have no option but to adapt. We need to reset inequalities and create a more inclusive society. We need to make our lifestyle and development priorities more environment and climate sensitive.
Embracing the new normal, I dearly miss people’s smiles hidden behind masks and face-to-face contact. In these difficult times, empathy becomes even more important. Let us be kind and support each other, including the nature and animals, so that we will come out of this much more resilient and compassionate.
This article was originially published on Times Now News
Shoko Noda is the Resident Representative at UNDP India