What is the environmental impact of COVID-19?

07 Apr 2020 4:09 pm

What is the environmental impact of COVID-19?

By Fikile Portia Ndlovu, Ph.D

[Durban, 14 April 2020] COVID-19 has undoubtedly been devastating. Much of the devastation and fear around the disease stem from the unprecedented novelties of the virus, originally named ‘2019 Novel Coronavirus’ to describe this ‘novel’ or ‘new’ strain of coronavirus. The disease has affected the health of our environment such that we cannot live or do business without risking lives. This means that we all must allow a small constitutionally justifiable limiting of our environmental rights in in order to follow government directives and temporary regulations that ensure many survive the pandemic.

We must salute those in the front lines of fighting this virus and also give ourselves credit for understanding the vectors of transmission of the disease and complying with whatever necessary directives to stop new infections, as well as to recover from the interruptions to many business operations, the supply chain and markets.

In considering the question, ‘What is the environmental impact of COVID-19?’, let us limit the discussion to some of the rules and regulations of the global community and the South African context, especially with the 21-day lockdown in place across the country to stop new infections. Further, let us qualify the question by defining what is meant by the word ‘environment’ in this context.

Environment for the purposes of this article relates to environmental rights as contained in The Environmental Rights clause of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, section 24 in particular under the Bill of Rights. Section 24(a) gives rights to a healthy and sustainable environment which is to be preserved well into the future. Of course, these rights should be read in tandem with other rights and laws of general application, including the right under section 21 which provides that, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement. Everyone has the right to leave the Republic.’ All these rules must be balanced with laws such as The State of Emergency Act 64 of 1997 and more appropriately The Disaster Management Act (CoGTA), allowing the President to make regulations necessary to deal with national emergencies and crises which may have an effect of limiting rights to the environment as we may know it.

South Africa is in her 26th year of democracy and with all that is represented by this democracy, South Africans treasure their freedoms as would any nation with a similar history.

South Africa is endowed with many natural resources, cultural diversity, a celebratory nature, countrywide picturesque landscapes and beautiful weather. Unfortunately COVID-19 has come to interfere with that environment.

On a global level to quell the disease, the travel environment is also restricted. All this is unusual under the general rules and Constitutional rights we are familiar with, but COVID-19 is showing us that in times of a pandemic of this nature, we all have to sacrifice our rights for the benefit of preserving life, one another and the global community at large by restricting movement and travel. This is not house arrest - it is a countrywide lockdown to ensure the nation and others survive COVID-19 without too many deaths.

South Africa is facing a tough environmental challenge with COVID-19, as the virus has been shown to be particularly dangerous to persons with weakened immune systems, the elderly and those from low income communities. This disease is devastating for its business, financial and travel implications, but it is its threat to the most vulnerable that is particularly sinister. Many in South Africa fit this demographic and many elderly people are guardians to young children who have deceased or absent parents.

We simply have to fight the disease since we all have the power to do so through self-monitoring, self-quarantine and where available making ourselves available for testing and treatment.

For South Africa’s situation, unemployment is an issue and many survive on the informal economy, which will be the first to be affected by the country wide lockdown. Some big business will also suffer because of their larger overheads during the lockdown. Where possible, some businesses will be saved by insurance products which have contractual clauses to cover such situations as COVID-19 disasters.

A healthy living environment is part of the core of enjoying any other human rights, therefore eradicating COVID-19 must be prioritised, even if it means staying at home until the catastrophe passes.

The government, in pursuit of the Bill of Rights clauses around the protection of the environment, must take decisions not only to attempt to fight the disease through lockdowns, but also to look to rehabilitate the national economy. This will be tough to achieve for some time and many humane and intelligent solutions must be explored to escape the environmental impacts of COVID-19 without losing national stability.

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