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Coronavirus Is Not an Excuse for Failure

Coronavirus Is Not an Excuse for Failure

Sunday, 4 July, 2021 - 10:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

When the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development (MCSD) announced its annual meeting to discuss the repercussions of the coronavirus on its programs in the region, we expected to see a decline in the positive results that countries had achieved before the pandemic. Sadly, it turned out that the failure to achieve the goals had long preceded the pandemic.

It is true that the pandemic’s effects on health and the economy have impeded progress towards achieving many development goals, as well as protecting the environment, because they created other priorities. But figures show that this regression preceded the pandemic and will surely continue after it ends, unless work begins quickly to address its root causes.

Progress is measured based on a sustainable development strategy for the Mediterranean developed by the MCSD, which set goals to be achieved successively, allowing for revisions and corrective measures. In addition to the regression seen in most countries even before the pandemic struck, figures highlighted a great disparity between the European Mediterranean countries on the northwestern side and those on the southeastern one. The reasons for failure are not limited to the disparity in available funding between rich and poor countries – the main reason behind low-income countries’ failure to advance was lack of sound governance, adequate planning, alongside inadequate monitoring and accountability mechanisms, resulting in waste and corruption.

The Mediterranean Basin is the most popular region in the world among tourists, with a six-fold increase in visitors during the last 50 years. One third of the population lives in coastal areas, which creates great pressure on the marine environment due to various types of waste, including 730 tons of plastic every day. Temperatures in the Mediterranean Basin also increased with a rate exceeding the global average by about 1.5 times. Among the major challenges faced by large parts of the region are the scarcity of fresh water and inefficient agricultural practices.

The slow transition to clean and renewable energy, and the lack of efficiency in production and consumption, leads to a rise in deaths caused by air pollution, exacerbated by electricity production plants and the transportation sector. The number of deaths related to air pollution in southern and eastern Mediterranean countries exceeds 230,000 annually. Comparative studies have also shown that the forest area is dwindling while fishing is increasing at a rate that exceeds the ability of the Mediterranean to replenish its marine wealth.

A new report presented during the MCSD meeting on the state of the environment and development in the Mediterranean, concluded that “the region is not on the right track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.” Instead of noting that the pandemic exacerbated an already worsening situation, the authors of the report expressed their hope that post-pandemic recovery initiatives would support the shift towards green growth. Taking into account that the report covered the pre-coronavirus era, this hope is an explicit admission of the failure to achieve the objectives of the declared strategies, as it relies on the shock caused by the pandemic to rebuild on a new foundation. It is as if we are waiting to solve the problems of failing to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, with emergency measures to address the effects of coronavirus, and not the other way around.

A report, presented by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) at the MCSD meeting, highlighted that the coronavirus pandemic revealed the weaknesses of healthcare systems in the Arab side of the Mediterranean, but it did not cause it. The pandemic also exposed the modest ability of countries to deal with an emergency health disaster.

Regardless of the coronavirus, the AFED study estimated that 700,000 residents of the Arab side of the Mediterranean lost their lives prematurely in 2020 due to exposure to environmental hazards. The most prominent diseases with environmental links in the region are related to arterial blockage, respiratory infections, diarrhea and cancer due to air, water and sea pollution, in addition to the deterioration of the quality of agricultural land and exposure to toxic chemical wastes.

The study suggested that health and environment ministers adopt a common approach to mitigate environmental pathogens, most of which are avoidable. Among the priorities are improving water and air quality through the development and enforcement of strict standards, integrated waste management, and measures to deal with the health impacts of climate change. The study also recommended protecting and developing the marine environment, in a way that safeguards people’s health and preserves the quality of marine food.

This does not mean that the direct effects of the pandemic on the health systems and economic conditions can be downplayed, as they were enormous. While real losses should be much higher now, the United Nations Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) estimated that the coronavirus caused Arab countries to lose over 40 billion dollars of their gross domestic product in 2020, in addition to the loss of more than 2 million jobs, a diminishing middle class and the entry of 10 million new people into the cycle of poverty and hunger.

While the size of the emergency economic incentives varied from one Arab country to another, most of them shared one characteristic, as they were limited to the same emergency response: they did not reach, except in a few cases, a rescue plan that often naturally takes form for the launch of more balanced development programs. Some measures have even backfired in some countries, such as restoring subsidies on electricity and water prices as a form of urgent economic assistance. This measure threatens losing the benefits achieved in previous years in the field of enhancing energy and water consumption efficiency by the gradual lifting of subsidies and the adoption of a realistic pricing policy.

It is certain that weak financial resources in some countries is one of the factors behind the slow progress in achieving the sustainable development goals. However, the MCSD discussions revealed that the main causes of failure are the weakness of governmental institutions, the ineffectiveness of the public sector and arbitrary planning, in addition to wars, conflicts, and the lack of security and peace in large parts of the region.

Huge budgets that developed countries have allocated to recovery plans, including foreign aid, represent an opportunity to move to a more sustainable development path. However, this can only be achieved in parallel with a radical change in public policies, and the development of appropriate plans whose implementation is subject to accountability. Solving pre-coronavirus failures remains a priority and foundation to build on, and the virus should not be used opportunistically to erase pre-pandemic systemic failures.

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