Social unity in the time of physical distance | WWF South Africa

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Social unity in the time of physical distance

Covid-19 has brought about unprecedented change to our daily lives and requires a united societal response – which is where NGOs like WWF come into play.

Border closures, travel bans, school closings, factories and businesses shutting their doors, quarantines and social distancing – for the safety of all we’re maintaining a physical distance from one another. The South African government has been quick to respond to contain the coronavirus by declaring a state of disaster, and the private sector has stepped forward with substantial financial pledges to support the economy. Alongside this, NGOs like WWF, communities and individuals are coming together in entirely new ways.
This pandemic crisis necessitates decisive and collective action from us all. As an environmental NGO, WWF is working in support of those who are directly impacted, particularly the most vulnerable in society, in line with our vision of a world where people and nature thrive.
As part of the collective effort, we are regearing to support the marginalised and to foster an economic recovery that is centred on everybody’s constitutional rights within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
WWF has the expertise and strong networks in areas such as the food system, plastic waste, the wildlife economy, clean energy, urban resilience, water security and our climate work. We are drawing on these networks and our strengths to better inform our approach to addressing the societal and economic risks posed by this virus going forward.
We know that the health of our population (and their ability to wash their hands to protect themselves against Covid-19) depends on better water security. We know that associated economic crisis will rapidly increase already worrying rates of hunger and so must continue to work to secure sustainable food supply chains for the well-being of all people.
Our energy policy will need increased scrutiny in the light of climate change, especially when there is a push towards an economic recovery once the immediate crisis passes. Plastic production will escalate to meet urgent Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and hygiene requirements but we must be prioritising an appropriate waste management response, including support to informal reclaimers. The wildlife economy faces particular challenges with the shutting down of tourism which is an important source of income for many protected areas. These are challenges we face right now and we will also face going into the future.
While WWF has long worked in both the environmental protection and climate spheres, the Covid-19 crisis has exposed vulnerabilities in our current systems. It has made it abundantly clear that we need to infuse resilience in our cities, communities and institutions in taking action against, and adapting to, the climate crisis if we are to mitigate against the greatest socio-economic risks from climate change and other future disasters.
Resilience, in the environmental, social or economic sense, is essentially the ability to withstand or recover quickly from shocks to the system.
The resilience of our nation is currently stretched to breaking point. There was little give in the system to start with as many South Africans have not been able to realise their constitutional rights to affordable electricity, adequate food and nutrition and clean water. Already high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty, coupled with the speed and scale of job losses in many sectors, make it even more difficult for the vulnerable in our society to cope and adapt to the impacts of Covid-19, as well as our efforts to contain it.
As a nation, much of our attention is currently focused on ensuring an adequate supply of medical equipment, food and clean water. To this end, WWF works to empower small-scale farmers, fishers and producers so that they can continue to produce, are supported in food safety and personal health measures, and are linked into markets, both formal and informal.
The question remains; what is this going to do to the fabric of life – in South Africa, across the globe? This health crisis has thrown the inequity of our society into sharp focus and underlined the necessity for a just and green recovery plan. Working towards an equitable future requires that we direct our efforts into transformative systemic change guided by South Africa’s progressive constitution and the interconnected delivery priorities of the SDGs.  This means a thriving economy where all can participate, where there’s sufficient food, energy and water for all, without extracting from nature more than it can provide.
Central to this must be a response to the needs of marginalised people in society, particularly women as the primary caregivers, and children. The right to a clean environment and sustainable development is fundamental and closely connected to the right to health and well-being. The responsibility for the provision of a safe and healthy environment is outlined in a range of legislation and different sections of the constitution. We now need to ensure that our systems are functional at the level required to turn legislative acts into action.
More specifically, there can be no social resilience without respecting Section 24 of the constitution which provides for our environmental rights, including the obligation to protect our unique natural heritage. Far-reaching, positive change at this scale is a complex task. Effective action must be time-bound and informed by the best available science. It will require cooperative multi-level governance to better link economic, development and conservation agendas and overcome the associated political, cultural, behavioural and investment challenges.
We do not see this as a short-term intervention, but as part of an overall reconfiguring of South Africa’s economy to bring about a healthy society wherein both people and nature can thrive. Alongside the rest of civil society in South Africa, we are here in service of informed and wise government leadership. Not on our own, but as part of a unified collective building towards a safe, secure and sustainable future for all South Africa’s people.

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