Equity, Not Equality, Should Be the Principle for Combatting the Coronavirus

Taking a leaf out of climate negotiations, we must acknowledge that different sections of society will have differing abilities and access to resources to respond to a crisis.

Experts from around the world have drawn parallels about the lessons that the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about how to fight climate change in the future. But the reverse is also true – the principles embedded in climate negotiations can help us design our interventions right now for the corona pandemic.

One key principle that has been central to all climate negotiations, particularly Article 3.1 in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is the principle of equity as the basis for the protection of the climate system. Equity in the context of climate change relates to rights that are to be enjoyed by all human beings irrespective of their gender, nationality or social status.

Another principle in the context of climate change that is relevant to the coronavirus pandemic is the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) and Respective Capabilities. Different roles are envisaged for the developing and developed countries based on who is responsible for the build-up of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and their capabilities. These principles accept that individual countries may have different capabilities in combating climate change, owing to economic development, and therefore puts the obligation to reduce current emissions on countries accordingly. Both these principles find resonance with the current health crisis that the world is experiencing.

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In designing our public health interventions too here’s how the principle of equity can be applied. A graphic image by the Interaction Institute for Social Change and artist Angus Macguire perhaps sums this up best.

Photo: Interaction Institute for Social Change/Angus Maguire

This image shows three people of different heights standing over a fence. If we want to treat them all equally they will be given a box of the same size. However, if accept that all individuals are of different heights we will give the shortest person a box that’s of a different size.

Likewise, given the current crisis that the world is facing, equity cannot be achieved by treating all members of the public equally. It will happen if we design our public health interventions in a way that acknowledges that different sections of society will have differing abilities to respond to a crisis as well as access to different resources, or in the case of the poor perhaps no resources. The Race Matters Institute in this blog by George Washington University rightly observes, “The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone equitably, or justly according to their circumstances.

The government’s response in India has been that of 100% lockdown that has created a human tragedy of monumental proportions. The announcement, essential as it was for staving the rapidly multiplying virus, assumed that everyone in our society had an equal ability to deal with this response. As we have now learnt, this is not the case.

When the lockdown was announced for 21 days, no more than a few hours were given to all Indians to bring the nation to a screeching halt that assumed that the poor, the rich, urban, rural, men or women, migrant or white-collar workers would all have the same ability to respond.  If the principle of equity had been kept in mind then our public health policy on lockdown could have taken a somewhat different shape.

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Of course one must add that, in the days to come, this realisation did dawn upon our policymakers, and subsequently, special provisions were made by providing buses for migrant labourers to reach home or direct money transfers to daily wage workers were announced to help tide over the crisis. But this could have been done right from the start without the incumbent damage to life and livelihoods that followed.

On international platforms, India has always argued that the developing world was not part of the climate problem and so rich nations should be made to pay for the build-up of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, while at the same time providing developing nations with access to finance and technology for doing the same. Extending this analogy domestically, the poor in our country are not responsible for the coronavirus and yet they have ended up paying the worst price for it. We could do well by remembering the principles embedded in climate change negotiations in designing our own interventions for dealing with this crisis.

The poor will need to be cushioned, assuming everyone has equal capabilities to respond to the crisis or the impending lockdown will not help. If we have to flatten the coronavirus curve, equity must be the foundation of our design principle.

Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environment journalist based in New Delhi.