Mining giant Rio Tinto Face Environmental, Human Rights Complaint in Papua New Guinea

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Contamination of rivers and streams by mine waste in the vicinity of the Panguna copper mine in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson

CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 4 2021 (IPS) – Local communities in the vicinity of the abandoned Panguna copper mine, have taken decisive action to hold the global mining multinational, Rio Tinto, accountable for alleged environmental and human rights violations during the mine’s operations between 1972 and 1989.


The mine operated in the mountains of central Bougainville in Papua New Guinea until 1989.

The complaint by 156 residents was lodged with the Australian Government in September by Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre and subsequently accepted in November, paving the way for a non-judicial mediation process.

“We and the communities we are working with have now entered into a formal conciliation process with Rio Tinto facilitated by the Australian OECD National Contact Point and talks with the company will begin very shortly,” Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne told IPS.

Rio Tinto was the majority owner of the Panguna mine through its operating company, Bougainville Copper Ltd, with a 53.8 percent stake. However, 17 years after it began production in 1972, anger among indigenous landowners about contaminated rivers and streams, the devastation of customary land and inequity in distributing the extractive venture’s profits and benefits triggered an armed rebellion in 1989. After the mine’s power supply was destroyed by sabotage, Rio Tinto fled Bougainville Island and the site became derelict during the decade long civil war which followed.

The mine area, which is still controlled by the tribal Mekamui Government of Unity, comprising former rebel leaders, hasn’t been decommissioned and the environmental legacy of its former operations never addressed.

Now, according to the complaint, “copper pollution from the mine pit and tailings continues to flow into local rivers … The Jaba-Kawerong river valley downstream of the mine resembles a moonscape with vast mounds of grey tailings waste and rock stretching almost 40 km downstream to the coast. Levees constructed at the time of the mine’s operation are now collapsing, threatening nearby villages.”

Gutted mine machinery and infrastructure are scattered across the site of the Panguna mine in the mountains of Central Bougainville, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

There are further claims that contamination of waterways and land is causing long-term health problems amongst the indigenous population, such as skin diseases, diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses, and pregnancy complications.

Helen Hakena, Director of the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency in Bougainville’s main town of Buka, fully supports the action taken by her fellow islanders.

“It is long overdue. It is going to be very important because it was the big issue which caused the Bougainville conflict. It will lay to rest the grievances which caused so much suffering for our people,” Hakena told IPS.

The Bougainville civil war, triggered by the uprising at the mine, led to a death toll of 15,000-20,000 people.

The people of Bougainville believe that Rio Tinto has breached the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by failing both to take action to mitigate foreseeable environmental, health and safety-related impacts at the mine and respect the human rights of the communities affected by its extractive activities. The Human Rights Law Centre claims that “the mine pollution continues to infringe nearly all the economic, social and cultural rights of these indigenous communities, including their rights to food, water, health, housing and an adequate standard of living.”

“While we do not wholly accept the claims in the complaint, we are aware of deteriorating mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas and acknowledge that there are environmental and human rights considerations,” Rio Tinto responded in a public statement.

“Accepting the AusNCP’s ‘good offices’ shows that we take this complaint seriously and remain ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant communities around the Panguna mine site, and other relevant parties, such as Bougainville Copper Ltd, the Autonomous Bougainville Government and PNG Government,” the statement continued.

In 2016, Rio Tinto divested its interest in Bougainville Copper Ltd, the operating company, and its shares were acquired by the PNG and Bougainville governments. Simultaneously, the corporate giant announced that it rejected corporate responsibility for any environmental impacts or damage.

Panguna mine’s copper and gold await political settlement before extraction can resume. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Mineral exploration in Bougainville in the 1960s, followed by the construction of the Panguna open-cut copper mine, occurred when the island region was under Australian administration. It would subsequently become a massive source of internal revenue Papua New Guinea, which was granted Independence in 1975. During its lifetime, the Panguna mine generated about US$2 billion in revenue and accounted for 44 percent of the nation’s exports.

The mining agreement negotiated between the Australian Government and Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia in the 1960s didn’t include any significant environmental regulations or liability of the company for rehabilitation of areas affected by mining.

There has been no definitive environmental assessment of the Panguna site since it was forced to shut down. However, about 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated at the mine every day. In 1989, an independent report by Applied Geology Associates in New Zealand noted that significant amounts of copper and other heavy metals were leaching from the mine and waste rock dumps and flowing into the Kawerong River. Today, the water in some rivers and streams in the mine area is a luminescent blue, a sign of copper contamination.

Bougainville residents’ action comes at the end of a challenging year for Rio Tinto. It is still reeling from revelations earlier this year that its operations destroyed historically significant Aboriginal sacred sites, estimated to be 46,000 years old, in the vicinity of its iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The company’s CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, has subsequently resigned.

Nevertheless, Adams is optimistic about the corporate giant’s willingness to engage with Bougainville and PNG stakeholders.

“In the first instance, we hope that this non-judicial process will help to facilitate discussions to explore whether Rio Tinto will make these commitments to address the impacts of its operations. If not, then the communities will be asking the Australian OECD National Contact Point to investigate the complaint and make findings about whether Rio Tinto has breached its human rights and environmental obligations,” the Human Rights Law Centre’s Legal Director said. A full investigation, if required, could take up to a year.

Ultimately, the islanders are seeking specific outcomes. These include Rio Tinto’s serious engagement with them to identify solutions to the urgent environmental and human rights issues; funding for an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine; and contributions to a substantial independently managed fund to enable long term rehabilitation programs.

Otherwise, Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre predicts that “given the limited resources of the PNG and Bougainville governments, it is almost inevitable that if no action is taken by Rio Tinto, the environmental damage currently being caused by the tailings waste will continue and worsen.”

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Empowering Women through Wisdom

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Featured, Gender, Global, Headlines, Health, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations, Women’s Health

Opinion

Caryll Tozer* is engaged in social upliftment of women headed-households, and advocates conservation and women and child rights. She is a co-founder of Women In Need crisis center providing refuge for abused women.
 
Soraya M. Deen* is a lawyer, interfaith consultant and award-winning international activist and community organizer. She divides her time between Sri Lanka and Los Angeles and has written extensively on the plight of minorities and minority women.

Credit: Oxfam.org

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Dec 22 2020 (IPS) – During the COVID 19 lockdown in Sri Lanka, seven women from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds came together to deliver Wisdom and their message that women must be empowered and their voices for national unity must be heard through this movement.


We called ourselves the Wisdom Women and named the online program we created, “Wisdom Wednesdays”. The program airs every fortnight and since its inception in March 2020, we have hosted 21 stimulating shows, with thousands of people watching from across the world.

https://youtube.com/channel/UC28pnsQlhE1Y5BtYOSU6ZMQ

As co-founders, a Muslim and a Christian, we are determined to continue with the show until enough number of women stand up and say, “our country and the next generations deserve better and therefore we must speak up as a movement of women and work for national unity and reconciliation.”

A thirty-year bloody war has left Sri Lanka divided. One might expect our governments to move forward with a robust agenda for peace building. But nothing has improved, not even a tourniquet to arrest the bleeding. Successive governments have not spelt a serious agenda,

As conservation and environmental activists, we have worked to co-found an organization to support and eradicate abuse through the organization: One Home at a Time, which has built 17 homes for women-led households and wells for villages that need water. We believe that each individual can make a difference, and we have raised money, built homes, for these women and their family that lack basic housing. We have seen what happens when you support a woman who then can raise her family.

Whether we show up in NE Nigeria, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, women have been dealt a raw hand. Patriarchy and misogyny are institutionalized, structural, interpersonal and intra personal.

An incredible team of powerful women, each one more powerful in their experience and individual body of work comprise the team. The group represents the various ethnicities, religions and gains strength from each other. We have an incredible team.

Along with us there is Selvi Sachithanandam who through her foundation helps peace building and social transformation through spirituality; Kamani Jinadasa who is the founder of a center for troubled youth and works extensively against gender-based violence.

We also have Farzana J. Khan who helps through her foundation supporting education, and works on small and medium enterprise; Ven. Tenzin Leckdron a Bikkuni who belongs to a monastery in Tibetan Buddhism and currently works in remote areas in Australia; and, Ameena Hussein who is engaged in various social work and is a publisher and writer.

All power houses in their own field. Having gone through life’s tremendous challenges and hardships, we know very well what it takes to uplift women and give them the skills to thrive.

Our mission is to educate and inspire women. Teach women some basic skills, but first to let them know they are POWERFUL. The work at Wisdom Wednesdays has just begun.

We are taking our show and our gifts on the road. We have structured workshops to suit one day and residential programs for women. We want to bring them together; inspire them to build power, and organize the community.

Sri Lanka has a female population of 52%, with an abysmal parliamentary representation. Less than 12 % of the representatives are women. COVID has sent a powerful message to the strong-willed women of Sri Lanka. It is a time for reflection and for change.

Women have risen to the challenge to keep their home fires burning, care for their children, face abuse and violence undeterred. Our goal is to tap into that strength and resilience.

We also believe that at a national level, a woman’s voice must be heard at every negotiating table in order to bring in a balanced and cohesive response to issues.

We are subtle activists, not armchair program designers. When we get to the river if we find the water muddy and dirty, we get into the river and clean the water. Our deepest concern now is funding to take this movement to the next level.

Bringing together 35 women to a residential workshop from Friday afternoon to Sunday is costly. But we see something beyond, that when love, expertise and commitment come together, magic can happen. There will be enablers, and there will be minority rights and women’s rights which are in great jeopardy.

The UN has established gender equality as both a stand-alone goal and a central tenet to achieving an inclusive and sustainable development agenda by 2030. We must promote participation. Promoting participation – means recognising we each have something unique and important to contribute to society.

We want to promote two more concepts through our work. Subsidiarity, and ending future conflict. We have not witnessed subsidiarity in the context of social theory, premised upon empowering individuals to resolve issues that affect them without interference from larger, and often more centralised, social, private, religious or government bodies.

Currently, Wisdom Wednesdays is being watched in over 8,000 homes across the world. We receive encouraging comments from diverse audiences. In a divided world hearing a positive message is like a drop of water in the ocean.

There is no good news anymore. People who watch TV know this. Feeding the spiritual is as important as feeding the hungry. People are hungry for hope and a new way forward.

Individual transformation, focused and committed action leads to community transformation. This time we want to mobilize women to take that action. We need women to speak out against divisiveness and bring a stop to racism and bigotry. We want to address these issues through experiences and wisdom of the women. Unified we will be that much stronger.

*Caryll Tozer is a committee member of The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, the third oldest conservation organization in the world. She lives by the premise that “to remain silent when there is injustice makes one culpable”.

*Soraya M. Deen travels across Sri Lanka mobilizing women, men and interfaith groups to understand and explore contextual realities for the problems they face by bringing together like-minded community members to solve – urgent, relevant, winnable action. She is the Founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement, inspiring voices of change. Soraya serves as a resource person and women’s outreach coordinator for the Omnia Institute of Contextual Leadership, a think tank in Chicago that addresses religious based oppression, dominance and violence.

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India: How Did Young People Access Care During the Lockdown?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Health

Opinion

As the pandemic continues to evolve in India, there is a need to examine its impact on young people’s lives, particularly, their experience of mental health

As the pandemic evolves, it will be critical to ensure that young people have access to quality services for counselling and other tools for psychosocial support. | Picture courtesy: Sanlaap

Nov 6 2020 (IPS) – COVID-19 has developed into an unprecedented public health crisis, the impact of which has been seen across global health systems and services. As the crisis continues to evolve in India, there is a need to examine the impact of the pandemic and ensuing nation-wide shutdown on young people’s lives, particularly, their experience of mental ill health.


The Dasra Adolescents Collaborative conducted a survey of 111 youth-serving organisations, working with more than 3,200,000 young people, to better understand their perspectives on the experiences of the people they serve.

One hundred and eleven youth-serving organisations shared their experiences with reported health-related concerns and challenges during the pandemic

The survey asked organisations about whether one or more of the boys and girls they work with had reported health-related concerns, challenges in obtaining services, and the variations in the incidences of these challenges, both before and after the onset of the pandemic. It also asked about actions taken, if any, to improve the situation.

This article draws on the findings from the survey, with a focus on programme implications relating to health and access to care during the lockdown.

Mental ill health

The United Nations has reported a rapid global rise in mental ill-health since the pandemic began. Additionally, research has indicated that prolonged quarantine periods can have a lasting negative impact on psychological well-being and, for adolescents and young people, an increased risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as anxious and depressive symptoms. Our study concurs with these trends:

  • Panic and anxiety: Sixty-seven to seventy-four percent of surveyed organisations reported that adolescent boys and girls had approached them with feelings of panic and anxiety. Forty-six percent of organisations reported that they had been approached for the first time during the lockdown by young people experiencing these symptoms.
  • Sadness and depression: Seventy-four percent of organisations that worked with girls and 67 percent of those working with boys reported that young people had experienced sadness and depression for a prolonged period. Moreover, 43 percent of organisations working with girls and 36 percent of those working with boys reported that mental health concerns had only emerged among adolescents during the lockdown period.
  • Suicidal ideation: As many as five to six percent of organisations reported that an incident of suicidal thought or attempted suicide had come to their attention for the first time during the lockdown. In comparison, 2-3 percent reported having been approached by a young person contemplating or attempting suicide both before and during the lockdown period.

To respond to young people’s need for mental health counselling, surveyed organisations undertook a variety of actions:

  • Referral to a professional: Seventy-five percent ensured that field staff provided counselling and appropriate referrals to young people in need; 48 percent referred the young person to a mental health helpline operated by themselves or a partner; and 26 percent referred the young person to another facility. Only three percent of organisations reported that no action could be taken.
  • Prevention and stress management: Sixty-eight percent supported the peer educators/leaders from their community to provide relevant information to, and conduct activities with, groups of young people. Additionally, 51 percent sought to build the capacities of frontline workers to better recognise and address young people’s concerns. Other interventions included preparing and distributing written material (35 percent) or apps (25 percent) on stress management and other mental health matters for the young.
  • Other strategies: Seven percent of organisations adopted other strategies, such as establishing a mentoring programme, chatbot, or information centre, making referrals, and raising awareness with Panchayati Raj Institutions and community stakeholders. Responding organisations also elaborated on the usage of various COVID-19-specific toolkits for children and youth, such as this one, created by UNICEF and ChildLine India.

Access to health services

Large proportions of responding organisations indicated that young people experienced challenges accessing healthcare during the lockdown:

  • Illnesses unrelated to COVID-19: Sixty-one percent found that young people had experienced challenges in accessing healthcare for injuries and illnesses unrelated to COVID-19 (89 percent of these organisations were able to support those in need to access timely care or reach a facility or a frontline worker).
  • Menstrual health and Iron and Folic Acid (IFA) tablets: Seventy-four percent indicated that young people were unable to access, or experienced difficulties in accessing sanitary napkins. Additionally, between 35-54 percent indicated a shortage in supplies of weekly iron and folic acid supplements (WIFS). Several of these organisations observed that such shortages were experienced by young people for the first time during the lockdown.
  • Contraceptives and pregnancy-related healthcare: Twenty-six to thirty percent received reports that young people were not able to access contraceptives during the lockdown period, while 52 percent reported that pregnant youth had experienced difficulty in accessing antenatal, delivery and/or post-partum care. What is notable is that many organisations reported that difficulty obtaining these services had been experienced only in the post-lockdown period and not earlier. Access to safe abortions was particularly challenging, with 12 percent of organisations receiving reports of difficulty in obtaining pregnancy termination services during the lockdown.

Organisations undertook various actions to combat the above-mentioned challenges.

1. Of the 81 organisations that received reports of limited access to sanitary napkins or IFA tablets:

  • Forty-two percent were able to alert the authorities to provide the supplies, and 27 percent assisted functionaries in distributing the supplies.
  • Forty-three percent trained youth to hygienically use cloth for menstruation and 40 percent sought to procure and distribute these supplies themselves. One responding organisation also succeeded in obtaining a free supply of sanitary napkins from the manufacturer for distribution.
  • Fourteen percent of organisations however, were unable to take any action to support in obtaining sanitary napkins or IFA tablets.

2. Of those receiving reports of limited access to contraceptives or pregnancy-related services:

  • Forty-nine percent alerted the authorities, 30 percent assisted healthcare providers to distribute contraceptives at the community-level, and 15 percent procured contraceptives and distributed them to young people they served.
  • Ninety-five percent took action to expedite the provision of maternal and pregnancy-related care and 37 percent alerted frontline workers and other healthcare providers to take action.
  • Finally, every organisation that received reports of a girl having difficulty accessing a safe abortion was able to facilitate the provision of appropriate services.

What needs to be done going forward

As civil society organisations continue to grapple with this crisis, some key recommendations include:

  • Restore the provision of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) supplies and services: It is critical to expand service delivery mechanisms for young people, including identifying alternative routes to deliver health services. This includes allowing health services to piggyback on to private supply chains, and empowering peer educators to identify young people in need and coordinate access to supplies and services for them.
  • Strengthen existing platforms for healthcare provision: Existing platforms, such as Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram’s (RKSK) community-based activities and linkages with Adolescent Friendly Health Centres (AFHCs) need to be strengthened in order to ensure that frontline workers are able to continue providing SRH information, make referrals, and distribute supplies.
  • Create and implement emotional resilience programmes: As the pandemic evolves, it will be critical to ensure that young people have access to quality services for counselling and other tools for psychosocial support, as well as virtual peer group and social interactions. The RKSK’s AFHC network and trained counsellors are also a key resource in this respect.
  • Provide training and capacity building for professionals: There is an urgent need to train healthcare professionals, including counsellors and frontline workers, as well as school and college teachers, to use technology to provide services digitally, and identify early warning signs for at-risk youth.
  • Engage and train peer educators: Training peer educators already engaged under schemes such as Ayushman Bharat and the RKSK , as well as the organisations’ own networks of youth champions, can play a critical role in identifying early warning signs for physical and mental health issues among their peer groups, and can make referrals to relevant facilities or providers.
  • Invest resources into digital or telephonic interventions: Developing new tools and maintaining existing accessible resources, such as helplines, tele-medicine resources, ‘Find A Clinic’ services, and other similar tools will ensure that young people and their families are able to access services as required.
  • Build awareness of and sensitise parents: Training and sensitising parents about the needs of adolescents is essential, ensuring that they are able to communicate openly and non-judgementally, thereby supporting young people to fulfil their sexual and reproductive health and mental health needs.

Insights gathered from this study indicate that young people’s health has been severely affected by the pandemic and is in need of urgent attention from all stakeholders. There is a critical need to act upon these recommendations, ensuring that we work towards protecting and addressing the needs of the young, to ensure that adolescents and youth across the country meet and live up to their full potential.

Sucharita Iyer works at Dasra’s Knowledge Creation and Dissemination team.

Shireen Jejeebhoy is Director at Aksha Centre for Equity and Wellbeing.

Nitya Daryanani is part of Dasra’s Adolescents Collaborative team, where she drives efforts on thought leadership by bringing together a range of perspectives around adolescents in India.

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)

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Modern Tools, Age-old Wisdom: on India-Sri Lanka Relations

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Featured, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Peace, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Prasad Kariyawasam was Sri Lanka’s one-time Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner to India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Credit: V.V. Krishnan, the Hindu

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jul 31 2020 (IPS) – The unique India-Sri Lanka relationship, de jure, is between equals as sovereign nations. But it’s asymmetric in terms of geographic size, population, military and economic power, on the one hand, and social indicators and geographical location, on the other. It is steeped in myth and legend, and influenced by religious, cultural and social affinities.


This is an opportune time for Sri Lanka and India to nourish the roots of the relationship using modern toolkits, but leveraging age-old wisdom and experience.

Historical ties

History reveals that the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka during the time of Emperor Ashoka was the result of cross-border discourse. For many centuries in the first millennia, the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura housed an international community which included traders from India, China, Rome, Arabia and Persia.

Later, Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka travelled to India, China, Cambodia and Java leaving behind inscriptions. Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, to this day, contain shrines for Hindu deities. The colonial expansion of European maritime nations reshaped the Sri Lankan economy. Labour from south India was brought to Sri Lanka to work in plantations.

The Indian freedom struggle had its influence on Sri Lanka as well. There was cross-border support for the revival of culture, tradition, local languages, spiritual practices and philosophies, and education. Both countries transformed into modern nations with constitutional and institutionalised governance under colonial rule.

Most aspects of today’s globalisation existed in a different form in the pre-colonial era with free exchange of ideas, trade and intellectual discourse. However, process engineering by colonial powers for identification and categorisation of people was a factor in the emergence of separatist ideologies based on ethnicity, language and religion.

This mindset is now ingrained and accentuated in politics. Episodic instances of communal hostility are referenced often to suit tactical political gain. Around the world today, and not just in South Asia, policies and thinking are becoming communally exclusive, localised and inward-looking.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world against this backdrop, allowing some leaders an opportunity to double down on insular thinking, ostensibly for providing local communities with better economic and social prospects, and security.

Meanwhile, governance models favoured by nations keep vacillating between fundamental freedoms-based democratic systems and quasi democratic, socialist authoritarian systems.

In this regard, the people of Sri Lanka and India have been served well by long years of uninterrupted democratic governance. This has provided long-term stability for both countries and must not be vitiated.

Sri Lanka’s strategic location makes it apparent that not only economic fortunes but the security of both countries are inextricably linked. Therefore, it is heartening that India and Sri Lanka constantly strive for excellence in neighbourly relations, recognising that a calamity in one country can adversely impact the other.

Though robust partnerships with other countries must be sought in line with the non-alliance foreign policies of both countries, such efforts must be bounded by an atmosphere needed for peace, prosperity and stability.

Among others, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together with a rules-based international order and peaceful settlement of disputes are of common interest. While avoiding advocacy of zero-sum solutions on crucial issues, both countries must seek to harmonise strategic and other interests in line with common values and socioeconomic compulsions.

Addressing issues and imbalances

The socioeconomic development of Sri Lanka has remained linked to India. But there are many options available to address issues of imbalance and asymmetries. For instance, Sri Lanka can encourage Indian entrepreneurs to make Colombo another business hub for them, as logistical capacities and facilities for rest and recreation keep improving in Sri Lanka.

Integrating the two economies but with special and differential treatment for Sri Lanka due to economic asymmetries can be fast-tracked for this purpose. There is immense potential to accentuate or create complementariness, using locational and human resource potential, for harnessing benefits in the modern value chains.

Robust partnerships across the economic and social spectrum can promote people-to-people bonhomie. And engagement of legislatures is essential for promoting multiparty support.

With many countries receding into cocoons due to the pandemic, this is an opportunity for both countries to focus on the renewal and revitalisation of partnerships.

This article was originally published in the Hindu, the English-language daily owned by The Hindu Group and headquartered in Chennai, Tamil Nadu
https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/modern-tools-age-old-wisdom/article32206425.ece

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Checkmate! China’s Coronavirus Connection

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Dr Simi Mehta is the CEO and Editorial Director of Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. She can be reached at simi@impriindia.org.

Handover ceremony at UN compound in Beijing for donation of critical medical supplies to the Chinese government. Credit: UNDP China

NEW DELHI, May 20 2020 (IPS) – Coronavirus outbreaks in China and later across the globe have been unprecedented in both its scale and impacts. In the era of changing world order, this pandemic has drawn the global attention towards the threats posed by the non-traditional security challenges.


All military prowess and records of economic progress have been rendered impotent vis-à-vis the coronavirus disease. With a total of around 5 million cases worldwide (and only about 83,000 in China), the wheels of power display of major powers like the US, China, Russia, Spain, France, Germany, Italy have come to a grinding halt.

The objectives of national health policy, health security of the countries, including the concept of collective health security of the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations have raised questions on their seriousness, claimed efficacy and efficiency.

Regarding the origins of the virus, there have been different narratives. This article analyses the discourse claiming that research and development programmes for medicine, vaccines, and treatment for health risks and planning and investment for intensive research on bioweapons by major powers led to the creation of the dangerous strand of contagion called the novel coronavirus.

Allegations on China

There is no denying that the place where it all originated was in Wuhan, China. Thousands of people began to suffer with a respiratory illness that could not be cured. The WHO has described coronavirus as part of the family of viruses, which ranges from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndromes (MERS) and SARS.

It has the capability to transmit between animals and humans. Very soon, a school of thought contrary to the claims of the Chinese government that it was in the wet market selling exotic and wild animals- including bats, that was the cause of this pandemic, began to emerge.

However, counter-claims posit that The Wuhan Institute of Virology National Biosafety Laboratory in the vicinity of the wet market had deliberately created this virus. What raises arguments in favour of the counter-claims include: China did not raise an alarm globally about the existence, leave aside spread of the virus until major outbreaks were reported from late January 2020 onwards.

Various conspiracy theories have been circulating that this virus was made to escape the laboratory as bio-weapons either by accident or design. Some reports have also claimed that this virus was originally stolen by Chinese agents from Canadian laboratory in July 2019, which has level 4 of biosafety- dealing with the most dangerous pathogens for which there are few available vaccines or treatments, similar to that possessed by the Wuhan laboratory.

Further, it has rejected international fact-finding mission into its country. Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and the Washington Post have suffered collateral damage and some of their employees have been asked to wind up their operations in the country.

Even academic research papers on coronavirus has borne the brunt by the gag-order of the Chinese authorities to intervene in the independence of the scientific process. Those research articles focusing on the COVID-19 have to now undergo extra vetting before they are submitted for publication.

As a result, the initial global empathy for the Chinese suffering from the wrath of this virus steadily turned into suspicion and panic. This culminated into pent up anger seeking reparations from China for being culpable for the origin and spread of COVID-19.

Unfazed by Chinese criticism, US President Donald Trump eloquently named the coronavirus as the Chinese virus. He has also accused the WHO of siding with China in hiding the facts and suspended its contribution to the multi-lateral body and said that the WHO “should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public-relations agency for China.”.

Calls for an international investigation to know the ‘truth’ behind the origin and spread of the virus have become intense. With its one-party authoritarian system, China was initially on the defensive and flagrantly refused all such calls; which, in effect added to the case in point that there is ‘something’ that it wanted to hide from the rest of the world.

However, with growing international pressures and the most recent draft resolution led by Australia and the EU and supported by 122 countries at the World Health Assembly of WHO, China finally relented and agreed to the call for a “comprehensive review” of COVID-19 pandemic in an “objective and impartial manner”.

It is even pointing to the proactive help it is providing to several countries, in terms of sending protective gears, face masks, gloves, etc. However, complaints have been raised as several of these have malfunctioned and/or were defective.

Conclusion

In 1919 George A. Soper1 wrote that the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic that swept around the earth was without any precedents, and that there had been no such catastrophe ‘so sudden, so devastating and so universal’. He remarked that, “The most astonishing thing about the pandemic was the complete mystery which surrounded it. Nobody seemed to know what the disease was, where it came from or how to stop it. Anxious minds are inquiring today whether another wave of it will come again”.

With close to 3 million positive cases and around 0.2 million deaths worldwide, the coronavirus has compelled people to draw parallels with the history of lethal viruses like the 1918 Spanish flu.

This great human tragedy created by COVID-19 is compounded because of the absence of a definitive cure and/or a vaccine. Experts opine that it would be possible only by the first quarter of 2021. The prevailing obscurity in China with respect to the causes of origin and global spread of the virus has led to conspiracy theories to emanate from various parts of the international community. Demands have begun to be made to hold China accountable for the health crisis and that it should pay the countries of the world for their health and economic hardships.

Trump has indicated that the US has begun its investigations to claim ‘substantial’ damages from China as the ‘whole situation could have been stopped at the source’. The champion of having China included in the world system- Henry Kissinger warned that COVID-19 was a danger to the liberal international order.

Even a veteran Cabinet Minister of Government of India, Nitin Gadkari stated in an interview to a private news channel that the coronavirus is ‘not a natural virus, rather it emerged from a lab’.

This, perhaps explains India’s cautious next steps of charging its northern neighbour China as the country responsible for the manufacture of the virus that has brought incredible and unprecedented mayhem in the lives, livelihoods and economies around the world.

Therefore, it would be in the best interests of China to ensure transparency and allow international investigations into the disease, as it is totally unbecoming of permanent member of the UN Security Council wielding veto powers.

The worldwide panic created by the prevailing health insecurity would redefine the meaning, definition and practical implications for programmes and policy of all countries of the world. Putting it into perspective, the global health management body- the WHO needs to be reformed, and so should the UN Security Council.

It remains to be seen how the world navigates through the crisis and whether comprehensive public health would figure in their national security agendas in the post-COVID-19 world order. Nonetheless, it is time that the multilateral agencies take suo moto cognizance of the havoc created by China and act as per the norms of international law for ensuring collective security.

1 Major George A. Soper was Sanitation Engineer with Department of Health, USA. His area of specialty included study of typhoid fever epidemics. He was also the managing director of American Cancer Society from 1923 to 1928.

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The Role of Civil Society in Times of Crisis

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Featured, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

What is the role of civil society in this massive national exercise to ensure that every citizen of the country has food to eat, quality health services, and livelihood opportunities? I believe there is plenty we can do

This is an opportunity for civil society to highlight the plight of migrant labourers that existed even before the pandemic.. Picture courtesy: Anand Sinha

RAJASMAND, RAJASTHAN, India, May 8 2020 (IPS) – The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us something that most of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes: Large numbers of people unable to have two meals a day. 


The tragedy is that the government has enough and more foodgrains to feed people during this time; the real issue is of distribution—both in terms of broken supply chains, as well as the insistence of the government to limit distribution to beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), ie, priority ration card holders. This approach is flawed because the NFSA has many exclusions, with some of the poorest of the poor, nomadic or Adivasi communities, and the urban poor being left out. Moreover, ration cards are of no use to migrant workers stuck outside their home state.

How much attention we pay to the millions who have been worst affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown will determine whether or not we come out of this crisis

There are similar issues of exclusion in other services as well, such as livelihoods and healthcare. This is where civil society must step in—to put pressure on the government to universalise these services.

We, at the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and through many networks, have been petitioning the government to distribute foodgrains to everyone, and we need to apply this kind of pressure at a larger scale. We’ve seen this work in the past, in the case of programmes such as NFSA (that focuses on food security) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)—both these were a result of consultative processes between the government and civil society. In fact, these rights-based legislations are providing us with the framework for public service delivery during this crisis, and they need to be effectively enhanced.

Therefore, if the government does not listen, we have to make them listen. I believe the people of this country know how to engage with the government—even when we disagree with our leaders, or they don’t listen to us. We live in a constitutional democracy, and the mantle therefore lies with citizens and civil society organisations to put pressure on the government, and to recreate society on the principles of equality, respect, and solidarity. In the short term, this means that we need to build a national movement to ensure that everyone gets access to food, livelihood, and healthcare.

But how can we do this, given the urgency of the situation and the restrictions that have come with it? What is our role in this massive national exercise to ensure that every citizen of the country has food to eat, quality health services, and livelihood opportunities? I believe there is plenty we can do.

Build a network of civil society

Civil society will have to build a network that cuts across the country. We will need to map the different organisations and groups providing relief in every district, block, and down to every village. We can do this because we have volunteers and workers—from field staff of nonprofits to government school teachers—all over the country, and we know whom we can contact for any information or assistance at any place.

The strength of civil society lies in knowing and being the small, decentralised units that have taken responsibility for their entire area—identifying the number of people in the area, the relief needed, the gaps in government relief, the challenges on the ground, and so on. By bringing them together and forming a network, we can enable these units to call upon each other for assistance, such as procuring material or rebuilding supply chains. Most importantly, the network can have a voice at the national-level that says everyone is entitled to benefits, even if they are not ration card holders or active workers under NREGA.

Stand in solidarity with those delivering essential services

COVID-19 is a high-risk disease, and we need to be very careful; but we cannot simply lock ourselves in our homes, because then those who are most vulnerable will not survive. Essential services absolutely have to continue. We have to build systems and mechanisms for safe delivery of services, and public servants have to be motivated, and given economic and moral support. Even though this has to be primarily done by the government, civil society organisations have a huge role to play as well.

For instance, we need to stand in solidarity with those who are currently delivering these services—frontline health workers, sanitation workers, people running ration shops and kirana stores, those making home deliveries of goods, and so on. We have to understand their problems and put pressure on the government to support them. The Delhi government recently announced insurance of INR 1 crore for frontline workers. That is the kind of security we should demand for every individual delivering services in this period. We have to build a movement around them.

These essential jobs could also be the answer to protecting the livelihoods of the poor during this time, by creating a fallback public works programme, unprecedented in scale. Civil society can demonstrate this model to the government. We need to chart the vital services required today, such as delivering rations and caregiving, and show to the government how people can be employed in these roles. This will not only help communities affected by the pandemic, but the mechanism of doing so might help others in turn.

Continue social movements in innovative ways

We might not be able to organise rallies or protests during the lockdown, but social movements must not stop finding ways to mobilise public opinion. When the lockdown first happened, we filed a case in the Supreme Court to say that all active workers under NREGA should be given wages for all 21 days. The case is being heard via video conferencing. So, we have to explore all options that help put pressure on the government.

We can engage with the state, send press notes, exchange information within our networks of civil society organisations, and document what’s happening on the ground. This way, we can raise issues at the state- and national-level. There are restrictions everywhere, but we cannot stop. We have to be innovative.

Civil society leaders and activists must also continue writing for newspapers and alternative media to highlight the situation of the most vulnerable, and do it in a more organised way, by taking the unheard voices and disseminating them using our networks. These must not just be confined to stories of suffering, but include positive stories and creative practices as well—of people working together despite socio-economic differences. Civil society can also help advocate that best practices in one state be replicated in others.

This is an opportunity for civil society to highlight the plight of migrant labourers that existed even before the pandemic—their work and living conditions, the insecurity of work, and the fact that they have no real social support from the state. We’ve heard people say that they didn’t realise that the migrant workforce is the backbone of our economy. Therefore, in addition to looking after their welfare and security, we must recognise their contribution, and build respect for them and their work—not as a favour, but as a means to empower them.

Many civil society organisations have been working with domestic workers, industrial workers, mine workers, street vendors, or other informal sector workers, but we haven’t managed to get them together and build them into the potent, powerful force that they could be. Perhaps now is the time for us to do that.

This is also an opportunity for civil society to counter the communal narrative that took over the country a few weeks ago. By taking the lead in organising multifaith relief efforts and highlighting positive stories of unity across religious lines, we have to show that the only way to overcome this crisis is by working together. We need to demonstrate compassion and care at this time, and shift the focus of politics to those values.

Work with the government

The role of civil society does not stop at putting pressure on the government. There are many areas that the government is unable to reach; we have to reach there. We have to use our transparency and accountability mechanisms to monitor the government’s work and make sure state resources are well-used. We also need to proactively find the gaps, and help fill those gaps.

The government structure is working well in some areas and not working in others. In some of those places, the government is itself asking for our help. Given the enormity of the intervention required, the government cannot do it on its own, and civil society cannot replace the vast role of the government in facing this crisis. While civil society organisations can take responsibility for one area and fully ensure the well-being of the people there, we must also work with local governments, help people access relief measures down to every rural and urban ward, and fill the gaps in the government’s response. Panchayats and local self-governments also have a very big role to play in this effort.

Apart from this, each one of us needs to think hard of the ways in which we can contribute. As individuals, we can immediately start looking at those around us—in our villages and our localities. Some of us can provide economic resources to plug the government’s gaps; others can take up the job of distribution. Individuals can also devote their time and join campaigns. There needs to be a concerted campaign for instance, to use the excessive foodgrain stocks to universalise the PDS, at least for the next few months. We also need to support the demand for an enhanced employment guarantee programme for rural and urban areas. We don’t realise how powerful the middle-class, English-speaking elite in India is; if they raise their voice enough, we will see improved situations around us.

And lastly, let us not forget democracy at this time—the right to speak, the right to challenge, the right to argue—because today, the only thing millions of poor people have is a voice. We need to amplify that voice to ensure that the most vulnerable get the most support, and those who are affluent only get something if it helps the most vulnerable. How much attention we pay to the millions who have been worst affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown will determine whether or not we come out of this crisis.

The article is based on Nikhil’s online discussion with the team members of Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, Azim Premji University, and Azim Premji Foundation.

Nikhil Dey was one of the founding members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)

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