Looking beyond the Corona Crisis: What can we learn for the future?

What can current events teach us about future crises?

Meira Hanson shares some reflections on Covid 19, climate, health and beyond.

In many respects, the 'Corona Crisis' feels like a preview for the crises yet to come. I don't just mean pandemics, though these too are expected, including new zoonotic diseases like Covid 19 that can be transmitted from animals to humans. I'm thinking mainly about crises due to the effects of climate change.

Here in Israel, outside the Israeli climate movement, climate change is not really seen as a crisis, and even within the movement the effects are often perceived as future, hopefully avoidable, events. Part of this is due to the nature of the effects: long and hot summers, heatwaves, droughts, dust storms and even wildfires are nothing new. Their growing severity is not something easily perceived and even for those of us who read the reports, the numbers don't easily translate to tangible scenarios.

In particular, the climate discourse focuses on physical, climatic events such as temperature, precipitation and sea level rise. However, the essence of the crisis is social: it affects and will affect people. What our current experience with Covid 19 can, unfortunately, teach us, is how these crises are inherently social: both affecting us as a society and exposing the significance of social disparities. I will focus here on the latter.

The most vulnerable

On the face of it, the Covid 19 virus does not distinguish between people. This is true and an important notion to promote in the deeply divided Israeli society. However, we also used to say this about pollution and about the effects of climate change, and we now know this is not true. There are always people who are more, or less affected and the Corona crisis clearly demonstrates this.

There are of course people who are more vulnerable to the effects of the disease, the elderly in particular. This is also a population especially vulnerable to heat events, as we saw in the European heatwave of 2003, which disproportionately affected people with pre-existing health conditions.

What we don't often consider is how extreme heat will affect the 'forgotten' people at the margins of society: those suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction as well as the mentally ill (especially psychotic illness). The current Corona crisis in Israel has demonstrated how easily we forget the 'invisible' people at the margins of society. This includes an estimated quarter of a million people who don't have health insurance: predominantly migrant workers, asylum seekers, Palestinian workers and other unregistered people living in Israel

Social conditions and vulnerability

Just as pertinent, however, is how social conditions affect our vulnerability. One such condition is work. Working conditions, and how exposed one is to disease is one such aspect. This is just as relevant to extreme heat events, where workers in some sectors (e.g. agriculture, construction) are more exposed than others. (Ironically, both agriculture and construction workers are considered ‘essential’ employees by the government and therefore continue to work throughout this crisis). 

At the same time, the Corona crisis has exposed how important it is for workers to have social protection and a responsible union. As difficult as this time is for salaried employees, it is especially challenging for independent workers. These include, for example, women, typically in the geographic and social periphery of Israel, who operate childcare facilities from their homes. Working under government programs and earning less than the minimum wage, they are considered independent with no social rights or ability to affect their working conditions. Consider how, in coming years, these women will have to deal with occupying children indoors during long hot months, with the high costs of air conditioning.

A diminished welfare system

Finally, the Corona crisis has demonstrated the crucial role of a supporting welfare system. Within just a few weeks we can already see the potential effects of a system where resilience is the consequence of one's personal economic security, that is, the personal resources one has (fiscal, real estate, etc.) to get through an economic crisis. This is a consequence of over two decades of economic policy that has seen increasing wealth disparities coinciding with the shrinking of the welfare state.

There is now, I believe, a growing awareness in Israeli society of the consequences of the underinvestment in the public health system. However, hospital beds and emergency services are just one aspect of what affects our health. Food security, housing, air quality, access to nature and, primarily, economic (in)equality are all key determinants of health. This needs to become much clearer when planning for future crises.

These are just a few points to consider as we face the current crisis and prepare for future events. This is a subject we hope to explore more, using the collective expertise of our alumni and networks and will welcome insights from our partners abroad.

Photo by: Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash 

The Heschel Center for Sustainability works to promote a sustainable Israel: a just and cohesive society, a robust and democratic economy, and a healthy and productive environment for all its residents, now and in the future.