KAMPALA – The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the globe at alarming rates, causing unprecedented health challenges. Hundreds of thousands of fatalities have been registered, and many more people continue to ail from this viral disease; more than two million cases have so far been recorded worldwide.
Other than health, economies of countries have been left limping with some requiring the intervention of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to survive crumbling. This resulted from many countries closing their borders and imposing internal restrictions in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. As such, international trade and local businesses have been greatly interrupted.
While we are not yet certain of the exact economic costs of this pandemic in the short, medium or long term, some signals have become apparent. Many Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and other private companies have lost business and therefore cannot meet their financial obligations. These are the bedrock on which a big proportion of employment opportunities is hinged. Consequently, many people have lost and continue to lose jobs. To such people, especially in Africa, the difference between their current economic status and poverty is only time! Indeed the World Bank’s recent Africa’s Pulse report predicts that COVID-19 will send Sub-Saharan Africa into its first recession in 25 years, pushing millions of households into poverty. Uganda will be no exception.
There is a tendency of people moving away from dependence on the environment for sustenance as their economic conditions improve. They switch to other economic activities such as service and industry, inadvertently letting nature to “breathe”. With a reversal imminent, however, the future of Uganda’s environment remains unclear. However, the assertion by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that the poor are the beneficiaries of the environment while conversely being victims and unwilling planners of its degradation creates room for worry.
Nature has since time immemorial borne the burden of people with no alternative livelihoods; they depend on its “provisioning” hand for survival. It has supported millions of people in rural Uganda almost entirely. It is therefore inevitable that the bulk of the already and potential jobless population due to the pandemic will resort to opening up new areas for subsistence agriculture, charcoal burning, fishing, tree felling for timber, bricklaying, and many other such nature-based activities. Unfortunately, these will come with unintended negative consequences on the already bad state of Uganda’s environment. For example, any efforts to reverse the loss of wetland and forest cover have not yielded results. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in its State of Environment Report of 2016/17 indicated that wetland and forest cover declined from 13 to 8.6 percent and 4.5 to below 2 million hectares respectively between 1990 and 2015. Also, lakes are facing continued pollution, fish resources are being depleted and soil degradation evident. The already bad situation can easily get worse and lead to more environmental catastrophes.
As the health workers treat the sick and the economists think of how to resuscitate the economy in the wake of the pandemic, the environmentalists should equally be preoccupied with putting firmer measures in place to deal with potential heightened nature-dependency. Responsible government Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) should lead the way and now.
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) Environment and Natural Resources Programme