Nearly 1,900 natural disasters caused 24.9 million new displacements in 2019. According to the UN, even if we manage to greatly decrease global CO2 emissions because of COVID-19 mobility restrictions, the decrease will only be temporary. Some experts think that short term policies adopted during a pandemic cannot transform long-term climate change processes: the only way to have an impact on climate change is through coordinated whole-of-government actions. In the case of environmental migration, we can therefore expect that not only will there not be any reduction in natural disasters, but there will be even more added repercussions due to the pandemic.
1. Climate change will not stop for COVID-19 and it must be tackled as part of post-pandemic socioeconomic recovery
Climate change and related extreme weather events such as cyclones and floods already pose an obstacle to the COVID-19 response, as has been the case in Vanuatu and India. Mobility restrictions during the pandemic response create even more logistic challenges for getting help and medical assistance to areas that already suffer from a lack of access to services and basic resources.
Even if some reductions to atmospheric pollution have been observed due to restrictions on economic activity, climate action requires mitigation and adaptation measures to be sustained for the long term. Populations already vulnerable to the impacts of climate change will also be particularly impacted by epidemics and pandemics, including, for example, small island developing nations, which are already experiencing the most immediate effects of climate change, and which are already being impacted by COVID-19 in terms of food insecurity, a fall in tourism, and labour migration, as well as the remittances that these countries could receive in the coming years. It is important that post-pandemic reconstruction plans are aligned with climate action to avoid the worsening of global warming.
2. Pandemic-related mobility restrictions can make it more difficult for people to flee from natural disasters
In the face of natural disasters, people often need to flee their homes and communities for their own security. Checkpoints and border-closures related to epidemics and pandemics can make it difficult for people to escape danger. Countries need to start preparing for possible environmental risks and implementing risk-reduction strategies, especially in regions that are vulnerable to recurring threats such as hurricanes, flooding, and landslides, according to the UN. It has advised that “should disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes or wildfires strike during the COVID-19 pandemic, mobility restrictions will hamper effective emergency assistance.”
New displacement of people could facilitate the transmission of illnesses because physical distancing is often impossible during evacuations or displacement settings. Restrictions on movement can also prevent people from being able to return to their countries or communities of origin, despite the fact that many have lost their livelihoods to the pandemic, natural disasters, or other causes.
3. People displaced by disasters are significantly more vulnerable in terms of health and socioeconomic impacts of pandemics
According to IOM’s analytical snapshots, “hospitals already overwhelmed by COVID19 may not be
able to take care of those affected by disasters.” Similarly, difficult living and working conditions can make it difficult to access clean drinking water and follow good hygiene practices. They can also make it hard to self-isolate or adhere to a quarantine as advised by public health officials.
As well, displaced people may stay in shelters, camps, or with relatives, sometimes for years. In all of these situations, they can be more susceptible to illnesses, including COVID-19, due to overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and lack of information and health services accessible to migrants. Displaced populations can experience health problems during the period of their displacement and may lack the means to ensure continuity of care for pre-existing medical conditions that increase a risk of complications, such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and malnutrition.
4. Long-term solutions are critical for internal migrants in overpopulated informal settlements
In many countries around the world, urbanization is caused by environmental degradation and the depletion of livelihoods in rural areas. Internal migrants often settle in informal, unsanitary, or crowded areas, where they have an increased risk of contracting illnesses and have less access to basic services such as testing and medical care for COVID-19. There may be limited options to stop the spread of COVID-19 if it arrives in informal settlements, which makes it even more urgent for governments to implement long-term solutions for internal migrants, for example, by giving them access to universal health coverage. This reflects a persistent need to address the causes of inequality and the prevalence of risk, which are aggravated by the pandemic.