Around the world the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life as we know it. However, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the coronavirus exists on top of many underlying health, social, and economic inequalities, and vulnerabilities. While cases have remained low in most countries in Africa, the actual situation is not known, especially due to the lack of testing abilities and limited data. The best hope for African countries is to be spared by the coronavirus, but in truth, people are already suffering from the burdens of stringent lockdown measures imposed to contain the spread of the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also warned that Africa could be the next epicenter of the pandemic. In the event of widespread infection, the fragility of life and livelihoods will make the enforcement of stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures extremely difficult over the long term, especially due to a lack of safe living environments, essential basic needs such as food, water, hygiene products, and sanitation services. But the populations that will perhaps be hit the hardest are those that lack access to affordable clean cooking energy services, on top of all the other long-standing disadvantages and current burdens. A lack of clean cooking energy services is associated with numerous health, social, economic, and environmental risks and burdens. These disadvantages put these individuals at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19 and make them more vulnerable to the complications of the illness when it strikes. Beyond the need for clean cooking energy services, access to a secure and uninterrupted electricity supply in hospitals in both rural and urban areas of the Global South is essential. Current deficits present a significant threat to public health and the lives of millions of people.
Household energy consumption is expected to rise as most people shelter in place to contain the spread of the virus
Domestic energy consumption has risen substantially during the coronavirus lockdown. The question therefore is: what does this mean for households, especially in Global South, who lack access to clean energy services? For decades, households around the world have struggled to sustainably access clean cooking energy services to meet their basic needs. The situation in the developed and middle-income countries is such that most households have sustained and effective access to cooking energy services. In contrast, almost 80–90% of households in developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to clean cooking energy services, and must rely on polluting fuels (biomass and fossil fuels) and inefficient technologies such as open-fires to prepare their food. According to the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals report, an estimated 3 billion people are dependent on inefficient and highly polluting cooking technologies and fuels. This results in millions of premature deaths every year, in addition to other social, economic, and environmental risks and burdens.
Implications of COVID-19 containment measures on households that lack clean cooking energy services
Households without access to clean cooking energy services could be more adversely affected by the immediate and long-long term effects of COVID-19 containment measures and by the disease itself. There is an unprecedented consensus that the production and use of biomass fuels (wood, charcoal, agricultural by-products, and dung), fossil fuels (mainly kerosene) is the main contributor of indoor air pollution. The WHO estimates that these pollutants, mainly the fine particulate matter (PM2.5), contribute to a significant number of premature deaths (3.8 million deaths in 20016 alone) as well as health, social and economic risks and burdens. Research by the WHO and other leading health organizations such as the Lancet show an unequivocal link between indoor air pollution and the risks of respiratory diseases such as pneumonia. The latter affects the lungs and has been linked to a higher risk of severe illness and death as well as slower recovery among Covid-19 patients. This means that over 3 billion people worldwide could be at increased risk of Covid-19 and other health risks due to a lack of clean cooking energy services. Young children, especially those under the age of five, are particularly vulnerable. Instead of spending their day in school or at play with their peers, they are stuck at home, often in congested and polluted environments.
Uncertain times for progress towards universal access to clean cooking energy services
The lack of access to clean cooking energy services, lower coping capacities and greater vulnerability to the effects of the coronavirus are partly a result of unequal structural arrangements. Lockdown measures are continuing to cause huge societal and economic disruption and, depending on how the disease develops, the recovery may be slow. While the lack of clean cooking energy services predates the coronavirus pandemic, it has brought long-standing social and economic inequalities to the fore. However, despite the importance of clean cooking energy services, there is a risk that the sector could be neglected as countries and households struggle to restore social and economic stability. The World Bank has warned that Sub- Saharan African countries could to be hit the hardest in the most severe global recession since World War II. The report particularly singles out the immediate effect of Covid- 19 containment measures on people who depend on the informal sector for survival and livelihoods as well as the long- term damage to economic and social development in the event of a recession.
A window of opportunity to forge a sustainable path to clean energy services for all
Our ability to prevent and manage future health crisis and deal with the negative impacts of the ongoing crisis, such as the lack of clean and efficient cooking energy services and climate change, depends on how we take care of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations post Covid -19. There is a lot we don’t know about the coronavirus or how it will develop, but one thing is clear: a stable public health and the general well- being of society depends not just on collective action, but also on our collective well-being. Thankfully, there are already international agreements in place that address these very issues, mainly the United Nations SDGs and the Paris Agreement. However, to be successful and sustainable in the long- term, national and local governments would need to be willing and able to prioritize access to clean and affordable cooking energy services, to set ambitious policies that reflect the scale of the challenge, and to introduce significant socioeconomic reforms in order to generate sustainable opportunities and abilities for all.