London — The implications and consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are playing out before us. Much of the news coverage of the to date in both the Global North and the Global South has understandably focused on the horrifying impact of the disease on urban communities, where it is clearly hitting people, and economies, hardest.
But what are the implications for people in rural areas, where just under a half of the world's population live, and where the largest concentrations of the poorest and most food insecure people are still to be found?What conclusions should we be drawing, and how will we be thinking about research and policy in the future?
We should not be in any doubt that rural livelihoods are being and will continue to be severely affected. The chief executive of US NGO Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is today reported as saying 'Lockdowns are hampering people from planting and selling crops, working as day labourer and selling products, among other problems. That means less income for desperately hungry people to buy food and less food available, at higher prices.'
The immediate response challenge is to provide humanitarian support to those people most at risk, drawing on and adapting existing social protection systems as much as possible. This needs to be a cooperative effort in which governments, non-governmental organisations, inter-governmental agencies and business work together with local communities to ensure an effective, rapid response. Educating people about how the disease spreads is also key. These effortswill need to be locally owned as far as possible. BRAC's approach in Bangladesh is one impressive model that can be adapted elsewhere.
Following from this, we also need to start thinking as soon as possible about creating more resilient forms of social protection in rural areas by 'building back better'. These improvements will need to be based on localism and build upon - and strengthen - the decentralised structures that exist in many countries but which remain underdeveloped.
The coronavirus may have been indiscriminate in the way it has infected people from prime ministers to farm labourers, but in reality it has highlighted problems of social inequality, with the poorest people disproportionately affected as a result of weaker health, higher risk exposure and exclusion from services.
The Covid-19 crisis also raises a whole series of higher order challenges around environment, food systems and climate change that must now be addressed. The issue of 'food sovereignty' highlighted by movements such as Via Campesina will need to be placed front and centre in the reassessment of how we can create more sustainable and equitablefarming systems.
The production and consumption pressures created by human beings on the natural environment - in the form of deforestation, habitat loss, declining biodiversity, the carbon emissions contributing to climate change - are now there for all to see.
The new priority is to address these environmental pressures more urgentlysince they contribute opportunities for 'spillover events' - the spread of zoonotic diseases like coronavirus which cross natural barriers from animals to humans.
Epidemiological studies point to the role of human encroachment into wildlife habitats, hunting and wild animal trades as factors that increase the risk of this, while others also draw attention to the risks contributed by increased levels of factory farming.
One thing that's certain is the need for multidisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing these risks, such as anthropologists, epidemiologistsan veterinary scientists. One example is Høg et al.'s (2019) researchon understanding perceptions of risk in Bangladesh's poultry value chains, which points to contradictions in how people think about and manage risk that has important implications for all of us.
The crisis offers an important opportunity to rethink and restructure policy, practice and research if we can take it.
David Lewis is professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics & Political Science