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Covid-19 and environmental challenges – two sides of a coin

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Many continue to set alight forests and farmland because it is the cheapest way of clearing land for plantation. AFP

Covid-19 and environmental challenges – two sides of a coin

The number of Covid-19 cases continues to increase rapidly in Indonesia, while some Southeast Asian neighbors are beginning to live normally and moving closer to winning the battle against the pandemic. Almost every day, Indonesia continues to peak off the chart in the region, which comes as no surprise at all.

Taking a step back, when the pandemic began to take the world by storm, some countries were adept at tackling the pandemic, while Indonesia responded slowly and even looked reluctant to announce the current state. As a consequence, Covid-19 transmission escalated, while lax health protocols saw many adopt a terserah (whatever) attitude, as they felt frustrated by the government’s inconsistent policies.

Looking at the prolonged health crisis, we cannot dismiss the striking similarity as to how the government responds to environmental problems. Indonesia’s long-standing environmental problems, such as climate change, air and water pollution and deforestation, have been placed on the back burner, putting us in a state of terserah.

These environmental problems are no less important than Covid-19 and require an immediate response, as they may increase the risk of a future pandemic. With great aspiration, this pandemic could steer Indonesia into a green recovery, and that merits a discussion on how to address the existing environmental challenges after learning from our Covid-19 experiences.

The agonising experience of dealing with Covid-19 thus far should be a call to be extra mindful that there are environmental concerns that are equally worth our attention. However, a major drawback is that the government seems confident that everything is under control.

Indonesian Health Minister Terawan Agus Purwanto assured the public late in January that Indonesia was more than ready to handle the outbreak and he even repeatedly stated that there was no danger, as the coronavirus was just like a common cold.

Seven months later, by the end of September 2020, Indonesia had recorded the highest case number and death toll in Southeast Asia.

This exactly reflects the existing environmental challenges we face today. Indonesia’s neglect and its overconfidence and that environmental problems are under control are completely misplaced and should stop.

Ironically, unlike Covid-19, Indonesia’s environmental problems are not unprecedented. We have the annual Jakarta floods that no governor has ever coped with.

Another interesting case that is similarly alarming is the seasonal haze. For more than two decades, the smog greets everyone every year on a not-so-happy morning, as many continue to set alight forests and farmland because it is the cheapest way of clearing land for plantation.

Each of these environmental problems records new worst cases almost every year, which has left Indonesians, again, with a terserah mentality.

Covid-19 has plunged the world into a recession. The Indonesian government therefore prioritises the economic recovery over the pandemic. Similarly, the choice of prioritising the economy over the environment is not a foreign concept here.

For instance, the seasonal haze is a result of the large-scale development of peatlands, which started in the 1960s as a result of population and land pressure for agriculture. But this environmental problem, which impacted the wellbeing of the people, was commonly seen as an acceptable trade-off for economic growth.

A new plan to develop food estates further indicates the government’s option for the economy over the environment. The project will tentatively clear 900,000 hectares of land in Central Kalimantan, and if not handled properly, could be a beacon to another disaster waiting to happen.

According to a study published in 2002, the amount of carbon dioxide Indonesian forest fires spewed into the atmosphere in 1997 equaled 13 to 40 per cent of the average annual global emissions from fossil fuels.

Surely, we should not have to endure a severe environmental crisis in the future.

Therefore, if President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo could give an advice on local Covid-19 restrictions during a Cabinet meeting at the State Palace to not rush shutting down a city, regency or certain area based on data to make a more effective policy, it is equally fair to demand of his administration that we should not rush in shutting down a forest or certain area without a comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

No one can predict what crises we will face in the future, but the number of fatalities and material losses can be lessened if we have well-devised and science-based policies. This can also be done through community preparedness on handling the disaster and in acting quickly and boldly.

Let this Covid-19 be a lesson learned, so as to secure a sustainable and resilient future.

Finally, the economic recovery is not easy given socioeconomic pitfalls.

As the government is pursuing post-pandemic recovery with greater inclusivity, resilience and sustainability, it is our hope that the same applies to addressing the environmental challenges.

The world is a better place when we see each other’s smile – not covered by a mask.

Rahmat Hidayat Efendi is external economic relations officer at the ASEAN Secretariat

THE JAKARTA POST/Asia News Network (ANN)

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