28 April 2020
COVID-19 and lockdown have stopped us all in our tracks. In doing so, they have clamped into place numerous environmental injustices.
One is that the places we have suddenly been chained to vary drastically in terms of their liveability. Even just at the scale of the furniture we are able to use, the rooms we can occupy, or the yard we might have to wander around, there are vast differences in how amenable our various situations are to quality work and wellbeing.
Although “moving life online” conjures up images of floating in a place-less dimension, in practice it is deeply physical, including dragging one’s stiff body, computer, cords, phone and notes from one perch to another around the house, squeezing next to others’ stuff to carve out a little territory. For those in crowded, unfriendly or even dangerous houses where the bedroom is the only refuge, now the start of each day may be marked only by moving from prostate to sitting on their bed. For those without the physical or financial means to work, learn or socialise online, the daily monotony and physical segregation may be profound. Digital disadvantage is already a known problem for the elderly, recent migrants and rural communities. It is also likely to become more prevalent among those whose income and housing security is buckling beneath them.
The neighbourhood scale reveals further environmental injustices. Stepping outside can be a stark reminder of the uneven quality of our local spaces. With only bike or pedestrian access to exercise locations permitted, the amenability of local neighbourhoods has never been so important, especially for those with mobility restrictions (including small children). Some are lucky to have trees, parks and footpaths wide enough to pass others without touching, but many areas in urban Australia now have limited green space or suitable exercise routes. Some areas don’t just lack amenity, they are unsafe. While reductions in transport and production have reduced average air pollution levels, some areas remain characterised by the slow violence of toxins. Those near the coal fired power plants that are keeping many of our computers functioning are a case in point, especially given Victoria’s failure to regulate the known neuro-toxin mercury.
Indoor air pollution is also a serious problem in many buildings, particularly given the clouds of hazardous cleaning chemicals being used to try to kill COVID-19. We know from the bushfires that finding fresh air can be difficult. Those who have had no choice but to inhale pollution to the point their lungs, and all other organs, are now damaged, are among those most at risk of the virus’s respiratory effects.
What’s the silver lining in this situation? As with many disasters, it lies in our ability to recognise and act on the realities now painfully revealed. Environmental justice activism does not have a long history in Australia. But COVID-19 demonstrates it is needed at multiple scales. When we are finally able to come together in practice again, let’s attend to and appreciate the different environments our systems and practices have created, and vow to remake them in healthier, more equitable ways.
Lauren Rickards is an Associate Professor in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. Lauren is an IPCS member and part of the team working on the Future of Food project.