The Unseen Link Between Clean Cooking and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

By Eco Matser
AMSTERDAM, May 4 2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and revealed to what extent current economic models are not sustainable. It has also shown that most countries are not equipped to cope with a health crisis.

The World Food Program is warning that the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic.

This is especially true for the 840 million people in the world who still do not have access to electricity. And the further 3 billion who rely on inefficient stoves and polluting fuels like kerosene, biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal for cooking or heating.

In the light of the annual toll to human health, the environment, and local economies, clean cooking solutions should be part of a global forward-looking strategy. Including these solutions in the wider plan for the recovery is ambitious, yet necessary

According to a recent study by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “There is a large overlap between causes of deaths of COVID-19 patients and the diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to fine particulate matter.”

The results of the study suggest that “Long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe Covid-19 outcomes.” Similar conclusions on the link between high mortality in northern Italy and the level of air pollution in this region have been drawn by the Aarhus University. The evidence builds upon previous research during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

This raises the question of the impact that a respiratory illness like COVID-19 could have on people who are already exposed to indoor pollution. Particularly the poorest and most vulnerable who do not have access to clean cooking options and already bear the burden of energy poverty.


Four million premature deaths

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year around four million people die prematurely from illnesses attributable to household air pollution. Women and children in many communities are disproportionately affected because of their traditional home-based activities, including cooking. As the WHO states, “Close to half of pneumonia deaths among children under five are caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.”

But at present, this issue is not getting the political attention it deserves. As a consequence, access to clean cooking solutions largely remains lacking, which vastly increases the risk for vulnerable groups during the current pandemic.


How to save millions of potential victims

The COVID-19 pandemic is intimately linked to the other challenges our world is facing. From outdoor and indoor pollution to climate change, from the over-exploitation of natural resources to the loss of biodiversity, these crises are all interlinked.

They are the product of a global socio-economic system that considers nature and ecosystems as its farms and factories. The response to the virus outbreak should not be limited to containing its spread in the short-term, but must entail a long-term vision of sustainability and inclusion.

There is an immediate need to ensure food security and support our health systems, especially in less developed countries and areas where lack of or unreliable electricity access prevents basic health service provision.

But going forward, governments have to respond to the pressing issues shaping our future. While an immediate health and financial response is crucial to prevent further spread of the virus and economic collapse, other long-term changes are urgently needed. One of these is the switch from traditional fuels to clean cooking solutions. This will protect millions of women, men and future generations by giving them a better chance of survival from COVID-19 and any new respiratory viruses.


A forward-looking strategy

Fortunately, the solutions already exist. But they have received too little attention and financial support. A Hivos/World Future Council report published last year shows that the costs of cooking with solar electricity using efficient slow cookers and pressure cookers have decreased in the last few years. So these clean alternatives are now competitive with the costs of traditional cooking fuels.

In the light of the annual toll to human health, the environment, and local economies, clean cooking solutions should be part of a global forward-looking strategy. Including these solutions in the wider plan for the recovery is ambitious, yet necessary. It is high time for governments, policy and decision-makers to embrace this new opportunity. They need to step up action and ensure an inclusive, resilient, sustainable and just future. After years of inaction on this front, now is the time to cooperate in a global response.


The big picture

Clean cooking solutions are part of the larger push towards decentralized renewable energy (DRE). COVID-19 will not only impact existing DRE projects that provide energy services to millions of people. It will also affect the future of the sector, jeopardizing our efforts to ensure a just energy transition for all. The DRE sector cannot be allowed to fail. That is why Hivos joined the Alliance for Rural Electrifications’ call to action for redirecting and adapting funding windows to the decentralized renewable energy sector.

We need to jointly strive for an inclusive energy sector. We must ensure that the most vulnerable people and the prime victims of this crisis are included in designing energy policies and programs.

This opinion piece was originally published here


Eco Matser is Hivos global Climate Change / Energy and Development Coordinator

May Day: Large number of children work in tea estates

Workers busy plucking leaves in Rangichhara tea garden in Kulaura of Moulvibazar recently. Photo: Mintu Deshwara

By Mintu Deshwara
May 4 2020 (IPS-Partners)

After her mother passed away, her father remarried and moved elsewhere, and so attending school became a luxury for 12-year-old Sheuly Munda.

Along with her grandmother Belmoni, a registered tea-garden worker, Sheuly now plucks leaves at a tea garden in Moulvibazar district’s Srimongol upazila.

“I wanted to continue my study, but my grandmother said she could not bear my education expenses. Instead, it would be better for the family if I could earn something,” she said, while helping Belmoni achieve her daily leaf plucking target of 20-25 kg to earn the day’s wage of Tk 102.

In the same garden, 16-year-old Sakhina Munda started plucking leaves two years ago after dropping out of school at grade VII.

“My mother, a registered worker in this garden, has tuberculosis and my father died a few years ago. So, I have to work here to feed our family of four,” she said. Like other tea workers, she works at least seven to eight hours a day.

A 2018 baseline survey by BBS, funded by Unicef, found that 18.8 percent of all children between the ages of five and 17 in tea gardens of Moulvibazar, Habiganj and Sylhet districts are engaged in child labour.

The percentage of tea-garden children aged 5-17 and involved in child labour in Habiganj is 29.8 percent, in Moulvibazar 15.6 percent and in Sylhet 19.3 percent.

The study, the first of its kind on the country’s tea gardens, was conducted under Unicef’s Global Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) programme.

Another MICS report from 2019 shows the total child labour in the country for children aged 5-17 is 6.8 percent.

The findings from the tea gardens show that low wages, malnutrition, inadequate maternity and health services lead children to work in tea gardens.

Tea-garden children mostly work as a substitute of or in addition to a family member, mentioned yet another study.

Faisal Ahmmed and Ismail Hossain, professors of the Department of Social Work, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, conducted a study titled “A Study Report on Working Conditions of Tea Plantation Workers in Bangladesh” and published in 2016 and funded by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Some children work as a replacement of a parent who is unable to work, so that they do not lose their residence in the workers’ colony. Living quarters are given only to active workers, the study said.

During peak season, the tea-garden authorities welcome children to work alongside their parents to finish the plucking within the stipulated timeframes. Workers also take their children to work to meet targets or secure more income, stated the findings.

“We do not want our children to work. We want to send them to school. But how can we afford that when we cannot even afford three meals a day?” Ajit Banerjee, a tea worker in Barlekha upazila of Moulvibazar, asked.

Pankaj Kondo, vice president of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, told this correspondent that, according to national law, children under 18 are not allowed to work in tea gardens, but they still do.

Generally, male child workers dig canals, repair broken roads in the tea gardens and take care of the tea plants. Female child workers pluck tea leaves and sometimes put tea into sacks in the factories, he said.

GM Shiblee, chairman of the Sylhet branch of Bangladesh Cha Sangsad, the tea garden owners’ association, said they rejected the MICS survey findings.

“They conducted the survey without contacting us,” he complained, adding that some people take jobs in the tea gardens with fake documents.

Shah Alam, chairman of Bangladesh Cha Sangsad, told this correspondent, “We do not employ any child.”
When asked about the findings of studies, he said action will be taken against those who employ children in tea gardens.