The unseen linkage between clean cooking solutions and pandemic: how to save millions of potential victims

As the coronavirus spreads and reaches most countries, the world is looking at the global impact that this crisis will have on our economies, societies and long-term goals beyond the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in terms of sustainability, equity, equality, and prosperity for all. The pandemic resulting from the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 has not only exacerbated inequalities and stressed the evidence that the current economic model is not sustainable, but also set before us the reality that most countries are not even equipped to cope with a health crisis. This is especially true for the 840 million people in the world who still do not have access to electricity, 573 million of them living in Sub-Saharan Africa, to whom are added a further 3 billion people who lack access to clean cooking solutions. Indeed, they rely on inefficient stoves and other polluting fuels, such as kerosene, biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal for cooking purposes or heating their homes.

According to a recent study done in the US from 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 authors argued that “the results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe Covid-19 outcomes”. These evidence were already outlined in a previous work 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 the most vulnerable who do not have access to clean cooking solutions and already bear the burden of energy poverty. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that each year around 4 million people die prematurely from illnesses attributable to household air pollution, mostly among women and children. They are disproportionately affected,  because of their role as household energy managers and their traditional home-based activities in many communities. WHO declared that “close to half of pneumonia deaths among children under 5 years of age are caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution”. At present, this issue is not getting the political attention it deserves. As a consequence, access to clean cooking solutions is still lagging far behind and, in case of pandemic, this contributes to increased risk for vulnerable groups at the bottom of the ladder.

Inclusivity and sustainability

The current COVID-19 pandemic is, to the same extent, linked to the other challenges our world is already facing. From out- and indoor pollution to climate change, to the exploitation of the resources and the loss of biodiversity, these crises are all interlinked and related to our global socio-economic system that considers nature and ecosystems as its means of production. This pandemic has also highlighted once again that concrete actions and efforts are needed to close the disparity gap that a substantial proportion of the world’s population is experiencing in terms of opportunities, access to resources, control over services, affordability and accessibility. It shows that development progress continues to be uneven, leaving many people behind. The response to the virus outbreak should not be limited to containing its spread in the short-term but should entail a long-term vision of sustainability and inclusion.

Alongside the immediate priority to support our health systems, mostly in less developed countries and areas where lack of or unreliable electricity access inhibits basic health services, governments are required to take unpredictable decisions and concrete actions on how to respond to the pressing issues that are shaping our future. While an immediate health and financial response is crucial to prevent a further spread of the virus and collapse of local economies, a significant change from traditional fuels to clean cooking solutions would protect millions of women, men and especially future generations by giving them a better chance of survival from Covid-19 and future respiratory viruses.

Alternatives and solutions

Long-sighted strategies are required to unlock significant benefits for all, enabling powerful cross-sectoral actions and holistic approaches. The alternatives already exist. However, these solutions have received too little attention and financial support. A Hivos/World Future Council report published last year stated that besides existing sustainable and clean biogas solutions, the costs of cooking with solar electricity using efficient slow cookers and pressure cookers  have decreased in the last few years, becoming competitive with the traditional way of cooking. In the light of the annual costs to human health, to the environment, and to local economies, clean cooking solutions –rather than quick intermediate approaches– should be part of a forward-looking strategy. Including these solutions in the wider plan for the recovery is ambitious, yet necessary. Financial resources and long-term investments are needed to translate any policy commitments into concrete policy implementations. It is the time for governments, policy and decision-makers to embrace new opportunities, step up action and ensure an inclusive, resilient, sustainable and just future. Now, it is the time to cooperate to find a global response.

Eco Matser, Program Manager at Hivos