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Environment in COVID-19 humanitarian response in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Articulating social and environmental policy for post-COVID-19 recovery

POLICY BRIEF

While in many high-income countries, COVID-19 has resulted in the mobilisation of a “whole of the state” emergency response, in many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the humanitarian response to COVID-19 is effectively a “response inside a response”. 17 countries are covered by the appeal to fund the response to the humanitarian needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants outside of their country, yet the response to COVID-19 has to run alongside the management of shelters, satisfaction of basic needs and social integration of those people. The response to COVID-19 in Colombia must be adapted to the ongoing response to the needs of people affected by the internal situation in the country. The response to COVID-19 in Venezuela must work alongside the response to the country’s current socioeconomic and humanitarian context. The region has a large caseload of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people (“people on the move”) as well as slum-dwellers and the urban poor, who are some of the most vulnerable groups and disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis. They are more vulnerable to the virus due to existing morbidity, greater exposure to air pollution, overcrowded homes, the predominance of informal work and poor environmental health.

These are inauspicious circumstances in which to respond to a pandemic. Resources are stretched, healthcare systems were already overloaded, and the situation did not provide circumstances in which waste could be appropriately managed, nor for environmental dimensions of humanitarian situations to be considered. In addition, many environmental standards are being rolled back top speed up the state response to COVID-19. Environmental solutions must be realistic in the context that we face.

Failure to engage with the response phase of the emergency would mean that the environmental damage from a response which does not consider environmental impacts would already have been done. Failure by humanitarian actors to address the environmental dimensions of the situation and the response would be against the principle of Do No Harm.

This paper attempts to contextualise UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) programme and policy options in the shorter-term humanitarian phases of the emergency to the reality of the region. No other UN agency has a mandate to work on the environmental dimensions of emergency response.