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COVID-19: pandemic or syndemic, and what about territory?

Webinar report

01 June 2020

COVID-19 has resulted in lockdowns across the globe, hindering face-to-face communication and in-person engagement. In response, the Colombia collaboratory are designing a series of interactive webinars to share information and experiences of COVID-19 in relation to water security, and to test virtual conferencing technology as an adaptive strategy to maintain stakeholder communications throughout quarantine.

Here, Rachael Maysels, Project Manager at Universidad del Cauca, reflects on the first of these webinars, attended by 196 participants across 21 organisations.


COVID-19 and the climate crisis

Our first speaker, Prof Maristella Svampa (CONICET, Argentina) emphasised that the climate crisis and the pandemic are inextricably linked and that as long as climate change continues, we will likely see new pandemics in the future. Maristella considered two main responses to this pandemic:

  • The demand for the world’s systems to go back to "business as usual";
  • The demand for solidarity and transformations of inequalities among the world’s systems.

Instead of returning to the norms that contributed to climate change, aggravated economic crises (such as extractivism), and exacerbated inequalities, what if society were to focus on social, environmental, and racial justice in order to better prepare for future pandemics and disasters?

COVID-19 and social-ecological injustice

Prof Fabián Méndez (Universidad del Valle, Colombia) connected the impact of the pandemic to social and environmental injustices at a community level. Fabián emphasized that the pandemic is not nature’s revenge but a result of social-ecological factors (access to healthcare and health services, socioeconomic status, gender, race) and the interaction between them. The economic downturn is not unique to Covid-19: rather it is a cyclical process of neoliberal capitalism, e.g. the tension between privatized hospitals and healthcare. Moreover, there is a syndemic between social conditions and disease: Covid-19 is more severe for someone who also faces domestic violence and food insecurity. Not only is this virus more dangerous for those who have fewer resources, but they face graver consequences socially and economically during the pandemic and subsequent financial crisis.

COVID-19 and water vulnerability

Sigifredo Toro (FECOSER, Valle del Cauca, Colombia) highlighted how community aqueducts – already under strain due to environmental degradation caused by deforestation, pollution, and extractivism – face increased vulnerability because of the pandemic. Community aqueducts receive less attention, resources, and technology than city aqueducts, yet they incur more danger and pollution, which impacts negatively on water quality. For this reason, FECOSER are working with local organisations to aggregate community aqueducts and mitigate these negative impacts. AQUACOL, which focuses on water and sanitation services among rural communities, is one such orgnaisation. AQUACOL’s Jorge Amaya spoke about the difficulties the rural communities in El Valle (department) have been facing since the pandemic. Water security and food security are their main concerns.

Yulli Padilla and other members of ASOCAMPO recorded a video that we then edited and presented during the webinar due to lack of internet connection in the Las Piedras basin in Cauca. She spoke of the difficulty the communities in Las Piedras are facing from COVID-19 due to the lack of support from the government or NGOs. Members of the community have been voluntarily controlling those who enter the basin including full desanitizations, checking id’s, and handing out protective gear to those that need it. Aside from health and protection, their priority is strengthening their food sovereignty and conservation, since their basin is responsible for 70% of the city of Popayán’s water.

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