Covid-19, climate injustices and the impacts of structural violence — and what students can do about them

By Hamia Sophia Fatima

“The rich will find their world to be more expensive, inconvenient, uncomfortable, disrupted and colorless; in general, more unpleasant and unpredictable, perhaps greatly so. The poor will die,” Kirk R. Smith, an environmental scientist, said of the coming impacts of climate change on the world. 

While some complain about quarantining, self-isolation and staying “one panther apart,” many of us are not as lucky to be able to have those privileges. Within our own community, we are all impacted, but in disproportionate ways. Who can say that the person who just passed by you in the hall isn’t facing food or housing insecurity, exacerbated by the pandemic? Or perhaps the person who sits beside you in class has recently had a family member pass away from Covid-19. Yet the injustices brought on by Covid-19 are disproportionate not only at the small scale (person-to-person), but also clearly on a global scale in the way that some countries have more access to vaccines and tests than other countries. If anything, Covid-19 reveals the structural violence operating in society — violence that also inflicts victims of climate injustices.

Structural violence can be used to explain why some people suffer more than others through acknowledgement of the historical, political and economic contexts that shape global phenomena as pertinent as poverty or epidemiology. According to Paul Farmer, “structural violence is violence exerted systematically — that is, indirectly — by everyone who belongs to a certain social order.”

Public health is one area where structural violence operates most intensely. This is the case today, when many countries are struggling to tackle Covid-19 because of the lack of infrastructure or political issues such as the hoarding of vaccines and patent rights. In the case of India, a new variant of the virus led to soaring death tolls and hospitals faced shortages of oxygen, medicine and space.

Although many news outlets blame the government’s lack of capacity to contain the spread of disease, the situation might in fact be caused by structural violence and the deep inequalities it imposes between and within countries. Within the country itself, vast inequalities exist between people, whether between the people in slums and the people living in lavish skyscrapers or between people of different castes. “A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught,” Abdul Husain, a teenager living in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai, said in the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” Unable to “work from home” or quarantine within the confines of pristine walls, Abdul and others in the dense Annawadi slum must have been some of the people most direly impacted by Covid-19.

India is a periphery in the global system, a country once colonized by Britain. The British used a system of divide and rule to conquer, leaving India with even greater social and economic inequalities following independence. After colonization ended, the Green Revolution brought by the United States wreaked havoc to India as it caused environmental damage, the loss of soil fertility and the loss of farmers’ livelihoods. This led many farmers, unable to repay debts, to commit suicide.

Increasing market liberalization imposed by richer countries has caused increasing economic inequality, including the growth of the Mumbai slum population — those who, according to the government, have been “lifted out of poverty.” Surely, India’s response to the pandemic today cannot be understood without considering these historical, political and economic contexts of India’s past and present — without understanding structural violence. 

Similarly, understanding climate injustices requires an explanation that considers structural violence. Covid-19 itself was likely the result of climate change and its associated problems, particularly the expansion of human settlement and the consequences of our intrusion of wildlife. In terms of the response to climate change, the countries which were once colonizers are most equipped to respond to the effects of climate change. Yet this will happen at the expense of the lives of those in the periphery, as money spent on mitigating climate change issues is not spent on issues of poverty, disease, hunger and disasters of poor countries. Within our own community, perhaps the richest and luckiest among us will be able to move to the places in the country that are safe from environmental turmoil in the future, while others must weather through zones of uncertainty — perhaps even watch their own home sink. Is that fair? Where is the justice in being forced to leave your home?

Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia and my birthplace, is predicted to sink in the future. By 2050, 95% of North Jakarta’s land mass will be underwater. This is because of the increasing strain on water sources, which has caused groundwater levels to diminish. The problem of overcrowding is overshadowed by rising sea levels from climate change. The overcrowding of the capital city is inevitable. After all, there is rampant inequality throughout the country in terms of facilities, services and resources offered — yet another form of structural violence. The effect, though, is that Jakarta is polluted, perpetually jammed with traffic, littered, water-stressed and, in the future, at risk of disappearing altogether. Again, I ask, what is the justice in being forced to leave your home? What will happen to the people who have barely anything to start anew? There are many other places like Jakarta in the world — island countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu and Maldives — that will no longer be. Where will their people go? If they become climate refugees, what of the affront to their personhood and dignity, since the land they call their country no longer exists?

Even now, the issue of pollution from transnational companies seeking to minimize their profits and outsource costs hurt people in periphery countries most, where environmental regulations are lax and labor cheap. The consequence is the jeopardization of human health, as those living in polluted, toxic areas have higher risks for various illnesses like cancer.

These types of problems are considered wicked problems, a term used to describe issues that lack clear solutions and cannot be solved through trial and error. Facing these wicked problems, the question that surely arises is what can we, as Middlebury students, do about it? Perhaps the answer is to build more empathy. Though these problems seem insurmountably difficult to solve, we have strength in our ability to feel. It is easy to forget that the injustices inflicted by Covid-19 or climate change are affecting real people with real lives and families. But there are students even within our community who can speak on the disparity between Middlebury and their home (read “The Storm of the COVID Crisis in Brazil” by Zaba Peixoto). How can we build empathy? Practically speaking, students from my environmental anthropology class have suggested several ideas: an annual forum on climate injustice, making climate literacy (or another globally relevant topic) a distribution requirement or even offering full-ride scholarships for climate refugees.

It is not enough for the college to ask students to come up with solutions to deeply systemic issues. Such a method is neoliberal, making these issues seem like a game or another achievement that we as individuals need to choose to accomplish. Systemic issues entail systemic solutions; they also require utmost cooperation and a strong, empathetic community.

Hamia Sophia Fatima is a member of the class of 2024.