The unseen link between clean cooking and the COVID-19 pandemic

April 29, 2020

By Eco Matser

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.

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.”

Access to clean cooking solutions largely remains lacking.

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.

We need to jointly strive for an inclusive energy sector.

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.