The Most Vulnerable even More Vulnerable Now

COVID-19, time to embrace complexity

By Luiza Oliveira

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

As expected, COVID-19 has been spreading exponentially (1). Safety measurements have been oriented by the World Health Organization (2), and many countries have been experiencing lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, so together we can “flatten the curve” (3,4,5).

It can be challenging to keep up with the worldwide news without feeling ungrounded, but it is important to not lose sight of the complexity of this situation and only focus on the COVID-19 challenges itself.

I tent to see this global quarantine experience as an opportunity to embrace and learn from complexity in order to grow together toward a healthier and more regenerative situation (6,7,8). As I wrote last year about trying to keep a Scenius mindset in times when watching the news feels too unsettling(9).

Unfortunately, too often the word “complex” is used almost as a synonym to “impossible to understand or untangle”. But I encourage you to remember that complexity is part of every molecule of our bodies and cells, complexity is part of our everyday life experience, and maybe we could use this moment as a chance to go beyond the duality narrative of “I can only focus in one thing OR another” kind of thought toward “I can care for this AND for something else too”.

No doubt that finding strategies to deal with the direct challenges of COVID-19 is fundamental, AND at the same time, it is also important to understand that there are other problems and crises that were happening before COVID-19 that got even worse now and we can not lose sight of them in order to the care of our collective health.

This pandemic situation is showing many kinds of vulnerability in our society, that go beyond age and previous comorbidities, and the ones who were most vulnerable before the pandemic are even more vulnerable now. And even in social distancing times, it is important to be aware of them, identify them and use the right tools to deal with them so we can better care for each other.

Examples of more vulnerable groups:

1. Women

For many women even before COVID-19, to stay at home was not safe, so try to imagine what it means to be locked with a violent partner and/or a violent family (10,11).

As reported by the World Health Organization, Violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics. Women who are displaced, refugees, and living in conflict-affected areas are particularly vulnerable.

While data are scarce, reports from China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries suggest an increase in domestic violence cases since the COVID-19 outbreak (12,13,14).

2. Children

Hundreds of millions of children around the world are likely to face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing as well – including mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers (15).

As the virus continues to spread across the world, we are all facing multiple new stresses, including physical and psychological health risks. Through all of that, children are particularly vulnerable (16,17,18).

3. Black people & people of color

Outbreaks create fear, and fear is a key ingredient for racism and xenophobia to thrive. The pandemic has uncovered social and political fractures within communities, with racialized and discriminatory responses to fear, disproportionately affecting marginalized groups (19,20, 21, 22).

In the US, places like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans, black and people of color are dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate than the white population(23). In the UK hospitals indicate that black and asian people are more likely to be badly affected by coronavirus than white people (24).

4. Indigenous people

Besides having less access to health care and other aspects of social injustice, during this pandemic time, the Indigenous populations around the world are even more exposed as any other white people disease that had devastated the indigenous populations in the past like chickenpox (25, 26,27,28, 29).

During this pandemic moment, in Brazil, many indigenous communities, have been dealing with the challenges of their lands being even more exposed to big farmers invasions, tourists and religious missionaries that are coming to their villages even in this quarantine time, exposing the entire village even more (30,31).

5. Refugees

Imagine being someone who has been forced to flee your own home country because of persecution, war or violence. Now, imagine being impossible to go back home, but the borders are also closed.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) announced that they are temporarily suspending resettlement travel for refugees. They plan to resume full resettlement travel “as soon as prudence and logistics permit” (32). UNHCR is rapidly adjusting the way they work to best protect the refugees in these difficult circumstances (33).

6. Slums, Favelas, and Homelessness

To wash your hands often, ensure social distancing and shelter in place are key elements in preventing COVID-19 to spread so quickly. But how to ensure that when you don’t have access to potable water or shelter?

How COVID-19 is impacting densely populated and unsanitary environments? And what could mitigate the worst of these impacts? This is challenging as the health and social needs of these populations are often made invisible.

The informal or illegal status of many deprived settlements often undermines both the collection of data and the implementation of policies to improve health. Data is not usually disaggregated by slum and non-slum, or it is simply not collected, especially for health. How do you develop preparedness and response plans if you do not even know the number of people living in an area? How do epidemiological models predict spread in populations they have no data for? (34,35)

But how to deal with all that? And how to use permaculture tools to deal with all of that?

Well, there is no straight answer. Many people are overwhelmed right now, and more than ever the permaculture principle to Use Small and Slow Solutions seems even more appropriate to deal with this kind of situation.

Permaculture is a whole-system design approach, and in a complex situation like this, a permaculture approach helps us to better embrace complexity, taking one step at a time, showing that this might be the key to better care for ourselves, our community and the most vulnerable at the same time.

There is no one magical answer to care for all in a “one-action” way, but it is up to us to look at all these challenges closely and understand what it is in our range to care and help to change these situations and dynamics in our communities.

To practice permaculture helps us to feel grounded and find creative solutions when facing changes, and it helps us to find language and strategies to better care for ourselves and our communities at the same time.

More than ever the relationship between individual health and collective health is clear. The more we practice to see these connections, the better we understand them, and easier is to reclaim our responsibilities, our voices, and our actions toward a more regenerative society.

Do you want to learn permaculture for free? Click here.

In case you are going through yourself or you know someone who is facing domestic violence, here is where you might find some support:

USA: 1 800 799 7233. If you feel unsafe to speak text LOVEIS to 22522 or got to the website:

UK: 999 or go to the website:

Switzerland: Find the phone and association according to your region:

Italy: 1522 and find the local association according to your region:

Brazil: 181 or go to the website:

If you live in a different country from the ones mentioned above, please share in the comments below the number and the website of the local organization from your region that supports people victim of domestic violence to find shelter and support.

In case of violence against Children find the local helpline here:

Child Helpline International:


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