Reducing COVID-19 vulnerability in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Raquel Guimaraes, postdoc in the IIASA World Population Program

IIASA postdoc Raquel Guimaraes writes about efforts by the scientific community to encourage governments in Latin America and the Caribbean to increase COVID-19 test coverage to reduce vulnerability.

© Kukhunthod |

Together with a group of demographers from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and endorsed by more than 250 individuals from the academic community, I contributed to a statement urging governments, the World Health Organization, and the Pan American Health Organization, to take immediate action to drastically increase the coverage of COVID-19 tests in the region. This call for action was disseminated by the British Society for Population Studies, Asociación Latino Americana de Población, Sociedad Mexicana de Demografía, Associação Brasileira de Estudos Populacionais, and the Population Association of America, among other important institutions.

I joined this initiative by invitation from Dr. Enrique Acosta and other colleagues, because I firmly believe that the prospects for the COVID-19 pandemic in the LAC region are rather dramatic. Several studies document that, apart from being globally recognized for its high levels of economic and social inequality, the region also suffers from institutional coordination failures and poor governance, a lack of appropriate resources, and presents a unique epidemiological and demographic profile of its population that escalates the negative prospects of the pandemic. I wanted to explore in more detail why these features of LAC are a source of major concern and require immediate action.

Social and economic inequality in LAC will hamper the enforcement of social distancing and isolation measures, which have proven to mitigate the COVID-19 epidemic in other settings. More than half of the population is in the informal labour market and does not have access to social safety nets. For those covered by the social security system, the benefits already proposed by a few governments of the region such as Brazil, fall short of the daily needs of families. In addition to economic inequality, social inequality, which leads to a high degree of cohabitation between adults and the elderly, increases the exposure of those with the highest risk of complications and death.

In addition, with the closure of schools, children who do not have access to day-care centres and the public- or private education system, often rely on the help of their grandparents, which again brings greater vulnerability to families. Not to mention that these children won’t have ensured their learning opportunities, because their parents are often working and not able to home-school them, thus compromising their education outcomes.

Moreover, LAC is facing a rapid demographic transition and aging process, which is temporarily increasing the prevalence of a young population, meaning that the population age-structure of potential infected individuals differs from that of other settings. However, unlike the more developed countries, LAC’s epidemiologic transition, that is, the transition in which the prevalence of infectious diseases is “substituted” by chronic and degenerative diseases, is not complete. Paradoxically, the region exhibits both the prevalence of diseases that have long been eradicated in more developed contexts (such as malaria, dengue, and tuberculosis) and diseases of richer countries (such as hypertension, diabetes, and neoplasms).

On top of all the above-mentioned vulnerabilities, crisis-management efforts in the region are uncoordinated, and lacking transparency and commitment. Taking Brazil as an example: while some mayors and governors adopt measures of social isolation and prevention against COVID-19, parts of the federal executive power not only disdain the problem, but encourages the population not to meet the requirements established by the Ministry of Health. Such conflicting rules are bound to cause misunderstandings among the LAC population. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crucial moment for institutional coordination to ensure the effective management of the crisis.

As an important and urgent call to action for the pandemic in the region, myself and other LAC researchers are calling for an increase in test coverage and measures of social isolation. As reported in the non-specialized media under the slogan “help to flatten the curve”, social isolation allows the rate of contagion of the virus to be reduced, in order to prevent overloading the capacity of the health system. Existing literature documents that while the virus does not cause major damage to health for the majority of infected persons, it brings a high cost to the health system. Furthermore, the impacts on the later lives of individuals who were hospitalized due to the disease are not yet known. Not to mention, of course, the human tragedy and the costs in terms of lives lost to the disease.

Finally, imperative and immediate action against COVID-19 in LAC will depend on the widespread and low-cost application of tests. This is required because the former rigorous isolation measures mentioned above are highly ineffective if not accompanied by aggressive strategies to detect cases of COVID-19. This highlights the relevance of data collection to better inform policymakers and provide researchers with clear diagnoses of the conditions in the region.


Deaton A (2013). Cap. 3. Escaping death in the Tropics. In The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton University Press.

Hoffman K, & Centeno MA (2003). The Lopsided Continent: Inequality in Latin America. Annual Review of Sociology, 29(1), 363–390.

Khemani S, Ferraz C, Finan FS, Johnson S, Louise C, Abrahams SD, Odugbemi AM, Dal Bó E, & Thapa D (2016). Making politics work for development: Harnessing transparency and citizen engagement (Policy Research Report). The World Bank.

Pérez CC, & Hernández AL (2007). Latin–American public financial reporting: Recent and future development. Public Administration and Development, 27(2), 139–157.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Is India’s Ujjwala cooking gas program a success or failure?

By Abhishek Kar, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University, USA, and IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) alumnus.

Abhishek Kar shares his thoughts on the Indian government’s Ujjwala program, which aims to scale up household access to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for clean cooking.

© Kaiskynet |

About 2.9 billion people depend on burning traditional fuels like firewood rather than modern cooking fuels like gas and electricity to cook their daily meals. The household air pollution caused when these fuels are burned, along with the resultant exposure to kitchen smoke causes several respiratory and other diseases. It is estimated that between 2 and 3.6 million people die every year due to lack of access to clean cooking fuels. It also has severe environmental effects like forest degradation and contributes to climate change. To address these challenges, the Indian Government launched a massive program called Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY, or Ujjwala) to scale up household access to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) in May 2016.

My IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) project under Shonali Pachauri’s supervision was about analyzing consumption patterns of LPG in rural India. We looked at whether there was any differences in consumption patterns between the Ujjwala beneficiaries and general consumers. The analysis formed part of my PhD research and was eventually published as the cover story for the September 2019 issue of the journal, Nature Energy. The journal also invited us to write a policy brief, which was published in January 2020. The study’s findings received widespread media attention, especially in India. When I talk to journalists, they often ask whether the Ujjwala program is a success or a failure. I would like to use this opportunity to clear common misconceptions and share my thoughts.

The Ujjwala program’s original mandate was to tackle the challenge of “lack of access to clean fuel” and to make LPG affordable for poor women. The program provided capital subsidies to this end. Unfortunately, the policy document neither discussed usage of LPG as an exclusive or primary cooking fuel, nor did it provide any incentive for regular use (barring the universal LPG cylinder subsidy that is provided to everyone). The program was ambitious in terms of both scale and timeline, and fulfilled its original aim of providing LPG connections for millions of poor women.

Current debates around the program’s failure to result in smokeless kitchens are happening only because Ujjwala succeeded in fulfilling its original mandate of ensuring physical access. In my opinion, it is truly a remarkable achievement to have reached out to 80 million poor women within 40 months. The process not only involved massive awareness generation and community mobilization, but also ramping up the supply chain to meet increased demand. While I have a lot to say about how Ujjwala can be improved, I think it would be unfair to call it a failure. Access is the first step towards transition to clean fuels, and at least in this respect, it was an extraordinary success, making it a model of energy access for developing countries.

Our research shows that Ujjwala was able to attract new consumers rapidly, but those consumers did not start using LPG on a regular basis. Based on the literature and my own experience, there are five reasons why regular LPG use is a challenge for Ujjwala consumers, and the scheme did not have any specific provisions to effectively address them.

First, rural communities generally have easy access to free firewood, crop residues, cattle dung, etc. So why would they start paying for commercial fuel, when free fuel is readily available for cooking?

Secondly, Ujjwala (bravely) targeted poor women, who generally have limited disposable cash and seasonal, agriculture linked fluctuations in income. If there is no additional income, what costs would a poor family on an already tight budget have to cut to afford such a regular additional expense? While the program has made a 5 kg cylinder option available in response to this issue, the impact on LPG sales is still unknown.

Thirdly, home delivery of LPG cylinders is a challenge in most rural areas, as the cost of delivery for LPG distributors often outweighs the commission they receive. If there is no delivery option, poor rural families who often don’t have access to transport would need to arrange for a cylinder to be picked up from a far-off retail outlet. Oil Marketing Companies have vigorously been pushing for home delivery, but unless there are explicit incentives for this, the situation is unlikely to improve.

© Dmitrii Melnikov |

In the fourth place, gender dynamics make the situation even more complicated. Men are often financial decision makers who have to make budget cuts, while women are the primary beneficiaries of LPG in terms of a quick and smokeless cooking experience, with the side benefit of avoiding the drudgery of fuelwood collection. The laudable effort of the LPG panchayat platform, where women share their success stories and strategies to overcome opposition within their homes, is a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely that this will be sufficient to tackle a deep-rooted societal problem.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, people will have to stop using mud stoves and start using LPG stoves, which may involve real (or, perceived) changes in the taste, texture, look, and size of food items. As a student of habit change literature, I am surprised that anyone expected that such a switch would not be accompanied by behavior change interventions.

Ultimately, the Ujjwala scheme provided incentives to reduce the burden of the capital cost of LPG connections, and poor female consumers responded to it positively. This is a successful first step towards clean cooking energy transition. However, there were no scheme incentives to promote use, except general LPG subsidies, which is available to all, including the urban middle class. Consumers simply decided that the transition to LPG through regular purchase of LPG refills was not worth it, and did not take the next step. I would however not call this a failure of Ujjwala, as that was never the original program objective.

We have to acknowledge that Ujjwala’s phenomenal success in providing access to clean fuel has put the spotlight on its ineffectiveness to ensure sustained regular use. If you ask me, this is a classic case of the glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Or, as my PhD supervisor at the University of British Columbia, Hisham Zerrifi, puts it: “It depends!”


[1] Kar A, Pachauri S, Bailis R, & Zerriffi H (2019). Using sales data to assess cooking gas adoption and the impact of India’s Ujjwala program in rural Karnataka. Nature Energy DOI: 10.1038/s41560-019-0429-8 []

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

5 years of Vietnam membership at IIASA

Tran Thi Vo-Quyen, IIASA guest research scholar from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), talks to Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam, about achievements and challenges that Vietnam has faced in the last 5 years, and how IIASA research will help Vietnam and VAST in the future.

Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam

What have been the highlights of Vietnam-IIASA membership until now?

In 2017, IIASA and VAST researchers started working on a joint project to support air pollution management in the Hanoi region which ultimately led to the successful development of the IIASA Greenhouse Gas – Air  Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model for the Hanoi region. The success of the project will contribute to a system for forecasting the changing trend of air pollution and will help local policy makers develop cost effective policy and management plans for improving air quality, in particular, in Hanoi and more widely in Vietnam.

IIASA capacity building programs have also been successful for Vietnam, with a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) becoming a key coordinator of the GAINS project. VAST has also benefited from two members of its International Cooperation Department visiting the IIASA External Relations Department for a period of 3 months in 2018 and 2019, to learn about how IIASA deals with its National Member Organizations (NMOs) and to assist IIASA in developing its activities with Vietnam.

What do you think will be the key scientific challenges to face Vietnam in the next few years? And how do you envision IIASA helping Vietnam to tackle these? 

In the global context Vietnam is facing many challenges relating to climate change, energy issues and environmental pollution, which will continue in the coming years. IIASA can help key members of Vietnam’s scientific community to build specific scenarios, access in-depth knowledge and obtain global data that will help them advise Vietnamese government officials on how best they can overcome the negative impact of these issues.

As Director General of the International Cooperation Department, can you explain your role in VAST and as representative to IIASA in a little more detail?

In leading the International Cooperation Department at VAST, I coordinate all collaborative science and technology activities between VAST and more than 50 international partner institutions that collaborate with VAST.

As the IIASA council representative for Vietnam, I participate in the biannual meeting for the IIASA council, I was also a member of the recent task force developed to implement the recommendations of a recent independent review of the institute. I was involved in consulting on the future strategies, organizational structure, NMO value proposition and need to improve the management system of IIASA.

In Vietnam, I advised on the establishment of a Vietnam network for joining IIASA and I implement IIASA-Vietnam activities, coordinating with other IIASA NMOs to ensure Vietnam is well represented in their countries.

You mentioned the development of the Vietnam-IIASA GAINS Model. Can you explain why this was so important to Vietnam and how it is helping to improve air quality and shape Vietnamese policy around air pollution? 

Air pollution levels in Vietnam in the last years has had an adverse effect on public health and has caused significant environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, undermining the potential for sustainable socioeconomic development of the country and impacting the poor. It was important for Vietnam to use IIASA researchers’ expertise and models to help them improve the current situation, and to help Vietnam in developing the scientific infrastructure for a long-lasting science-policy interface for air quality management.

The project is helping Vietnamese researchers in a number of ways, including helping us to develop a multi-disciplinary research community in Vietnam on integrated air quality management, and in providing local decision makers with the capacity to develop cost-effective management plans for the Hanoi metropolitan area and surrounding regions and, in the longer-term, the whole of Vietnam.

About VAST and Ninh Khac Ban

VAST was established in 1975 by the Vietnamese government to carry out basic research in natural sciences and to provide objective grounds for science and technology management, for shaping policies, strategies and plans for socio-economic development in Vietnam. Ninh Khac Ban obtained his PhD in Biology from VAST’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in 2001. He has managed several large research projects as a principal advisor, including several multinational joint research projects. His successful academic career has led to the publication of more than 34 international articles with a high ranking, and more than 60 national articles, and 2 registered patents. He has supervised 5 master’s and 9 PhD level students successfully to graduation and has contributed to pedagogical texts for postgraduate training in his field of expertise. 

More information on IIASA and Vietnam collaborations. This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Facilitating sustainable energy transitions at the top of the world

By Pallav Purohit, researcher with the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program

More than 300 million people in Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries still lack basic access to electricity. Pallav Purohit writes about recent research that looked into how the issue of energy poverty in the region can be addressed.

The Hindu Kush Himalayas is one of the largest mountain systems in the world, covering 4.2 million km2 across eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The region is home to the world’s highest peaks, unique cultures, diverse flora and fauna, and a vast reserve of natural resources.

Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 – has however been especially elusive in this region, where energy poverty is shockingly high. About 80% of the population don’t have access to clean energy and depend on biomass – mostly fuelwood – for both cooking and heating. In fact, over 300 million people in Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries still lack basic access to electricity, while vast hydropower potentials remain largely untapped. Although a large percentage of these energy deprived populations live in rural mountain areas that fall far behind the national access rates, mountain-specific energy access data that reflects the realities of mountain energy poverty barely exists.

Source: Wester et al. (2019)

The big challenge in this regard is to simultaneously address the issues of energy poverty, energy security, and climate change while attaining multiple SDGs. The growing sectoral interdependencies in energy, climate, water, and food make it crucial for policymakers to understand cross-sectoral policy linkages and their effects at multiple scales. In our research, we critically examined the diverse aspects of the energy outlook of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, including demand-and-supply patterns; national policies, programmes, and institutions; emerging challenges and opportunities; and possible transformational pathways for sustainable energy.

Our recently published results show that the region can attain energy security by tapping into the full potential of hydropower and other renewables. Success, however, will critically depend on removing policy-, institutional-, financial-, and capacity barriers that now perpetuate energy poverty and vulnerability in mountain communities. Measures to enhance energy supply have had less than satisfactory results because of low prioritization and a failure to address the challenges of remoteness and fragility, while inadequate data and analyses are a major barrier to designing context specific interventions.

In the majority of Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries, existing national policy frameworks currently primarily focus on electrification for household lighting, with limited attention paid to energy for clean cooking and heating. A coherent mountain-specific policy framework therefore needs to be well integrated in national development strategies and translated into action. Quantitative targets and quality specifications of alternative energy options based on an explicit recognition of the full costs and benefits of each option, should be the basis for designing policies and prioritizing actions and investments. In this regard, a high-level, empowered, regional mechanism should be established to strengthen regional energy trade and cooperation, with a focus on prioritizing the use of locally available energy resources.

© Kriangkraiwut Boonlom |

Some countries in the region have scaled up off-grid initiatives that are globally recognized as successful. We however found that the special challenges faced by mountain communities – especially in terms of economies of scale, inaccessibility, fragility, marginality, access to infrastructure and resources, poverty levels, and capability gaps – thwart the large-scale replication of several best practice innovative business models and off-grid renewable energy solutions that are making inroads into some Hindu Kush Himalayan countries.

This further highlights an urgent need to establish supportive policy, legal, and institutional frameworks as well as innovations in mountain-specific technology and financing. In addition, enhanced multi-stakeholder capacity building at all levels will be needed for the upscaling of successful energy programs in off-grid mountain areas.

Finally, it is important to note that sustainable energy transition is a shared responsibility. To accelerate progress and make it meaningful, all key stakeholders must work together towards a sustainable energy transition. The world needs to engage with the Hindu Kush Himalayas to define an ambitious new energy vision: one that involves building an inclusive green society and economy, with mountain communities enjoying modern, affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy to improve their lives and the environment.


[1] Dhakal S, Srivastava L, Sharma B, Palit D, Mainali B, Nepal R, Purohit P, Goswami A, et al. (2019). Meeting Future Energy Needs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. In: The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment. pp. 167-207 Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-4 []

[2] Wester P, Mishra A, Mukherji A, Shrestha AB (2019). The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-4.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Less global inequality can improve climate outcomes

By Narasimha Rao, Project Leader of the Decent Living Energy (DLE) Project, IIASA Energy Program

Is there a conflict between reducing global income inequality and combating climate change? This seems like an odd question, given that these challenges have a lot in common. Raising the living standard of the poor for example, makes them resilient to climate impacts; less inequality can mean more political mobilization to establish climate policies; and changes in social norms away from material accumulation can reduce inequality and emissions. Academics have however been curious about the following phenomenon: In many countries, a dollar spent at higher income levels is less energy intensive than at lower income levels (known as “income elasticity of energy”). That is, rich people – although they consume much more in total – spend additional income on services or can afford energy-efficient goods, while the new middle class buy energy-intensive goods, like appliances and cars.

Many imagine China as a template for this type of fast growth. If globally significant, this effect would imply that growth that is more equitable would also be more emissions-intensive, and that we would have to pay particular attention to ensuring that climate policies reach the rising middle class in developing countries. While several studies have examined this phenomenon in specific countries, no one has examined its global significance. We set out to do that.

Energy intensity (MJ per $) lower in a high-growth, low inequality world (green line, Gini=0.29) compared to a low-growth, high inequality world (blue line, Gini=0.45). Gini reflects between-country inequality only.

Our analysis suggests that the energy-increasing effect of lowering inequality is more of a distraction than a concern. We compared scenarios of equitable and inequitable income growth, both within and between countries, assuming the most extreme manifestation of the income elasticity. Within any country, given the slow pace at which inequality typically evolves even with the most extreme known income elasticity and reduction in country inequality, greenhouse gas emissions would increase by less than 8% over a couple of decades. However, when one considers a more equitable distribution of growth between countries, global emissions growth may decrease when compared to growth that occurs in industrialized countries. This is because poorer countries have more potential for technological advancements that reduce the energy intensity of growth than richer countries do. That is, more income growth in poorer countries provides more opportunity for efficiency improvements that influence the emissions of very large populations. Furthermore, China is a poor model for poor countries at large, many of which have relatively low energy intensities, even today.

Climate stabilization at the level aspired to by the Paris Climate Agreement requires that we (i.e. the world) decarbonize to zero annual emissions around 2050, which means that even developing countries have to make aggressive strides towards integrating climate goals into development. Nevertheless, there is no sufficient basis for considering that equitable growth, and by implication the poor’s energy intensity, is part of the problem. To the contrary, the potential for co-benefits from equitable growth for climate change are enormous, but unfortunately under-explored, particularly in quantitative studies. Research should focus on quantifying the role of changing social norms – less consumerism, political mobilization, and other social changes that are typically associated with lower inequality – on reducing greenhouse gases. ­


Rao, ND, Min J. Less global inequality can improve climate outcomes. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. 2018;e513.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.