The year 2020 will undoubtedly leave an impact for years to come, on social, economic, and environmental levels – and not all of it necessarily negative. Images from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA satellite footage, show pollution rates dropping. NASA claims “significant decreases,” with worldwide lockdowns forcing industries to shut and nitrogen dioxide emissions – a major air pollutant linked to vehicles and factory output – to decline. “There is a possibility this will inspire a positive shift,” says professor James Terry from the Department of Environmental Sciences at Zayed University. “We are seeing first-hand how a change in behavior can impact our air quality. If this can change people’s mindsets, it can have a sustainable effect.”
For a large portion of urban dwellers, the Covid-19 outbreak means being cooped up and unable to enjoy the things we may have taken for granted – including the value of nature and the environment we live in. Taking stock of this could lead to positive changes, feels Terry. “Part of disaster risk reduction is trying to prepare mitigation and adaptation options,” he says. “One form of adaptation is potentially capitalizing on the positive impacts in air quality. How long this can be sustained we don’t yet know, but the fact we can see these benefits for ourselves, could have a lasting impact.”
The impact could reach beyond pollution levels. China has now banned the trade and consumption of non-aquatic wild animals as a result of the pandemic, after evidence suggesting the coronavirus – which has claimed more than 40, 000 lives to date – could have been transmitted to humans from animals at a wet market in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. Here, animals, including exotic and/or vulnerable species, are kept in cramped conditions, stacked on top of each other, waiting to be butchered for human use. Where the animals come from is not always clear. If a country where wildlife trade has deep cultural roots can enforce bans so swiftly, will the rest of the world follow? “If we want to see animals naturally flourish in the world’s ecosystems again, we must stop the clearance, destruction, and degradation of natural habitats, especially those that support rich biodiversity (including rainforests and coral reefs) and take active measures to preserve endangered species,” says Terry.
Another potential upside along with the opportunity for an environmental reset, is the increase in human connection, as particularly evident in global outpourings of appreciation for healthcare workers. In cities around the world, people come together at 8pm, flickering lights and joining in a raw expression of community spirit and appreciation for the workers on the front lines. Funds and donations have been pledged by athletes, actors, singers, and fashion houses eager to assist with relief efforts, repairing a faith in humanity in a tense environment where brands and celebrity appear futile to many. More than 700, 000 British people volunteered to the UK’s National Health System, while young people, kids, and those less vulnerable have been delivering care packages to the elderly and checking in on vulnerable neighbors.
Many of us have had to slow our lives down and take stock while we ride out a pandemic wave stoked by fear and the lack of control and human interaction. Doctor Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, says, “Human beings are wired to detect danger and threat; it is our inbuilt fight or flight response that has allowed us to survive as a species. If we want to learn from this, it is important to know that anxiety is a normal reaction to the times that we are living in and our goal is not to eliminate it, but to manage it, control it and use it to our benefit.”
We need not all become environmentalists or vegans to start appreciating the fact that humans have become detached from our habitat, seeing things mainly for the benefit of our consumption – from case-ready meat to the battery eggs eaten for breakfast, laid by hens cooped up in considerably worse conditions than many of us have found ourselves in these past few weeks.
It remains to be seen whether emissions will bounce back with “revenge pollution,” says Li Shuo, senior climate policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia. We can hope to take away newfound respect for life, whether human, animal or plant, and the environment we all inhabit together. Could this be the silver living of Covid-19? Whatever the outset, let’s not return to normality. “Normal” was precisely the problem.