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Will the Coronavirus save the environment?

  • Published at 09:29 am April 21st, 2020
Photo: Ashkhan Forouzani

This COVID-19 infested world brings in a lot of news, including the news of environmental change.

I find myself going back to that one day back in March – I am waiting for the lift inside my university as a group of people talk about that strange virus spreading in China. I can see people walking around beside me, some people are buying Ramen from a stall nearby – it’s Korean Week here! In my memory we are unaware of what befalls us, unaware of the pandemic, going on with our lives as we did.  

The stark difference from that day to today is astounding. A few weeks ago, we couldn’t have imagined the world we are living in. 

This COVID-19 infested world brings in a lot of news, including the news of environmental change. We’ve all heard about the air quality getting better, as opposed to the air quality being so debilitating that the first ever oxygen bar that sells “fresh oxygen” in Delhi was opened last year. According to the World Health Organization, 4.6 million people die every year due to respiratory illness due to the declined air quality. Compared to that, according to Earth Systems Professor Marshall Burke from Stanford University in April 2020, two months of pollution in China has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China. Guardian reports stories about endangered sea turtles thriving, as opposed to the stories about the turtles getting choked by micro-plastics in the ocean. There are stories about the clean waterways as opposed to the toxic waste being dumped in waterways. 

But if you look at it critically, there’s more medical waste now, there are face masks floating in waterways, there’s more plastic consumption due to a higher amount of food consumption, we’re using more water while we forget to close our taps when we wash our hands – equivalent to an additional amount of almost 23 liters of water a wasted a day. 

This new world is an aggregated version of the one that we were already living in – an outlook into what happens when a crisis gets out of hand rapidly. We can all easily grasp the realities of this pandemic; the outcomes are tangible. However, we cannot see the effects of climate change, despite the high death tolls and negative impact on the environment – it is not considered a crisis. 

The conversation we need to have now: re-imagining how our civilization works  

This virus has finally held up a mirror in front of us. It’s made us more aware of our own behaviour and how it affects the entire world. This mirror invites us to make sacrifices that we didn’t think we would have to, to shift from a place of the needs of one in order to survive as a collective. 

This new world is a confusing one, with things changing daily. But one thing is for certain – our economies must reopen, and they need to go through a massive change. While making these changes, if we prioritize things that are cheaper and unsustainable, it will lead us towards deepening of existing social inequalities and we will be restructuring an economic system that that has proven to be unsustainable yet again. 

These unsustainable changes are already happening as I write this. 

If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it’s the fact that we are all flexible towards implementing change when we must, and on World Environment Day, I am making a plea to business owners, policy makers and individuals to rise and make a difference. As you make your plans a post COVID-19 world, please look how your actions affect the environment. Listen to scientists. Listen to experts. Listen to your community. Do not let us get back to this awful point in history. 

If you are a policy maker, know that this pandemic gives us a unique and historical window of opportunity to make a transition towards a fair and ecologically sustainable economic system. Countries that failed to take effective action on the pandemic are now at a worse-off situation, whereas countries that took swift action are on the way towards reopening their economies again. Do not overlook companies that have championed their efforts for working towards a sustainable future. 

Jennifer Morgan, International Director to Greenpeace said that political leaders should now "double down on efforts to ensure a green and just way forward. This pandemic shows there are huge lessons to be learned about the importance of listening to science and the need for urgent collective global action."

If you’re a business owner – no matter the size, please prioritize the environment in your agenda. Please look after your ecology. Invest in things that are going to be sustainable, instead of thinking about the short-term gains. 

If you’re an individual, know that your behavior changes the system. These days we are prioritizing the things we need – we are happy with a simple dress, we are rediscovering old favorites we own, we are saying no to the things that aren’t an essential anymore. We can let go of everything that isn’t essential in our lives. Our consumption patterns will define the market trends – and this is where we can make a difference. 

There are very few moments in history that can create a big change, and that is usually after a big disaster event happens. The next few months will see many decisions – some very difficult. While we make these decisions, we need to ask ourselves, do we want history to repeat, or do we want to survive and forge a sustainable future? 

Raida A K Reza works in the environmental sector and is a master’s student in Environmental Management in IUB. She is an adjunct researcher at the Chemical Engineering Department, Monash University Malaysia. 

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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