How COVID-19 itself is a vaccine for society.
Disclaimer: I most certainly believe that the COVID-19 pandemic currently overwhelming most of our world is a terrible accident and that no one person or group is to blame.
That being said, in some ways, our current situation was inevitable.
We have been driving our planet to the ground for years: overpopulation, urban sprawl, greenhouse gases, air travel. But now, as of the past couple of weeks has seen the virus wreak havoc in an expanding number of countries, all of those things have been put on hold.
We have already seen that air pollution over northern Italy has fallen sharply after the coronavirus forced the country into a nationwide lockdown. The number of planes in the sky, and cars on the roads have plummeted. And although your disrupted plans and the empty streets might put your nerves on edge, the earth is breathing a sigh of relief.
And the canals in Venice are unrecognizably calm now that they get a long-awaited break from the constant traffic they usually sustain. It was even reported that dolphins had been sighed in the port for the first time in many years.
Scientists also found that the standstill caused by the pandemic wiped out at least a quarter of China’s emissions of damaging greenhouse gases in just two weeks during February.
This literal breath of fresh air from the reduced air travel is only multiplied by the reduced vehicles on the road. From mass-remote working to a crackdown on non-essential travel or human gatherings of any kind — in most countries on earth right now, even the capital cities which were previously professed to “ never sleep” now appear to be ghost towns.
Eerie and unfamiliar as this may be, it should be taken as a positive rather than a negative. It means we are reacting; doing our best under the given circumstances. Reducing the number of people who leave their homes to the bare minimum — core workers, people who actually need to go out for more food, hygiene or medical supplies. It means for every individual who does need to go out, is at a lower risk.
It also means, as a silver lining to the dark cloud we are facing, that the environment is getting a break like never before. Whether this widespread lockdown goes on for another month or another year, previously not an hour would go by with so few planes in the sky and cars on the roads.
And even if we are lucky in that this current bizarre reality of staying at home and being afraid to be within three meters of someone during our bi-monthly grocery haul doesn’t go on for too much longer, this experience may make us adapt our behaviors in the long-term.
For instance, employers who were previously reluctant to allow any remote working may now see that it is not only possible, but that reduced office costs, limited distractions between employees, and a more easily achievable work-life balance are just a few of the many potential benefits.
Of course, it may not be possible for every company to go 100% remote, but allowing employees to work from home from time to time to take a break from the commute or to adapt to life’s responsibilities can make them more productive during their in-office days, as they reserve only appropriate tasks to home days and feel less drained due to the reduced weekly commuting time.
And then there’s travel — neither practical nor desirable to avoid entirely in our modern globalized society. However, in the present reality where we have to keep it to a bare minimum, and we are fearful to plan ahead as we aren’t sure when life will return to its normal rhythm, it forces us to review the reasoning behind where we go and what we do.
Maybe you do genuinely need that week by the beach — we all need to get away from our realities from time to time. But those who book a getaway every month or so and are now facing the endless admin and gaping uncertainty over their whereabouts over the coming months due to their presumptuous past-self — or worse still, are stuck in a foreign country unable to get home — we may at least not take our freedom for granted.
For the first time for many of us first-world jet-setters, we are told no. We must face minor sacrifices for the greater good. If nothing else, we will learn to appreciate the perks of our modern lifestyle in the future.
Was it only a matter of time?
Thomas Malthus once proposed that relentless population growth would eventually lead to our demise. That if we continue to multiply and reap the world of its resources, we will eventually reach a breaking point, where a catastrophe will lead to a worldwide crash.
Maybe if it wasn’t COVID-19, then another global crisis would eventually have the whole world in its grip. Threatening the very cities, infrastructure, and globalization which hold up our fast-paced modern lives. Maybe some sort of disaster was always waiting behind the scenes, to turn over all of what we thought secure and permanent, and challenge every element of how we function as a society.
We are, after all, mere hosts to the vast home we call the Earth. And if we continue to abuse it as we do, why are we surprised if our societal pillars eventually begin to crumble under its unstoppable permanence? Once we are no longer here, the earth will still go on, and from space will barely appear any different.
A stark but perhaps necessary reminder that without the earth, and without our health, we have nothing. We are not as permanent and robust as we feel. From pandemics to climate change, we cannot go on acting as though we are invincible, thinking so much about the economy that we forget that we have to actually exist for any of our daily worries to even be remotely significant.
How we can grow from this
Overall, we are amidst times of great change. No, I mean no Domesday-like profession by this. Rather, even if we get over the COVID-19 outbreak and recover spectacularly, we quite simply won’t (and shouldn’t) be the same.
We will think twice before going to work or crowded places if we are ill — it may not be a potentially deadly virus, but why knowingly spread a virus if we have the option to stay at home? We have all hopefully by now gained a newfound awareness of how diseases spread, and about how every individual has an unimaginably colossal potential to either fan the flames or completely curb the flames of global disaster.
We won’t take future travel plans for granted — Sure, we may book an overseas getaway for next Summer, but we will know in the back of our mind that anything could happen — and we should appreciate if we are able to follow through with our plans. We should hope for the best but still always be prepared for the worst.
We will rethink how we work and interact with others — Do you really need to go into an office to complete your tasks for the day or expect your employees to do so? Maybe you do. But many of us could really do with a day to work from home every week or so. Many employers may even realize they cannot only manage, but benefit from hiring at least a few employees to work from home entirely.
It not only means progress in terms of connectivity and flexibility, but it is a more “eco” way to work, and it opens up opportunities to great minds outside of their particular city. This means a whole new pool of talent for employers, and a whole new world of opportunity for job seekers living in more rural areas, or even in other countries. Now that is globalization.
We will imagine the worst-case scenario when we elect political leaders — Without getting too political or country-specific on here, something has to be said of the current “keep it simple,” “get it done” attitude popular with at least a few Western leaders. This may create a seemingly strong campaign and make people feel motivated and reassured when all is relatively well.
However, when people are dying and hospital beds are full, perhaps it really is public services and income protection that you and your community really needed — not a sarcastic figure-head to voice the controversial statements that make politics seem more interesting. Statements that don’t do much when your body is under attack and you don’t have access to care. Or your family is hungry and there is no food on the shelves.
COVID-19 — The Earth’s own Vaccine?
We talk of swallowing a pill. Detoxing. Taking a break from what is bad for us. A short-term pain for a long-term gain; is that what this is?
If COVID-19 is a sort of vaccine for the earth – a poison but one which can bring a long-term protection, then I guess that makes Humanity the virus…
Whatever the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak, and despite the evident disruptions and threat to human life, it cannot be denied that the planet’s long overdue rest from our relentless activity and overburdening is a benefit to the natural world.
At the same time, we are also experiencing a detox of some sort — cutting out our usual daily distractions as they pale into insignificance in the face of the big issues at hand. We remember to value health, wellbeing, family, and the basic needs of food and medical assistance. We remember that we are not the unstoppable force we often deem ourselves to be. That a pathogen smaller than even one cell of our being is enough to grind our entire reality to a halt.
If you are in social isolation or quarantine right now and unsure of what to do with this unfamiliar free time — then at least think about this:
What really matters in your life? What really matters in our society?
Just these few months of respite could not only put the pause on the daily destruction which we inflict on our only home, but this complete upheaval of modern life is forcing us to adapt our behaviours and reevaluate our values to prioritise human life, health, and welfare over all else.