A forewarning... I know this pandemic is fatal and far-reaching. I know lives and livelihoods are being destroyed. I know the burden is falling disproportionately on those who are vulnerable, elderly and underprivileged. But that doesn’t mean we just retract into our homes and allow a little sequence of molecules to ravage our population, then return back to normal. I think we must use this as an opportunity to peel ourselves away from the society we live in and examine it thoroughly and meticulously whilst we have the chance.
Across the world humans sit in their homes, each of us neatly packaged within our four walls. In a few short weeks our species has retreated from the constant, gnawing labor of routine and we’ve become untethered. The machine of humanity has been grinding to a halt and our horizons have shrunk from the global neighbourhood to the achingly familiar sight of the inside of our front doors.
Our daily commute is now only a short walk from the bedroom to the living room. Our colleagues are furry and sit on our feet, wagging their tails. New terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’ have been welcomed into our daily dialect and roll off our tongues. And whilst we’ve all been unwillingly thrust into this storm of sickness and panic, we must find a way to steady ourselves, to survey the situation and, most importantly, learn from it.
We are all enduring the uncharted waters of this storm together, but this isn’t just about preparing for another pandemic, it is about bettering the very core of humanity; redefining our values, evaluating our situation and envisioning a better future for all life on earth.
LESSON 1 :
If we wage war against nature, we are waging war against humanity also.
“The first crisis is ecological, the second is medical.” The Coronavirus is a secondary, symptomatic crisis. We are creating a vulnerable and fragile planet, and as we do so, we become ever more vulnerable and fragile too. Our war against nature is inevitably a war against ourselves. If this pandemic will teach us anything, it must be that we cannot continue with business as usual.
Viruses and disease are environmental issues. 60% of emerging diseases are zoonotic (originate in animals), as the CoronaVirus did.
So our sickness is magnified by consuming animals, but also by destroying their habitat.
In a one year study, 618-square-miles of deforestation —the equivalent of nearly 300,000 football fields—was linked to an additional 10,000 cases of malaria. Many viruses exist harmlessly with their host animals in forests, because the animals have co-evolved with them. However, we become hosts for pathogens when we venture into and exploit or change forest habitat.
Not only are we threatened by consuming and destroying other species, but it also reduces our chances of treating ourselves when we do get sick. The meat that many eat is pumped full of antibiotics, creating a resistance within our species, which, if we don’t change our habits, will lead to an estimated 10 million deaths every year globally by 2050.
This pandemic is a stark and frightening reminder of our vulnerability. It reminds us that although we’ve been to the moon, created the internet, concocted miraculous cures and conceived complex cultures, we’re still bound to the laws of the natural world and will never be exempt from the havoc we wreak upon it.
Low-carbon habits are easier than we thought
Meetings through video conferences rather than carbon-guzzling business trips, classes moved online… these temporary changes might lead to a consistent change in behavioral patterns and lower emissions. We’ve realised the ease with which we can conduct daily affairs virtually. Online meetings and classes can also make work and education more equitable and accessible. For example, for participants with disabilities or those who can’t travel for family or other reasons.
Behavioural psychologists say that change occurs when routine is disrupted and we’re thrust out of our normal context, and since this is such an unconventional context, we should ensure that we use it as a springboard for change.
We need each other a lot more than we realise.
Western society has created an atomistic model of the individual. This impassable vision is biologically and socially unsustainable. Whilst this virus has made us focus on the economic recession which is to happen, another monumental recession is the social one, the crumbling of contact and connection, which is happening and will continue to happen, but it’s also making us realise how dependent we are on the social order.
You would think many of us would be content to hole up in our homes, impervious to the chaos happening outside, as we watch films and read and revel in the abundance of time. That’s not the case. We’ve seen solidarity leaching out of every region, bridging the gap between balconies, manifesting in mass applause for medical workers across Paris, dance parties in Spain, mass workouts in Italy. In every area of London volunteers are risking their health to help the vulnerable and the elderly. Singers are performing live virtual concerts. Authors sending out free books.
The greatest pitfall in our daily interactions with others is the fact that we take them for granted. Our interactions with strangers are usually non-existent and fleeting or blunt and boorish as we bustle past each other on the tube and the street. I’ve noticed a change. As I walk past someone we make sure there’s a respectable distance between us, but we smile. We smile…! We know that whilst we must distance ourselves physically, we have to build a sense of community and continuity which bridge all differences if we’re to get through this.
Whilst we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, this is the opportunity to be more personable to the people around us in our communities. Perhaps this pandemic will engender the altruistic hero within us all…
Lesson 4 :We’re not omnipotent and indestructible
It sounds trite and obvious, but up until now we have glorified ourselves to an almost deific extent. We’ve ploughed on with business as usual (despite scientific warnings) because many of us feel untouchable. The climate crisis feels so intangible and distant to many because ‘we have a good healthcare system, or we have a nice house, or we have money to shelter us, or we have running water and food accessible at all times’. We can no longer live in this illusory world. If anything, I hope this virus knocks a little humility into us. I hope it makes us realise our vulnerabilities as a biological species. There is nothing wrong with being vulnerable, but there is something very wrong with believing we’re invincible.
And on that note, go and wash your hands... ;)