Perhaps the most useful thing COVID-19 can teach us after we go back to normality is to have an honest discussion about how we live and if our lifestyle is sustainable. How it impacts others and the planet as a whole? Should we care about those with whom we share the planet with? Should we care about the planet itself?
Air and water pollution level in many places where a COVID-19 lockdown has been implemented has dropped. However, any environmental benefits of COVID-19, be it less air and water pollution is short-lived. But how bad, for example, is air pollution? A 2015 study from the non-profit organization Berkeley Earth estimated that 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung, and stroke problems because of polluted air. The World Health Organization estimates that 4.6 million people die each year from causes directly attributable to air pollution.
The pollution we make is not the pollution that we can leave behind, the pollution that we have to carry with us. And one day we would suddenly find ourselves burden by our massive pollution and have to look desperately for a longterm solution. Still, we may have to leave the dirty and dangerous work to someone else, most probably the next generation.
Although COVID-19 has pushed other urgent issues aside, for example, climate change, but it also has the great potential to make us reflect on the state of the world and its overall health. Do we change our habits only when there is an existential threat? Or can we heed the warning signs that beckon to much bigger catastrophe to come?
Although pollution and climate change are inextricably linked, we can still address the pollution separately whether we believe in climate change or not. Do we want cleaner air and water – of a quality that makes us feel healthier and not sick? How should we protect our rivers, lakes and oceans from pollution? Do we need to sacrifice so much land to animal farming? Animal farming is a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss. Sixty percent of all pathogens that make people ill originate in animals according to the World Organisation for Animal Health.
Should we think about travelling less until the transport system advances to better and greener technology?
Cruise ships have significantly contributed to the spread of COVID-19 around the world. Tara C. Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University wrote back in August 2019, “But as an individual trained in microbiology and infectious diseases, what I see when contemplating such an excursion is the potential to be trapped with thousands of others in a confined space, suffering from gastrointestinal ailments like norovirus and E.coli, respiratory infections including influenza and chickenpox. And that just doesn’t sound like a fun vacation to me.”
Cruise ships, in general, are the main reason for the increased level of marine pollution. They also have put too much pressure on the infrastructure of many port cities by over-tourism. Mallorca which has been described by many as paradise on earth, has been named by Transport and Environment as the second most polluted port city in Europe with cruise ships emitting 28 tons of sulphur oxide.
The story on land pollution is not any better. Landfills are not the eternal solution to our waste. Landfills also pollute the local environment, including the water and the soil. Leakage from the landfills can contaminate the water supply. For those who care about climate change, the methane that eventually is released from landfills is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Can we recycle more, consume less and fill the earth with fewer toxins?
The future impact of air, water and land pollution on our health may prove to be more fatal than COVID-19, not taking into account the consequences of climate change. The pollution has already entered the food chain. According to WHO, more than 400,000 people die every year from food poisoning. Bacteria, viruses, chemical contamination, have found their way into our diet.
Wealthier nations have an ethical responsibility to lead the way in clean energy and sustainable living and help poorer countries to reach the same goal.
There is no better time than now to question every practice that is harmful to the environment in which we all live. Perhaps when we go back to normality, we will find the courage to question what is normal. We’d hold the government and the corporate world accountable and would become proactive in bringing change. There is no magical cure to the environmental problems which is spiralling out of control.
Hopefully, most of us emerge after this long pause that COVID-19 has created as people who care about the planet. Our wellbeing is not separate from the wellbeing of the planet on which we all live.