Today’s post is a little different. Through the bombardment of news updates, rules, regulations and scaremongering around the current Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. As such, this article will look at some of the positive aspects of the global situation: firstly in terms of the potential environmental benefits, then in terms of good news. At the end I shall compile a list of nice stories I have found which may or may not link to coronavirus but will hopefully make you feel a bit less rubbish for a while!
Emerging infectious diseases cause large-scale disruption of trade and travel networks, as well as civil unrest. Alongside this, they cause extensive economic damage: the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the West African Ebola outbreak in 2013-2016 each costed more than US$10 million in economic damage (Di Marco et al., 2020). However, restrictions on international travel, quarantining and the subsequent drops in tourism and general outside urban population can also provide important lessons for us as a global community, and give rise to potential environmental and social improvement. The “Covid-19 effect” describes the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on human behaviour and subsequent climate change: for example, the sudden mass changes in the operations of companies, with the promotion of working from home and self-isolation, has led to a huge reduction in congestion and traffic, improving air quality (Bryson, 2020). The effects in terms of climate change have not yet been studied in detail or presented in academic literature, probably because it is such a new pandemic and changes are occurring so rapidly. But thankfully (?) , news outlets around the world continue to pump out the good, bad and ugly stories of the disease outbreak for us all to read. So without further ado, let’s look at some of the good bits.
Improving air quality
The most tangible and measurable immediate impact of widespread self-isolation is the improvement to air quality observed across many locations, but particularly across China (and the Wuhan province especially) and Italy. Below is a map of the ambient air NO2 concentrations across Wuhan Province from January (before the quarantine) to February (during the quarantine) this year, as recorded by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument on the European Space Station’s Sentinel-5 satellite (NASA Earth Observatory, 2020). These results are compared with those from the same period in 2019. The huge reduction in the concentration of the air pollutant is not only as a result of quarantining and decreasing travel and industry, but also because it coincides with the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, a time at which businesses are generally closed anyway.
This reduction in NO2 has huge implications, considering that it is a pulmonary irritant, which can exacerbate existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. It also contributes significantly to smog, which can cause irritation of the eyes, chest and lungs (Healthline, 2016). According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the Hubei province (in which the city of Wuhan sits) experienced 21.5% more “good quality air days” this month compared to last year. This is a massive improvement, and one which will be felt by a huge number of people.
“When the industrial activities, economic activities stop, it’s expected that you get a reduction in pollution and emissions of gases. It’s just that when you see the images, it’s quite striking. The amount of reduction is quite amazing, and the fact that it happens quite quickly” – Alberto Troccoli, managing director of World Energy and Meteorology Council at the University of East Anglia.
Ban on wildlife trade
It is currently believed that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan in China, a zoonotic (transfers between people and animals) disease which likely arose because of the interactions between people and wild animals there. This is not uncommon: about 70% of emergent infectious diseases originate in animals, occurring as a result of complex interactions among wild and domestic animals and people (Di Marco et al., 2020). In Wuhan, the high number of “wet markets”, which sell fresh produce and meat including live wolf pups, scorpions, turtles and foxes, has been blamed for accelerating the cross-species transmission of pathogens (Vidal, 2020). In response to this, and in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease, China declared an immediate and comprehensive (but temporary) ban on the trade of wild animals on February 24th (Channel News Asia, 2020). This is a huge win for the protection of rare and trafficked species, and, if it is sustained over a long period of time (unlike the temporary ban which occurred after the SARS outbreak of 2003), could lead to the recovery of species such as the pangolin, which is the most heavily traded species in the world (Cochrane, 2020).
Social good news
Above are just two of the positive environmental effects of our current situation. But it is easy to imagine more, like the reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions or increased water clarity as a result of halted industrial processes. These won’t be covered as much in this post, as there is currently a paucity of evidence for these effects whilst we are all cooped up in self-isolation. But the evidence of social impacts is certainly not lacking. There are a lot of stories of people scrabbling about for toilet rolls, hand sanitiser and pasta. But there are also a range of lessons we can learn from the massive social changes we have experienced, and many positive things people around the world are doing to help each other. Here’s a brief list of some, and where you can read about them:
- The response of Chinese leaders has shown the effectiveness of governance capability, as well as showing the weaker points in our local and global governance, which can be acted on in the future to ensure that should similar events occur, we are prepared. (Almendras, 2020)
- Reduction in pollution through travelling and flights, leading to improved cleanliness and safety of air, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
- People are being reminded of the importance of nature, in terms of disease prevention (Vidal, 2020), mental health benefits and the provision of natural resources.
- The waters around Venice are running clear again, bringing back “lagoon waters of ancient times… when it was still possible to bathe in the waters of the canals” (Wray, 2020).
- In New York, over 1300 volunteers gathered in 72 hours to deliver groceries and essential medicines to elderly inhabitants. (BBC News, 2020)
- In Italy, people are singing from their balconies together to boost morale. (BBC News, 2020, and all over Facebook)
- In Spain, a fitness instructor led an exercise class from a roof in the middle of an apartment complex, with residents joining from their balconies.
- People are recognising the workers which are holding society together: mass appreciation and applause has been recorded across the globe for those on the “front lines” of the epidemic – healthcare workers and grocery store employees.
- Musicians from Coldplay singer Chris Martin, popstar P!nk, country singer Keith Urban and mandolinist Chris Thile are giving livestreamed performances across social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram, to entertain and support fans.
- In China, a number of DJs are livestreaming their sets, setting up a movement called “Cloud clubbing”, where people can tune in online to enjoy the music and interact with other listeners. (BBC News, 2020)
- A trend of “caremongering” across Canada has started with the formation of groups across the country to support the most vulnerable members of society, by buying groceries and doing other tasks for one another in their times of need. (BBC News, 2020)
- People are finding the time to take up new hobbies or re-learn old ones: including arts and crafts, musical instruments, languages and online courses in a variety of subjects.
There is a lot of good news out there, even in times like these! The BBC has stated that tomorrow they will be bringing live coverage focusing on positive stories from 7:00 GMT, so have a browse on their website if you would like to (www.bbc.co.uk/news). Despite the uncertainty in what is going to happen on a social, economic and environmental level after this pandemic, don’t forget that we are all experiencing the same things together. And think outside the box when it comes to killing boredom. Stay safe!
BBC News (2020) Coronavirus: Creativity, kindness and canals offer hope amid outbreak. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-51963446 (Accessed: 22/03/2020)
Bryson (2020) The Covid-19 Effect: why coronavirus is eclipsing Thunberg on climate change. [online] Available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/perspective/covid-19-climate-change.aspx (Accessed: 22/03/2020).
Channel News Asia (2020) China ‘comprehensively bans’ illegal wildlife trade after Covid-19 outbreak. [online] Available at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/coronavirus-covid19-china-ban-wildlife-trade-12464294 (Accessed: 22/03/2020)
Cochrane (2020) China to revise wildlife laws following Covid-19 outbreak. [online] Available at: https://globalinitiative.net/china-to-revise-wildlife-laws-following-covid-19-outbreak/ (Accessed: 22/03/2020)
Di Marco, M., Baker, M.L., Daszak, P., De Barro, P., Eskew, E.A., Godde, C.M., Harwood, T.D., Herrero, M., Hoskins, A.J., Johnson, E. & Karesh, W.B. (2020) Opinion: Sustainable development must account for pandemic risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(8), pp.3888-3892
Geropoulos, K. (2020) As world reels from Covid-19, planet recovers. [online] Available at: https://www.neweurope.eu/article/coronavirus-outbreak-leads-to-dramatic-air-quality-improvement/ (Accessed: 22/03/2020)
Healthline (2020) The dangers of smog: What you need to know about air pollution. [online] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/dangers-smog-what-you-need-know-about-air-pollution (Accessed: 22/03/2020)
NASA Earth Observatory (2020) Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets over Asia [online] Available at: https://www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146362/airborne-nitrogen-dioxide-plummets-over-china (Accessed: 22/03/2020)
Vidal (2020) Is our destruction of nature responsible for covid-19? [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe (Accessed: 22/03/2020)
Wray (2020) Coronavirus lockdown eases pollution, Venice canal runs clear. [online] Available at: https://globalnews.ca/news/6683226/climate-change-coronavirus/ (Accessed: 22/03/2020)