To say we are living through “unprecedented times” is perhaps the most self-evident statement anyone could make. With family homes transforming into both workspaces and pop-up classrooms, our battle to flatten the curve has turned our routines upside down. So different do our lives of just a few weeks ago seem, it might have been hard to accept this scale of change was even possible.
But could this change actually be a reason for hope?
During a talk for climate change charity Plan B, UCL Professor of Public Healh, Sir Michael Marmott suggested it could, saying “What Covid exposes is that we can do things differently.’
In many cases it doesn’t seem as if we even need to go back. Since lockdowns began, entire industries are working from home. Not just saving us frantic commutes and allowing greater flexibility, cities have reported a 50% drop in air pollution. In the UK alone, it is estimated that air pollution is responsible for roughly 40,000 deaths each year. Alongside saving us time commuting and opening up the possibility of work to more people, less work-related travel could directly reduce the size of risk posed by the UK’s biggest environmental risk to public health.
But sure, you may might say of course we are able to reach previously “unreachable” emissions reductions when our regular habits are physically impossible. Why should that leave us with hope that, once restrictions are lifted that anything other than a return to our old habits will resume? Surely, if anything, after months of business inactivity and restlessness our homes, the world will be more likely to “make up for lost time” than to genuinely cut back.
This gets to the heart of a tension explained by Citi Head of Emerging Markets, David Lubin
“at current, supporting the economy and minimizing the virus are diametrically opposed… to contain Covid we must harm the economy.”
But is it possible to bring these poles together, to create an economy capable of both productivity and achieving collective efforts toward a safer planet? Lubin argues it is, but, in reality how would that look? On a personal level, people are realising what is possible- both of employers and governments. For instance, since lockdown began, the UK has reportedly found housing for all homeless people, essentially “ending homelessness”.
What has been achieved in a matter of weeks was not done through numerous campaigns around the issue. Before accepting that nothing more can be done, we might yet see citizens questioning whether targets were as impossible as first thought.
Second, if Cov-19 has reminded us of anything, it is that for better or worse, we are connected to each other.
A stranger’s choice to not wash their hands could have a direct impact on the life of your loved ones. Not just contained to actions in our immediate environment- it seems less and less common that a major event on one side of the planet doesn’t ripple over into other regions. As Covid continues to spread faster than any country can lock themselves down, it would be natural to think what can be put in place now to avoid similar situations where all corners of the globe face record stress at the same time.
A clear candidate is climate change. Among the many other possible consequences, Johnathan Hickel, professor of economic anthropology at Goldsmiths University notes that just a three degree temperature increase in crop growing parts of the world could cause a 40% reduction in crop yield, resulting in mass displacement of people in order to survive. Both at a human level, and economic level, such change would wreak chaos on the entire planet. In light of the world currently experiencing a deep crisis, Hickel argued that governments and businesses alike could use the experience of Covid to put public health concerns at the centre of decisions- if out of nothing but a collective desire to stop current situations becoming more and more familiar. As summed up by Hickel, at these stakes, our current situation may be the realization we need that ‘we can’t go back to normal, we just can’t.’