In recent weeks across the globe viral images and videos of wildlife “peopling” urban streets has begun to surface, and satellite images of smog clearing from major metropolitan have been published, so I began to wonder: what will the world look like after Covid-19?
Let me first start by saying that the article you are about to read is not aiming to suggest a silver lining to the current pandemic, or maybe it is; I’m honestly not sure. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing until it’s done; that’s the nature of writing and the process. One thing I’m definitely not trying to do is put a rosy glow on what is currently a terrible, terrible situation—certainly globally, but particularly in the U.S., as this past week the United States surpassed all countries on Earth by having the most cases of confirmed Coronavirus infections. But if there is anything positive to come out of this, it looks to be a future where a green economy is not only possible, but within reach. At the very least, this epidemic may function as a massive, worldwide experiment on what a world without fossil fuels might look like. Traffic is virtually non-existent in some major cities, and smog and other forms of air pollution are dropping fast, which means air quality is rising. A cleaner, greener world looks just over the horizon. So, what are the long-term possibilities for this kind of world after Covid-19? What are Coronavirus and Covid-19?
Coronavirus disease, called Covid-19, is the disease caused by the infectious coronavirus. As of Sunday March 29th, there are 664,292 confirmed cases worldwide and over 30,000 deaths. The U.S., in the past week, has confirmed nearly 20% of worldwide cases, ringing the bell at nearly 125,000 cases—these numbers will certainly be higher by the time this reaches readers of this blog. The virus is highly infectious, and so far proving highly deadly, with a mortality rate around 4.5%. Likely, that number will drop as testing ramps up, but it’s frightening as it stands, considering the common flu has a mortality rate under 1%. Additionally, “COVID-19 is a slow and long illness. People who were infected several days ago will only start showing symptoms now, even if they isolated themselves in the meantime. Some of those people will enter intensive-care units in early April”, warns Ed Yong in a recent article in The Atlantic. This is not the flu. The virus spreads through droplets of saliva or nasal discharge from a person sneezing (WHO). However, there are some infectious disease experts, such as Michael Osterholm, appearing relatively recently on the Joe Rogan podcast, who think it’s possible that breathing (alone) might be enough to transmit the disease. Everyone should watch or listen to that episode. It’s important. So please, if you’re reading this, and you can, STAY THE FUCK HOME.
And thankfully, people are. Satellite images over major metropolitan areas such as Seattle, L.A., and in Chinese cities such as Wuhan and Beijing, show a radical decrease in NO2 (Nitrous Dioxide, or smog) in the atmosphere. In fact, a report from Bloomberg Intelligence on March 11th found that, “The slowdown took out the equivalent of almost 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in China and could curb global emissions from air travel by 11% to 19%”. This is good news for people with respiratory illnesses and it will be interesting to see any improvements that are reported following the conclusion of the pandemic. Ironically, this might have a secondary benefit for those who do develop Covid-19 as the disease causes respiratory distress. According to the EPA, smog, consisting largely of ground-level ozone, has any number of deleterious effects on one’s health (most critically with those already experiencing some form of respiratory illness or disease). Some of these effects are: irritation of the respiratory system: reduced lung function: aggravation of asthma: inflammation and damage of the lining of the lungs. Other harmful side effects of breathing smog are that it may make already present lung disease even worse, especially emphysema and bronchitis. Furthermore, laboratory testing on animals—check labels to ensure you’re purchasing cruelty-free products—suggests a decreased ability in fighting off bacterial infections (“Smog”). While these side effects may be temporary, it’s only as temporary as the air we breathe. Living in a world congested with cars and factory exhaust means constantly breathing in contaminated air. Needless to say, less traffic and the closing of factories means fewer fossil fuels being burned, which means cleaner air and water, which will, over time, lead to a healthier population.
Granted, the current situation, clean air, though it may go on for months, is all but temporary, because it is almost certain that as soon as we get through this current crisis it will be back to business as usual for big business and the fossil fuel industry. In the U.S., the president has suggested he wants people back to work by Easter, and has pushed back against the idea of quarantining New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, despite U.S. deaths doubling in the last 48 hours, and instead going with a “strong Travel Advisory” (CNN, WAPO, BBC, New York Times). (Thankfully, on Sunday, Trump extended social distancing until April 30th.)
But let’s assume for a moment that the environmental effects aren’t temporary. Let’s assume that, somehow, we learn our lesson and realize that a cleaner, healthier world, and therefore healthier population, is not only what we want, but is also what we decide to put our unified political will together to achieve. What would be the effects on health and wellness? How much could the healthcare industry save per year if they could cut payouts for respiratory illness alone? In fact, we don’t have to wonder. Dr. Maria Neira, Head of the World Health Organization’s Department of Public Health and Environment notes that the most recent international research has shown that “some 30% of all deaths globally from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are caused by indoor smoke emitted by biomass and coal stoves. Outdoor air pollution is responsible for 22% of the global burden of death and disease from ischaemic heart disease — one of the major noncommunicable diseases that is being targeted by health authorities today. Nearly 50% of childhood (under five) pneumonia deaths are from indoor smoke. Indoor and outdoor air pollution also is a factor in cancers, asthma, cataracts and adverse pregnancy outcomes”. That’s a lot. But what does that translate to for the American Economy? According to CDC data, COPD alone accounts for nearly $50 billion annually. And what could that money buy? Well, the National Institutes of Health has a budget of about $30 billion, and the money saved by shifting to a green economy could nearly triple the funding for medical research. And for between $46 and $56 billion the U.S. could provide universal preschool for three and four year olds (Leonhart). So much of this seems so intuitive, such a no-brainer. Moreover, movements like Zero-Hour, Extinction Rebellion, and School Strike for Climate are showing that we do indeed have the will. However, as leaders in the U.S. have shown this past week by approving a $2 Trillion package to bail out corporations and to save a tanking stock market, with a measly $600 or $1,200 going to people as individuals, politicians continue to put profits over people. We will not make progress unless this changes.
Now, shifting to a green economy with zero (or next to zero) emissions is not without its problems. Take, for instance, electric vehicles. Many of us love the idea of zero-emission automobiles. However, if Zinc batteries are going to be the future of the automotive industry, consumers ought to take into consideration that Zinc is a heavy metal that needs to be mined. Often, Zinc is mined along with other heavy metals such as Lead and Cadmium. A study by Zhang, et. al., in 2009 found that “large amounts of lead, zinc and related elements … released into the environment” negatively impacted “water sources, soils, vegetables, and crops” and found that—completely unsurprisingly—“this pollution is hazardous to human health”. Switching to a zero-emissions automotive industry, for the moment, looks like a trade-off between eliminating smog, and a drop in human health in localizations where the materials necessary to achieve that goal are being mined. In the long run this might be the lesser of two evils. But do we really have to choose between two evils?
The present evil, the coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic, high though the cost may be, might, in fact, teach us a beneficial lession. If you’re old enough to have lived through or remember the HIV/AIDS epidemic, think of where we are today. The presence and spread of AIDS in our communities “completely changed sexual behavior among young people who were coming into sexual maturity at the height of the epidemic[.] The use of condoms became normalized. Testing for STDs became mainstream”, reports Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley (Yong). In short, even as that pandemic raged (some 40 million people are still infected with HIV/AIDS today), new and important information emerged, and people changed their behavior. Could Covid-19 motivate similar changes and behaviors for our ecosystem?
In China, the pandemic has become a call forincreased health and wellness, with one Weibo user, China’s Twitter platform, suggesting that the same energy that went into containing the virus should go into promoting health and wellness for the people: “’We should apply same amount of effort we put in containing the virus into things like promoting environmentally friendly cars, sorting garbage and planting more trees.’ People have learned that healthy food and clean industries are the most important things, ‘not money,’ said another” (Bloomberg). Wild animals are beginning to explore urban areas, like the deer in Japan: the canals of Venice have taken only weeks to clear up, and fish and swan have returned: unfortunately, the reports of dolphins being spotted there have proven false. It seems that only in America do we disagree about whether humans are responsible for the current climate disaster. Covid-19 seems to be providing ample evidence that of course humans are the cause. Remove the human element, as this virus has done, and Nature reasserts herself, in an effort to balance the equation. And yet, we can’t seem, as a society, to stop wondering how resilient Nature can be. Like a five-year old told not to bend or push something too far because it will break, we seem intent on finding that breaking point. When we do, it will be to our detriment.
What’s possible, what is and what will be are, unfortunately, very different things. Once the smoke clears, and though it may take time it will, we have the potential to change our world to a more equitable one for all humans. A decrease in smog and other forms of air pollution means increased health for a population; a healthier population means a more productive population that contributes to what would surely become a more robust economy; healthier people, and more of them, will save the country and industry billions. At least, that seems logical. Or, we can go back to the status quo: an ever-increasing income equality gap forced on a population by: rising health-care costs due to environmental factors—the poor live in the most polluted neighborhoods and cannot afford or are not provided with quality healthcare: the segregation of the education system—quality schools are tied to the housing market, and if you can’t afford a house or an apartment in one of those great school districts, well, tough: the rising cost of education which prevents large portions of the population from moving into the middle-class, which itself is ever-shrinking. And these are just some of the issues that a sustainable world might improve. We will have a decision to make about what we want our world to look like once this is all said and done. I hope humanity chooses sustainability; I fear corporate profits mean more than people to America’s politicians.
To learn more about how sustainability can change lives, visit https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs. And remember to get out there.
The photos from the Upper East Side of NY and Times Square were used with permission of Jennifer Walsh. Follow Jennifer on her Youtube channel, or find her website at http://www.walkwithwalsh.com. Her Instagram account is @thejenniferwalsh
“Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)” COPD Costs”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/copd/infographics/copd-costs.html. Accessed 3/25/2020.
“Coronavirus Deaths Stir Calls in China to Clean Up Air Pollution”. Bloomber News. 3/23/2020. www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-23/coronavirus-deaths-stir-calls-in-china-to-clean-up-air-pollution. Accessed on 03/29/2020
“Health Impact Assessment”. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/hia/green_economy/reducing_air_pollution/en/. Accessed on 3/26/2020
Leonhart, David. “What does $60 Billion Buy?” The New York Times. Economix: Explaining the Science of Everyday Life. economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/what-does-60-billion-buy/.
Plummer, Brad and Nadja Popovich. “Traffic and Pollution Plummet as U.S. Cities Shut Down for Coronavirus”. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/22/climate/coronavirus-usa-traffic.html/. Accessed on 3/24/2013
“Smog—Who Does It Hurt?” www3.epa.gov/airnow/health/smog.pdf.
Yong, Ed. “How the Pandemic Will End.” The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/how-will-coronavirus-end/608719/. Accessed on 3/29/2020
Watts, Jonathan and Niko Kommenda. “Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution”. The Guardian. www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/23/coronavirus-pandemic-leading-to-huge-drop-in-air-pollution. Accessed on 3/29/2020