In a matter of a few weeks, the global COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down. While doctors, nurses and others in the healthcare sector are fighting to contain and control the virus and cure the sick, many of us are asked to simply stay home.
Between lockdowns, closure of schools, teleworking and social distancing, daily mobility has nearly grinded to a halt. In the past week that has led to a few astounding and inspiring side-effects. The murky waters of the canals in Venice have cleared up and host fish and swans again. Dolphins have returned to the port of Cagliari, after ferries stopped operating. Unfortunately, that drunk elephant story turned out to be too good to be true. But there is no doubt that air quality levels have improved where quarantine and self-isolation have become the norm, first in China, then in Northern Italy, and now across Europe, where the virus has taken hold.
This effect is now also observable on our own shores, for example in Msida, an area well known for weekday congestion and associated air pollution. The below figure shows the levels of NO2 (Nitrogen dioxide) at 08:00 on weekdays over the past month, at the Msida Air Monitoring Station of the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA). Nitrogen dioxide is one of the main urban air pollutants, typically coming from vehicles, power plants and industrial emissions. Values over 100 are generally considered to be unhealthy, and values between 50 and 100 are of moderate concern. The dotted line indicates the timing of the government’s decision to close schools and higher education facilities, as well as asking those who can to work from home. Air quality levels, in terms of NO2, have visibly improved.
Air pollution is a so-called ‘silent killer’. It was estimated that the lockdown in China over the first two months of the year could lead to the prevention of 77,000 premature deaths because of a reduction in air pollution. At the local level, a recent study showed that 576 people die prematurely every year as a result of heart disease and respiratory illnesses attributable to air pollution. It may seem ironic that the effects of a virus that is claiming lives could simultaneously be saving others. Or it may just show us how diseased our economic system is: how we continuously exceed natural limits and pay with our lives.
On another level, this crisis and the resulting economic downturn is highlighting the precarious economy of workers’ lives. Those who are self-employed, who own small businesses or are in short-term contracts, fear for their livelihoods. Whereas governments are discussing how to support affected businesses, there is little mention of putting in place guarantees for people, the workers who normally keep these businesses up and running.
The current pandemic serves as a painfully acute reminder of the ecological ceilings on our planet, as well as the social foundations on which our societies rest. Efforts to slow the spread of the virus have made us question what is more important, health or GDP. Empty supermarket shelves make us reflect on the global food chain and the importance of local food security (second only to toilet paper, as has become apparent). News that such diseases and epidemics may become more frequent as we continue to destroy nature and biodiversity gives us the uneasy realization that we are willingly bringing this upon ourselves.
These reflections bring to mind the concept of “doughnut economics”, coined by economist Kate Raworth, which advocates the creation of a regenerative and distributive economic system within a space bound by a social foundation and an ecological ceiling. If anything, this time spent locked inside is a time which can offer us a window to another world. Can we imagine a world in which we do not break through the ecological ceiling, or trample those below us by eroding the social foundation? We know that with climate change we can expect more natural disasters, more displacement of people, more societal inequality. If we want to survive and thrive, we must rise to meet these challenges together. What if we organise our economic system in a way that allows for people’s basic human needs to be met, regardless of their profession or provenance? This could be a perfect time to explore and test the concept of Universal Basic Income. Empty streets and clean air show us that walking and cycling are very possible and enjoyable forms of crossing short distances and contribute to a healthier lifestyle and improved well-being. Nature and the wealth of biodiversity it contains is worth more than we can ever quantify in terms of money, it is the basis of our survival and resilience. Heavy reduction in fossil fuel-based mobility and frozen industrial production show us how quickly air and water quality recuperate and what could be the norm if we switch to clean forms of energy and production through a just energy transition.
Let’s use this time to rediscover what is truly important: our health, our home, our community. Let this story not only end with a cure for the virus, but also with a panacea for that other pandemic, our unsustainable economic system.