How much we reimagine diets, work, travel and how we connect as communities in view of the coronavirus pandemic?
The UK government's guidelines on how individuals should respond to the coronavirus pandemic has changed sharply over the past week - from one symptomatic member of a household self-isolating for seven days, to whole families self-isolating for fourteen days, to the wholesale closure of pubs, cafes and offices and the 'shielding' of at-risk groups: those with heart disease, diabetes, lung disease and compromised immune systems are being asked to stay home for twelve weeks.
We now have an almost complete lockdown. People need to work from home where possible and to “stop non-essential contact with others,” but the repercussions of this for vulnerable people living alone are as daunting as the threat of the coronavirus itself. The reality is that many of these people may be at home alone, isolated and without any human contact.
This plan hinges upon isolating vulnerable individuals for three months while proposing that the collective action of people working from home while avoiding pubs and restaurants will flatten the curve. With one group of people supposedly out of harm's way, another group can - in time - move back into public life to stimulate the economy: everyone wins, at least hypothetically.
Meanwhile, the internet abounds with articles about the earth being the beneficiary of the coronavirus lockdowns in China and Italy. But there has been little reflection on the ethics of advocating social isolation as a form of environmental repair.
CNN points out one of the unexpected results of the lockdown in China’s Hubei province is ecological healing: the average number of "good quality air days" increased 21.5 percent in February,
Many more media outlets have run similar pieces on the “unintended profit” of the coronavirus, on the way that this virus is “curbing carbon emissions,” and even on what climate change can teach us in fighting COVID-19. But are these truisms reason to push for social isolation as the future model for greener practices by both individuals and businesses?
We must ask ourselves if the human cost of undoing ecological damage need come in the form of Wuhan-style confinement or even in the lighter version that we see under Johnson’s leadership, which asks that the elderly and infirm pay the price of this virus through isolation? Are we not missing the forest for the trees?
Institutions are laying the groundwork for telecommuting - working from home - at pace, having posed barriers to these 'reasonable adjustments' for disabled people and pregnant people for decades. As Laura Elliott recently noted, “Apparently, accessibility really does matter, but only when it’s isn’t 'just' disabled people asking for it."
The Equality Act 2010 notes that these reasonable adjustments necessitate changes to policies, working practices, physical spaces, and the provision of specific equipment and support.
As more people isolate, communities are becoming increasingly mindful of the fear that elderly feel in leaving their homes to go shopping. As a result, there a movement is emerging that is expanding the social distancing model to incorporate the safe-keeping and health of the elderly and at risk groups. These acts of solidarity are organised under the banner of mutual aid, where neighbours shop for the elderly and at risk members of their community.
Mutual aid demonstrates that physical distancing need not come at the cost of a sense of community.
It is indisputable that many of our everyday habits in the Global North have contributed to climate change, we are at odds over how best to make change and facilitate healing without compromising on community. The question is the degree to which moderating individual behaviours will effect change; how do we balance individual and social needs; what shape might more systemic change take?
Installing smart meters in your home or solar security cameras outside it might help with your ecological footprint, but nothing will approximate the kind of improvements that parts of China saw last month. Certainly, solar and wind power are part of the equation, but our habits must also change in tandem with green technology. In short, we must make more drastic changes to how we can curb climate change without reverting to the “pandemic model of green evolution.”
While this novel coronavirus is forcing us into behaviours that are having a positive knock-on effect to the environment, we must be sceptical about the suggestion that we can only reduce carbon emissions by restricting movement. We must be even more wary of the suggestion that the elderly and other at-risk individuals make such sacrifices as if their lives and freedoms are dispensable for the greater good.
As a freelance writer who often works for weeks without having much social contact outside my family, I am acutely aware of the importance of social connection. Yet, as I am in the midst of my fourth week of quarantine, I have had much time to reflect upon the pain of social isolation - particularly as a mother, having experienced a similar sort of isolation while parenting and cut off from social interaction.
This quarantine, however, takes things further, especially when coupled with the anxiety that many are experiencing as they worry about their families, communities and the economic impacts of quarantine.
If Covid-19 is evidencing the ecological benefits of staying at home, we need to analyse what we can do better to achieve the same result without isolating ourselves. We also need to think about what and who is at stake here and how that drives change: it was only when the stock markets in Milan, New York and London started to crash that companies began to accommodate widespread telecommuting.
It is certainly not - as Drew Arellano recently suggested - that humans “are the virus and COVID’s the cure.” This is a cynical and lazy approach to what we are getting wrong.
We might begin with scaling up individual change to the level of policy change. For instance, we must reimagine what and how we eat by understand the links between the emergence of zoonosis due to agricultural intensification and environmental change, and the negative Global Health Impacts (GHIs) of diets that include animal products. We need to take widespread telecommuting as a prompt for reimagining work, and the piecemeal renationalisation of public transport as a prompt for reimagining travel.
In the end, Covid-19 is giving us much time in the coming weeks—and possibly months—to rethink everything about how we behave in the world. Let’s not pretend that we can or want to live without each other.
Instead we need to face the obstacles that keep us from creating a greener and happier future head-on, for that day when we can eventually step outside and breath a collective breath fresh air.