The Coronavirus has forced cities and countries around the world to go into lockdown in order to protect their populations from the respiratory virus that has killed almost 300,000 people around the world – likely many more. Even as case numbers begin to come down almost everywhere but the USA, protection from a second-wave of cases as we begin to ease restrictions is of paramount importance to all.
However, during this time, we’ve seen air pollution almost disappear, animals brave the urbanised world, our rivers, seas and waterways clear up, and a majority now want green spaces around the UK to be maintained and improved beyond the Coronavirus lockdown. By all accounts, the natural world is making the most of the relatively quiet urban environment and many better recognise the importance of green space.
This new lifestyle that the pandemic has forced us to adopt is not sustainable in any way, but it has given us an insight into what this world can look like if we take greater care of the natural environment as well as our urban environment. It’s shown us that the economy and growth should not be the sole measure of our ‘greatness’, but it should be the quality of the lives every person in any given country lives, and it has shown just how important a health service that is free at the point of use can be during national emergencies like this.
So, here are 4 problems that the Coronavirus has exposed in society.
1. Air Pollution
As industry has had to close down and fewer people are travelling into work, the air in cities around the world has got dramatically cleaner. Even some of the most polluted cities in India and China are recording ‘good’ air quality results and seeing distant mountains and landmarks that they haven’t seen in decades. This article by The Guardian from April shows just how bad air pollution was before and during the Coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not just the industry-heavy countries like India and China that are enjoying cleaner air – much of the Western world is too. Comparing data from the end of March in 2020 to that of 2019 has shown just how much levels of Nitrogen Oxide – mostly from the burning of fuel in vehicles – have dropped in the UK due to the fewer number of cars on the road. At the end of March it was thought to have dropped by about 50% but is now probably even lower!
The impacts of polluted urban air on our health have become increasingly well documented in recent years too. The World Health Organisation estimates that air pollution kills more than 7 million per year and may contribute towards many more. In the UK, the estimated number is between 28,000 to 36,000 every year due to poor air quality and government estimates put that at a cost of £8-20 billion to the UK economy. Given our response to the Coronavirus here in the UK with a similar number of tragic deaths, why are we not responding in a similar way?
2. Lack of Urban Green Space
As the lockdown has gone on, finding ways to make the most of our one venture out of the house for a walk or some exercise. I’m lucky. I live just across the road from the New Forest so getting out for a walk or run once a day is easy to do and can be done in a beautiful location. However, as many in busier cities have tried to visit local parks and green spaces, some have become overcrowded and may well have accelerated the spread of the Coronavirus.
Just a few days ago, as I shared on social media, a majority of the UK public want parks and green spaces in our cities and urban areas to be better maintained and improved so they can be better accessed by those living in cities. This weekend, as many looked to make the most of the beautiful bank holiday weekend and VE Day, parks were very crowded and the enforcement of social distancing to limit transmission of the Coronavirus seemed to be all but forgotten.
Everyone should have access to parks and there is no fair way of limiting only a few to use them. In cities where some people have little or no access to gardens, then access to parks are vital. They have an enormous amount of benefits to urban populations as well, including better mental health, cleaner air and reduced flooding – just to name a few. Whether the lockdown has just made more people want to visit and use parks and greens spaces, the Coronavirus has shown us that we have too little green space in our cities – and adding more will only improve their liveability.
3. An Unsustainable Economic System
Arguably this was becoming increasingly exposed regardless of the Coronavirus impact. Around the world, the wealth gap is increasing – the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Since the 2008 financial crash and looking much closer to home, child poverty is on the rise, an increasing number of people are becoming homeless and an increasing number of workers relying of food bank donations just to eat. UK emissions had been going up and up before a recent drop, we’re continuing to use a lot of finite resources and we’re not even close to taking the required action to limit the worst impacts of the climate emergency.
All of this has been happening whilst the UK economy has grown year-on-year.
This constant focus on the economy is unsustainable and is a question that is more regularly being asked. The entire economic system that is currently in place relies on the consumption of finite resources to produce things that can be used or consumed in some way with an increasing amount of waste sent to landfill or dumped; the resources don’t exist for that to continue as it is. Not only that, if someone is working a full time job and still has to rely on food banks to feed families, then the economic system is not socially sustainable.
The Coronavirus is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The economic impact mirrors the great depression but could well be worse in the end. It would be wrong to look at this crisis and blame capitalism or the capitalist economy that is in place here in the UK due to the unprecedented nature of what we face. However, it has given us an opportunity to look at the problems of it and rebuild the economy and society in a way that is much more sustainable going forward.
In recent weeks we’ve seen millions of people lose their jobs and millions more be furloughed. Many of us have turned to DIY and gardening to fill our time, but some have looked to finding other jobs that are in demand due to the pandemic. We’ve also seen people all over the country step up and support those in need and put their lives at risk for others. Like we often do in times of national struggle, we see the best of society emerge and play a vital role in keeping the country going.
However, we’ve also seen the worst. Particularly from those who can best financially help.
Richard Branson is one billionaire who has, rightfully, received a lot of criticism for his response to dealing with the Coronavirus. It started with the billionaire suggesting that Virgin Atlantic staff take unpaid leave for a total of 8 weeks and has most recently lead to the airline company pulling out of it’s contract with Gatwick, contributing to over 3,000 job losses – many in the nearby town of Crawley – due to disagreements in loans from the Government. For a man who is worth over $4billion and owns his own private island, could he not have done more?
He’s not the only billionaire that has made headlines during this pandemic. Billionaire Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct came under fire after claiming workers at the chain of sportswear stores were ‘essential workers’ (he did eventually U-turn on that decision after major public backlash, however).
The richest man in the world was also at it. Jeff Bezos had faced growing criticism over the treatment of Amazon workers, particularly in the US, before the Coronavirus spread across the Untied States. However, his refusal to close warehouses that had reported a number of COVID-19 cases among workers, that later led to the sacking and smearing of a staff member who attempted to walk out in protest of the decision, has put him under increasing public scrutiny. He’s also managed to increase his wealth by $24 billion between December 2019 and the start of April 2020 with many of us looking online to shop.
Given the sacrifices that many are making during this lockdown and the incredible job that frontline workers, as well as those still classed as essential, surely those that are profiting most off of these workers should be doing more? If they aren’t, especially at a time like this, why are they able to accrue such massive wealth whilst so still live in poverty in this country?
Moving On Post-Coronavirus
We all want a return to a sense of normality, but why can’t we create a new, healthier, more environmentally-friendly ‘normal’. We don’t have to accept a return to what we had before this pandemic – like the air pollution and the unsustainable economic system – but instead make changes that will improve all of our lives in the future. The rebuild that will take place as economies begin to reopen can and should put the climate emergency and the natural environment at the centre of any stimulus package; doing so would have a number of benefits that go well beyond just reducing the impacts of the climate emergency.
How do you want to see the UK, or your country, rebuild?