After this Earth Day, let's never go back to normal

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Temporary bike lanes in Vancouver, British Columbia on April 12, 2020. Image: Dylan Passmore/Flickr

Today is Earth Day around the world, and it's an ominous time to mark the occasion. For all the right reasons, we are fixated on a deadly virus for which there is no cure yet. 

Many bright minds are working towards that now, and major changes have been made around the world to "flatten the curve." That collective action has been remarkable.  

We have stayed home and avoided contact with neighbours. Online is the new norm for personal and professional communication. Jobs have been lost and many businesses have closed, with significant consequences. Major events have been postponed. 

All this has been done to stop the spread of a virus that is especially dangerous to the most vulnerable among us. It is those very people -- seniors, people with disabilities, those with auto-immune diseases and workers in caring professions -- who have paid such a terrible price. 

And yet, in this awful sadness, we can also identify hope to save our planet. Homebound people and shuttered major industries have allowed the planet to breathe. 

Global greenhouse gas emissions have dropped. The waters and air of several major cities, once fouled by pollution, are now clearer. Forms of active transportation (rolling, walking, cycling) now fill city streets once clogged with cars. 

And we've also been reminded about the importance of low-wage service professions. Who do we rely on more? The stock trader or the grocery store clerk? The personal support worker or the professional athlete? The politician or the warehouse worker? 

For years, many debated whether humanity could address the existential threat of climate change. Could we overcome our addiction to fossil fuels, and the industry that insists it draws every last drop from the earth? Could we really transition to a different economy?  

In recent weeks, we've seen the answer: bold action is possible when we're faced with a common threat. If we can pull together to stop the spread of COVID-19, we can mobilize on a massive scale to fight climate change when this pandemic is over. 

Instead of bailing out the fossil fuel industry, let's help the millions of people who are now out of work get back on their feet by investing in mass transit, renewable energy, and the caring, low-carbon professions we desperately need.

So here's my Earth Day thought for 2020: let's never go back to normal. Let's create a Green New Deal for a different future that keeps us safe and secure for decades to come. A different future that puts the health of our planet and people, including care workers and the folks they look after, ahead of corporate profits. 

We owe that to those who have lost their lives, and will lose their lives, to COVID-19. We can't be quiet, and we can't accept hollow platitudes. 

Emily Pierskalla, a nurse from Minnesota, showed us what that looks like in a recent letter

"If I die, I don't want to be remembered as a hero.

I want my death to make you angry too.

I want you to politicize my death. I want you to use it as fuel to demand change in this industry, to demand protection, living wages, and safe working conditions for nurses and ALL workers.

Use my death to mobilize others.

Use my name at the bargaining table.

Use my name to shame those who have profited or failed to act, leaving us to clean up the mess.

Don't say "heaven has gained an angel." Tell them negligence and greed has murdered a person for choosing a career dedicated to compassion and service."

As we mourn COVID-19 tragedies, let's organize to ensure our most vulnerable are protected. With the same solidarity and collective action that we used to fight this virus, we can build a better future for everyone, and for the planet on which we all depend.

Joel Harden is the MPP for Ottawa Centre.

Image: Dylan Passmore/Flickr

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