Will there be a silver lining to this pandemic?

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Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. Image: NIAID/Flickr

Our world has lost its habit, and we try to cope with the uncertainties lying ahead. Meanwhile, pressure builds to quickly "open up" the economy, because, for some, the loss of wages seems more threatening than the virus.

Angus Reid polling indicates three-quarters of us don't think it is worth the risk. Meanwhile, half of us report mental health worsening. A third, however, have more gratitude. But domestic violence is on an upswing. Uncertainties about the rate of infection, our immunity, whether a vaccine will come and how soon, and dangers from recurring waves, will keep many of us up at night.

As an older senior with preconditions, I have trepidation about me and my spouse's ability to look after ourselves. We will garden for food more strenuously this summer. I worry a second wave may come along with influenza, as we enter the long dark months next winter.

It's tempting to look for a silver lining to keep hope alive. But delusional hope quickly turns on itself. All talk of the economy quickly "bouncing back" seems questionable. Only three million COVID-19 infections have been globally confirmed; there are more than seven billion of us as potential hosts for this virus.

Trillions have been spent to prop up businesses and workers, but deep down we know we shouldn't want to return to the past. Systemic inequalities have affected who dies and who survives. We should be converting to a guaranteed livable income and taking precautionary ecological planning to heart.

And perhaps, while we focus on the big picture, we should celebrate that natural systems, even if not the old polluting economy, may bounce back.

This could be our true silver lining.

The planet is getting a deserved rest. Air is clearing. Water is cleaning. Habitats may restore. This could be the start of something new. There are many curves besides COVID-19 that we must flatten and reduce. Global energy demand is projected to drop six per cent in 2020 -- dwarfing the impact of the 2008 recession. This puts us in a great position to start the needed emission reduction, worldwide, throughout this decade.

NASA satellite pictures showed the thick and deadly air pollution, from Wuhan to Beijing, disappearing after the lockdown. Emissions from factories, cars and coal plants dropped dramatically. When New York City locked down, it saw an immediate reduction in carbon dioxide and a huge drop in carbon monoxide.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's global monitoring division hasn't yet seen a "significant drop" because the variation in the natural carbon cycle is so large. They would have to use carbon-14 measures to distinguish fossil fuel carbons from ecosystem sources. However, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is already predicting an eight per cent decrease in global emissions from fossil fuels in 2020, which would be the lowest level since 2010.

The IEA remains concerned that, with the sharp decline in revenue in the very unregulated oil and gas sector, there may be less control of methane leaks, venting and flaring. Methane can be as much as 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas (GHG) than C02.

Nevertheless, we all see signs of nature's resilience. I just saw an unimaginably large flock of pelicans soaring in the wind overhead. During the recent online concert raising money for food banks, Sarah McLachlan sang the Beatles' song, Blackbird. One line says, "You were only waiting for this moment to arise."

Our man-made systems have proven incapable of changing direction quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate change. Our elected leaders, worldwide, ignored pandemic warnings.

So, perhaps it was going to take this novel coronavirus to stop us in our tracks. We clearly need a huge "reset" as a species. Some of our institutions have run their course. Something was going to create evolutionary feedback to our unsustainable practices. We have been acting like an invasive species that can control the planet. We can't. We can only learn to understand and live within it.

In an Earth Day interview, Jane Goodall noted that we don't just have wild meat markets, and global trafficking of endangered species, but industrial slaughtering plants and cramped, medicated, intensive factory farms that foster infectious diseases.

Of course, we want medical science to help us out of our immediate mess. But we had better think a lot deeper, while we can, or we will find ourselves right back where we began.

The steady loss of biodiversity and disregard for inter-species boundaries makes future pandemics more likely. Climate change not only brings more devastating extreme weather, to undermine our fragile infrastructures, but it further degrades biodiversity. And on it would go.

We simply must restore biodiversity, reduce emissions, and shift from an economy that promotes endless growth in wants and profits, while not meeting human needs. Human denial is running out of room.

Will our collective foresight be strong enough to resist the false hope of returning to the old normal?

This may also keep us up at night.

Activist and author Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. He is a founding director of the Qu'Appelle Valley Environmental Association. He was director of research for Saskatchewan Health's alcoholism commission and for the University of Regina’s Prairie Justice Research Consortium.

Image: NIAID/Flickr

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