Opinion: COVID-19, The Environmental Blessing


Léandre Oster hopes that the post-pandemic economic recovery will regain both profits and nature.


Coronavirus is undeniably a worldwide tragedy. To date, the COVID-19 has infected about 250,000 people on this  planet and killed 10,000, out of which about 3,500 are from China, the place where the pandemic first broke out. We want to look further than the daily death count and the global anxiety. Coronavirus is a major crisis, but what if it served as a wake-up call for the future of the humankind?

According to data collected by Stanford professor Marshall Burke, the outbreak of the coronavirus has saved 20 times the number of lives that it has taken. In fact, Burke’s calculations suggests that the COVID-19 epidemic have saved between 1,500 to 4,000 children under the ages of five and 50,000 to 70,000 persons over the age of seventy in China. These startling figures are due to a combined result in a reduction in the level of air pollution and the quarantine measures put in place, first in the region of Hubei, and then in the whole country. The use of coal and the production of steel stopped, flights departing or arriving in mainland China dropped by 70%, all of this contributing to a 27% drop of GHG emissions. Similarly, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution dropped by 36%[3] at the end of February. One can observe this exact same tendency in Italy, which at this date accounts for more deaths than all of China (and yet they had to face 50% less people infected). NO2 emissions also dropped tremendously as shown in  Fig. 2. Once again, such reductions in emissions could mean saving tens of thousands of people. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) tweets, “That is NOT to say that the pandemic is some kind of a blessing in disguise, with all the suffering it has imposed on people. At the most, it shows it’s easy to overlook chronic, long term health threats such as air pollution, and thus, harder to muster an adequate response.”

Fig.1 on the right, Fig2. on the left. photo credits: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2020/03/16/coronavirus-lockdown-may-have-saved-77000-lives-in-china-just-from-pollution-reduction/#3612daee34fe

In every place hit by the pandemic, nature seems to take back control. The water in Venetian canals has become crystal clear, birds are singing in Paris, and dolphins came to visit a Sicilian port. Noise pollution has disappeared, too. Cities discovered have calm and the countryside has recovered it. In France, small cities like my own look like ghost towns; no one gets out, especially at night, since a growing number of mayors continue to take decrees to  implement night curfews. As man has withdrawn, what seemed impossible to achieve only six months ago is happening: more room is given to nature, the humankind is once again humbled before the strength of nature and the harm it may bring. 

What struck me the most was not the destructive capacity of nature, but rather its regenerative rapidity. In a couple of months only, nature seems to have started to recover from more than a century of overexploitation. Nature’s recovery that we see in now silent towns and cities was only made possible by the pandemic that has put a temporary stop to greenhouse gas emissions. In some ways, COVID-19 can be viewed as an environmental blessing. Of course, this recovery is as scarce as superficial, because it has only gone on for a couple of months, but it shows hope.

Whenever politicians have been presented with any environmental issue, they have seen it, rightfully, as a trade-off between ecology and the economy. Ecology has seldom been compatible with profit and growth, on the contrary. As nature starts to live again, the economy is in chaos. The most striking example is the Italian government shutting down all non-essential economically productive activities in the country, and more countries are likely to follow equally harsh measures. It is at this moment impossible to estimate the future costs of these unprecedented measures, but it is certain that many countries will suffer a recessions.In China, the workers begin to see the aftermath of the lockdown: wages are lowered, firms are closing etc [7]. In Europe, the situation will be the same, and due to globalisation, French firms already feel the hit: 61% of French firms in China believe they will lose 50% of their annual sales. In France, the President promised firms would not be impacted and that the State would fund support. But it is naïve to think no venture will have to close. Unfortunately for the indignant, there is here no one to take the economical blame. One can blame the government for a poor handling of the crisis, but nothing can save the economy: whether it is a capitalist, socialist or communist country or government, where there is no production, there is no wealth and hence no wages nor redistribution. The economy is bound to a crisis and everyone will have to pay the cost of it in the following years. Why not see it as an opportunity to grow stronger? To grow healthier. Regrowth could this time be built on a respectful relationship with nature, setting the foundation of a new episode of globalisation. One could be hopeful that this crisis can be that of reconciliation with nature as it coincides with a time when more people than ever, including a huge part of youth, illustrated by several protest in the last months, such as #YouthStrike4Climate.

One may want to pay the cost of an economic crisis in order to protect the planet and can be joyful about the crisis, which at the end of the day, does not kill more people than pollution.  Those that prefer profit, jobs, low unemployment and a healthy Dow Jones at the expense of the environment are deeply concerned that the virus will blow the economy up. However, one can argue that this crisis is inflicting on the shareholders and big companies a fear, which they themselves have inflicted to the environmentalists and the youth for forty years: that of unsustainability.

This article belongs to our opinion column . Opinions expressed belong exclusively to the respective author and are not necessarily reflective of this publication.

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