Acknowledging it could rub people the wrong way, I feel compelled to explore this question. The feeling started when air travel restrictions fell into place. As one of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions, I wondered how this drastic industry-wide regulation would impact air quality. It would be like giving the Earth a chance to take a quick gulp of fresh air. Not long after, the city of Wuhan and then the entire Hubei province went into lockdown, closing all factories. As of this writing, China’s reported death toll stands at 3,345. Estimates from environmental economist Marshall Burke say that this reduction in pollution ‘saved’ 50,000 lives. He derived this number using predictive models from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when the government put into place massive efforts to curb pollution for the athletes. For more, read this Freakonomics podcast. There are lots of question marks around the statistics coming out of China (e.g., numbers withheld, missing data, deaths from people who died from other causes because they could not receive medical care due to overrun hospitals, etc.), but the takeaway is that a brief reduction in production/consumption can have a huge positive impact.
But positive for whom? For what? In my sustainability class, we often draw the famous Venn Diagram on the board with overlapping circles representing society, the economy, and the environment. Our discussion always comes back to how it is impossible to isolate any one component. Every decision or action impacts all three—and it is almost impossible for it to be uniformly good or bad for each stakeholder. For instance, if McDonalds increased its minimum wage to $15/hour, it would help employees financially and psychologically (good), but they would have to either raise prices (bad for customers) or reduce profits (bad for shareholders). Let’s consider COVID-19. It is a massive negative shock to the economy (bad) that kills people (bad), which decreases air pollution temporarily (good), which saves lives (good), but also puts people out of work (bad), but brings communities together in solidarity (good). And on and on.
Going down that road, the ‘bads’ would certainly outnumber the ‘goods’. So then what good can we possibly takeaway from COVID-19? Perhaps it is the chance to pause and reflect. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event to make us re-evaluate our current situation. We’ve heard “this is our Pearl Harbor moment” and “this is our 9/11 moment” but those were just that, moments, and they were also moments for the United States. I acknowledge that those events linger to this day, with people and places still healing. But we are not in the midst of a national moment, we are living through a global movement, and at the risk of sounding trite, I think the potential for positive social change is what we need to takeaway.
That is a tall order. We are entering a global recession that will have lingering ripple effects on quality of life for the foreseeable future. Unemployment is increasing, whole industries are shutting down, and the most vulnerable communities (e.g., the elderly, minorities, lower socioeconomic groups) are being disproportionately impacted. In short, it seems hard to excavate any lasting positive outcomes, but let’s give it a try.
Perhaps the most obvious beneficiary is the planet. With fewer cars on the roads, fewer packages being shipped, fewer flights, and less movement of people, we are reducing our impact on the environment. But I argue there is a positive outcome for the social component. My small town of Athens, Ohio, almost immediately forged an unspoken and unwritten charter to support the local businesses. It happened organically through grass-roots social media, but mostly because people are committed to their community and they want to help the individuals who comprise it. This crisis has also forced us to be innovative and creative in how we communicate and how we do business. We are witnessing the human capacity for empathy, courage, ingenuity, and compassion, and this is true in communities across the globe.
Americans often reflect on the weeks following 9/11. The feeling of unity, the waving of flags, the singing of patriotic songs. Once trivial occurrences took on meaning. Every Major League Baseball game was an excuse to bask in the glow of national pride. But those feelings dissipated. Politics and politicking took over, and the ‘back-to-normal’ mentality washed away the harmonious collective identity built in response to that tragedy.
So what will our global mentality be like when we get ‘back-to-normal’ from the Coronavirus? I’m not naïve to think that this feeling of global solidarity will last forever, but I do hope we take the opportunity to re-evaluate our current systems and how they interact. This involves our political systems, economic systems, ecosystems, social institutions, and many more. We need to use our positive reactions and adaptations to this pandemic to shape future policy. We have uncovered new ideas and dormant methods to solve problems that are not specific to time of crisis. These approaches can be applied by policy-makers even when this situation moves to the back burner.
When the virus started to spread outside of China, experts said that countries should prepare because it was a “not-if-but-when” situation. Similarly, this crisis will end—there is no ‘if’. The only ‘if’ is whether or not we learn from it. If the environment is cleaner, people are kinder, and the economy is innovating, perhaps there is some good that can come from a global pandemic?