[OPINION] Earth Day at 50: Lessons for the post-coronavirus world

Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. First launched in the United States on April 22, 1970, this annual event highlights the constant need for global collective action to address our pressing environmental challenges, many of which are products of our own doing. Since the first Earth Day, significant progress has been achieved – countries have established national environmental protection agencies, domestic laws for cleaner air and water have been passed by parliaments, and international treaties for the ozone layer, biodiversity, and the global climate have been signed. Of course, much more still needs to be accomplished so we can leave a more sustainable planet for generations to come. (READ: 300 PH scientists, conservationists call for 'a culture of care for nature')

Unfortunately, this year’s golden commemoration falls in the middle of a global pandemic. Unlike in the past 49 years, this Earth Day will see no street marches, press conferences, or tree planting events. COVID-19 made today a different kind of Earth Day – however, it does not mean we cannot turn it into something historic, meaningful, and consequential. Inside our homes during this time of worldwide quarantine, we can meditate with the Earth, harvest new lessons, and make bold pledges for the post-COVID world. 

What this pandemic is teaching us is that disrespect for the Earth has dire consequences for human health and wellbeing. COVID-19 is a zoonosis, which simply means an infectious disease transferred from animals to humans. Recent studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, came from bats and is transferred to humans by an intermediate host animal such as pangolins, which are some of the world’s most critically endangered species and also the most trafficked animals in the planet. Unfortunately, consumption of pangolins and other wild animals for food and other purposes is still rampant in places like China and neighboring Asian countries. Meanwhile, rapid urbanization is resulting in the encroachment of forest ecosystems by cities, which tighten the interface between humans and wild animals. If we want to reduce the risk of another zoonotic epidemic in the future, wildlife consumption must be stopped, and a major rethink about urbanization in the post-COVID era is necessary.

COVID-19 is also showing us how environmental inequalities are deeply intertwined with health inequities; therefore, a combined approach to addressing the two is crucial in building pandemic-resistant societies. Not only the elderly and those with preexisting conditions face higher risk of dying from COVID-19, but also those exposed to significant air pollution which weaken the lungs and render them susceptible to infection. Those who are suffering the most with the unintended consequences of extreme social distancing measures are those without access to comfortable housing, clean water, or nutritious food; take for example those who live in urban slums in the Philippines and other developing countries. Social and environmental privilege protect only a few and leave the majority of the population behind. Therefore, acting on the environmental determinants of health not for just some but for all is preventive medicine for future outbreaks. 

We must also not be deceived by the mirage of environmental improvement peddled in our social media newsfeeds. Indeed, societal lockdown and economic shutdown helped clear our skies and streams, reduced carbon emissions, and encouraged wild animals to wander around our cities. However, we must remember that these temporary gains for the environment are reaped at a massive human cost – not to mention they are probably not going to be sustained. These developments are not a cause for premature celebration; instead, they serve as a cautionary tale – that abrupt shocks such as a pandemic or the subsequent economic pause generate catastrophic impacts for people even if they appear beneficial for the planet. Rather than wait for another sudden disruption of this scale, we must choose the path of gradual and planned transformation that decarbonizes the economy, promotes human health, and protects the vulnerable at the same time. 

The societal response to pandemics also leaves an ecological footprint. It is understandable that in the early phase of an epidemic, environmental considerations may be put to the side. However, once the public health strategy has been refined through iteration and repetition, environmental consequences must then be taken into account in the same manner we are preparing for our actions’ social and economic side effects. The widespread use of disposable masks may be adding to ocean plastic pollution; a pandemic crisis is therefore not an excuse for skipping good solid waste management practices. Proper disposal of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other materials used in healthcare provision must also be instituted – before they become a new source of both infection and pollution. 

Finally, our journey to the post-COVID era, no matter how long it might be, must embrace a different narrative – not that of return to old dirty habits, but of transition to a new realm that gives priority to the health of people and the planet. As the great Indian writer Arundhati Roy said of pandemics, “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” This is the right time to begin considering new models of development such as the Doughnut Economy – one that meets basic human needs while respecting planetary boundaries; the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands just recently adopted it as their post-pandemic exit plan.

There are concrete actions that can be explored as early as now. Those who have the ability must grow their vegetables in their own backyard – not just to prevent panic-buying in future crises but also produce food that is both nutrient-rich and low-carbon. Work-from-home arrangements for some sectors may help reduce the need for fossil fuel-driven transport especially in cities. The post-COVID world must be powered by renewable energy coming from the sun, wind, and waves – which unlike coal-fired power plants and oil rigs are less prone to disruption when workers had to stay at home during lockdown. 

Because of COVID-19, the next United Nations climate negotiations (COP26), originally slated for November 2020 in Scotland, is postponed to 2021. But that doesn’t mean positive action for the environment must be delayed as well. In fact, now we are given a bit more time to revise our global strategy for long-term environmental protection. The global COVID-19 response, imperfect it may be, is demonstrating that rapid collaborative action on a planetary scale is possible; hence, there is hope for the climate. A holistic approach that integrates promoting human health and protecting ecological integrity must inform our blueprint for the post-COVID world. – Rappler.com

A Filipino physician, Renzo Guinto (@RenzoGuinto) is the Chief Planetary Doctor of PH Lab and recent Doctor of Public Health graduate of Harvard University. He is also an adviser to the Forum on Climate Change and Health of the World Innovation Summit for Health based in Qatar.