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How Covid-19 might help us regain humanity and survive climate change

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By: Aude Chesnais, Ph.D.

Yes, sanitizing wipes are long gone from the shelf, toilet paper too! And in places, groceries are getting scarcer. But in fact, we are nowhere near penury, and famine is not what we should be concerned with. I just talked to my 95 year-old grandmother over the phone. She lives in Paris, she has symptoms of Covid-19, she is in good spirit. She told me she does not understand why people are hoarding. You see, she lived through Nazi occupation. She remembers rationing, lacking food, and cannot fathom why younger folks living in such abundance when it comes to the essentials might be worried of lacking! Different situations, similar fears!

Fear is real, and it pushes people to their limits, even to the point of engaging in behaviors they did not think themselves capable of. And that is exactly the point! Regardless of how objectively dangerous any event is, it is “felt emergency” that moves personal behavior. Perception is everything! Yes, Covid-19 is more contagious and deadly than seasonal influenza: 1.4-3.4% mortality rate estimations versus 0.1%. But let us keep things in perspective, the new virus is nowhere near as deadly as historical pandemics: Ebola (25-90%), SARS (15%), or the Black Plague for that matter (30-60%). And diseases are time-sensitive events. In a lifetime, your chance of passing from lifestyle-induced chronic diseases is much greater than any other risks combined.

My point is not to dismiss worldwide fears! Obviously, Covid-19 is a very serious risk and collective measures need to be taken to curve the progression and impact of this newfound enemy. Here, I wish to focus on collective reactions. The news coverage confirms that we are worried about the perturbations to the everyday life we had settled in. How much social change can fear trigger? After all, being a scientist myself, I cannot help but wonder at the incredible room for change brought forth by this emergency. Disaster research has long confirmed it: what we are seeing is nothing but the transformative power unleashed by situations of crisis!

Transformation occurs in stages. First, disturbed from the everyday hustle in which we normally mindlessly engage, our priorities change and evolve fast: “Am I safe”, “am I going to lack anything”, “how will this affect me”? These initial self-centered inputs quickly give room to “are my loved ones safe”, “how can I best protect them”? Such fear-based responses can lead some to the panic modes responsible for hoarding toilet paper. They can also pressure governments to take significant measures like the confinement declared in Italy and France and spreading across the US.

Then, the initial onset of surprise and resistance to change vanishes as the frenetic rhythm that keeps most of us enslaved is forced to slow down. “Yes, we will be home for a while”! “Yes, we will cancel usual activities”! “Yes, we will keep the kids around for a change”! Once people are done mentally fighting changes in everyday rhythm that cannot be avoided, something starts happening: “Should we go for a walk”? “Should we call everyone”? “Let’s put our phones down and talk”! “Let’s cook together”! “Maybe I should finally read this book”! The little moments we usually take for granted, or do not have time for, start to take over, and with them a feeling of slowing down and reconnecting to essentials. “Social distancing” is unveiling its most ironic consequence: rebuilding a social link, fostering deep meaningful relationships; to self, loved ones and community!

In WWII occupied France, my grandmother also remembers this feeling, and people organizing; tearing their lawns apart to grow food, raising rabbits, chicken inside their apartments, trading with other ingenuous neighbors. Beyond struggle, she remembers solidarity developing between people who had until then behaved as strangers, and organizing to meet collective needs. From slowing down and spending more time with our thoughts and others, emergency forces adaption and collaboration because competition for scarce resources is proven impractical for long-term collective survival!

Such drastic changes also push reflection on our society. It strips away the superfluous and calls for efficient action. What really works and what doesn’t? We can already see these questions arise here. After years of push for the simple idea of universal care to permeate political discourse in the US, Covid-19 brings forth the urgent “need” to debate access to care. Not doing so would worsen the crisis, as in the case of epidemic crisis, no-one is immune to risk! The crisis invites to reflect on how individual behaviors impact the collective but also on how collective decisions impact individual health!

These links are always present, but a crisis makes them more salient, visible, observable for those who usually lack the ability to see them. It creates a reality with less sugar-coating, more honesty, and overall less ideology. Because emergency requires efficiency! It gives more room to functional decision-making and less to lenghty ideological debates. It also provokes true systemic shift! Decreases in superfluous consumption habits might negatively impact stocks, but positively impacts the environment. In Wuhan, reports mention inhabitants looking at sky clear of heavy fumes for the very first time, or being able to hear birds because of a significant drop in noise. In Italy, dolphins and swans have returned to Venice canals, after years of avoidance from traffic and pollution. Air pollution is reported to have dropped, and we are yet to see worldwide environmental reports on the significant changes in air, water and soil pollution observed during confinement measures.

Will observable environmental improvements be enough to trigger broader societal shifts? Impossible to know for sure, but the deeper reflections sparked by the Covid-19 crisis have also included broader societal change. We all have read articles discussing why we can’t seem to be able to respond with a similar sense of urgency to climate crisis? We have proven time and over our incapacity to address the much more complex global challenge of climate change. And we already know the culprits: selfishness, conspicuous consumption, obsession for growth for its sake, tendency to divide, inability to see past national interests.

But this crisis seems to be somewhat equipping us for what we need: more social connection, more empathy, more action, more understanding, less ideology…ultimately helping us to regain the humanity we seemed to have lost in our everyday hustle to fight a common viral enemy. Could it be what we need to spark that shift in consciousness and collectively gear up against the climate crisis that threatens us in the long-run? Only time will tell! In the meantime, let us stay home, be safe, take time to heal ourselves and build community. Will the next generations thank you, Covid-19?

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