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No, the COVID-19 Pandemic is not Healing the Planet – But, Something Else Can

By Nayantara Siruguri

Peacocks in Mumbai, dolphins in Venice, dinosaurs in Bhopal, and the list goes on. Apparently, the on-going pandemic is ‘healing’ nature. Now, how true is that? And if not the pandemic, can something or someone else out there heal the planet once and for all?

It has been almost six months since the news of the emergence of a new fatal coronavirus surfaced from Wuhan, China. Undoubtedly, a lot has happened since then. With the COVID-19 disease spreading to different parts of the world, people all over the world are having to re-evaluate their beliefs and systems.

One of the major discussions online and among policymakers and activists in this context is the environmental discourse. In early March, several people began posting photographs and videos of animals being “spotted” in major urban cities – from dolphins in Venice to “monkey gangs” in Lopburi, Thailand. While most of these reports have later been discovered to be fake or misleading, they have gone viral online, while also being successful at making several people see a “silver lining” to this pandemic. A Twitter account claiming to be associated with the Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate action group shared a supposed XR poster that said, “Corona is the cure. Humans are the disease.”

The picture posted by the Twitter account claiming to represent the

XR East Midlands group.

Although the group distanced themselves from this particular account, the since-deleted tweet caused quite a stir online, triggering discussions about the nature of the pandemic and the response to it. At the same time, a surge of tweets and memes have taken over the Internet in the past few months with the theme “The Earth is Healing,” aiming to ridicule the view.

Yet, several online articles and reports claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is “saving lives” as “Earth’s unlikely ally”. An article titled Coronavirus is actually having a really positive impact on the environment claims erroneously that “over 475,000” Olive Ridley sea turtles have arrived on the shores of Odisha to lay their eggs, “[t]hanks to India going into lockdown”. It is not untrue that close to 800,000 female Olive Ridley sea turtles laid eggs on Odisha shores in March. In fact, this was the first time in seven years that day-time nesting was witnessed (these sea turtles usually arrive onshore in the night and leave before dawn). However, according to environmental news website Mongabay, this mass-nesting has no link to the on-going lockdown in response to the pandemic.

The question is, however; is the Earth healing, “thanks to” the pandemic?

Is the pandemic good news for the environment, forests, and wildlife? Is it good for the climate? Let us first see why some people seem to think so.

Take for example all the cases of animals showing up at urban locations. Many of them are misleading, but it is indeed true that there is an increased activity of biodiversities like birds and small animals in cities. It seems commonsensical to think that this is a direct result of reduced human activity. With fewer cars on the road to make noise, animals like snakes may be encouraged to enter the streets, and birds may feel encouraged to come out of their hidden homes in the scattered wooded areas of cities. All of this is a result of the lockdown, which is a result of the pandemic.

To cite another example, NASA satellite imagery has shown that in February 2020, NO2 levels over Wuhan, China did not rise after the yearly drop in January-February that occurs due to the Chinese New Year holidays. China’s carbon emissions also fell by 25%, as analysis highlights. These changes may be attributed to reduced aviation and industrial activity. Without a doubt, it is again a matter of common sense that these two factors have also been caused by the pandemic.

Commonsensical? Sure. But logical? Well…

The trouble is, however, that this sort of thinking is only commonsensical, but not logical enough. Logically speaking, these environmental effects do not have a necessary causal connection to the COVID-19 pandemic; that is, neither is the pandemic the only cause of these observations nor are they a necessary effect of it.

What many people seem to forget is the connecting link – the lockdown. Most of these observations are a result of the lockdown and other precautionary measures, and would not have occurred had not the governments of the world introduced them. In other words, although these seemingly positive observations are a result of the pandemic, they are still an indirect and non-necessary result of it.

The cute baby Olive Ridley sea turtles were always seen in the beaches of India; they are simply more visible now, because of the lockdown. The same goes with peacocks roaming around parts of Mumbai. The carbon emissions may have lowered in China and Italy, but this is temporary.

To portray this pandemic as positive in this sense is not only inaccurate and illogical but also unethical to a large extent. It comes from a privileged stance that views the natural world as something far away from itself and romanticises the notion of wild animals moving away from their usual habitats. Such a view also disregards the reality of the pandemic by portraying it as an “ally” or saving grace.

To those living around forests and those directly affected by the pandemic, however, the reality is quite clearer and crueler.

A Foe, more than a Friend

The pandemic has done and will continue to do more harm than good even to the environment. As rural and forest communities around the world lose their usual sources of income due to the lockdown, they are increasingly turning to poaching. In Cambodia, 1% of the critically endangered Giant Ibis was killed in a single event recently by poachers. Less than 300 individuals of the species remain today. At least six rhinoceroses have been killed in Botswana since the lockdown started in the country. In South Africa too, forest authorities have been responding to poaching reports almost every day. “Just as soon as the lockdown hit South Africa, we started having an incursion almost every single day,” said Nico Jacobs, the founder of Rhino 911, an organisation that offers transportation for rhinos during emergencies. Recently, an Indian rhinoceros was also killed and found with its horn hacked off in Kaziranga National Park, Assam.

The closing down of the tourism industry has also affected wild animals. The Bengal tiger is just one of the animals dependent on tourism in India for its protection. In the absence of tourism activities within forests, it becomes easier for poachers to infiltrate forest areas and lay traps.

Speaking of Indian forests, there has been a surge in forest clearances given for several damaging mining and hydroelectric dam projects throughout the country during the lockdown. The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change also introduced amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification (2006) that regulates the environment clearances given to industrial projects in or near forest areas. These amendments seek to ease the regulations on industries to introduce projects that would affect forests and their biodiversity.

The Draft EIA notification (2020) was released publicly for citizens to view and submit suggestions or objections within 60 days of release, but with citizens under the seemingly endless and rigorous lockdown, and with COVID-19 in the limelight, it was unlikely that citizens, especially those communities directly affected by the amendments, would have been able to respond in time. With pressure from environmentalists and citizen activists, the environment ministry recently extended the notice period. However, activists continue to campaign against the “regressive” attempt to dilute existing environmental regulations.

What about the Climate?

With reduced carbon emissions and lower NO2 levels, has the COVID-19 pandemic helped with climate change? The answer, unfortunately, is NO. Experts argue that the pandemic is bound to do more harm than good for the climate. Although carbon emissions have fallen all over the world during the global lockdowns, it is almost inevitable that governments and industries will “bounce back” to get on track as soon as these lockdowns are lifted. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that the Chinese government will invest heavily in industries to help the economy recover from the pandemic. This was observed even after the 2008-09 global financial crisis, when more carbon emissions were reported in 2009-10 than it would have in the absence of the crisis.

The pandemic will also slow down the renewable energy transition, which is the global effort to opt for renewable energy resources like solar and hydropower rather than fossil fuel technology, as production and installation of these “clean” resources have been paused. Moreover, important events for climate policy and action such as the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) were postponed, delaying potentially effective strategies on mitigating climate change around the world.

You can find out about how the pandemic is bad news for the climate in detail by watching this video:

The pandemic isn’t helping, but…

It seems quite unlikely at this point that the pandemic is helping the environment, animals, or the climate. But is it completely insignificant and redundant in terms of environmental issues? Certainly not. The pandemic has brought to light several systemic problems which directly affect wildlife conservation and climate action. It has forced us to rethink our ways and our response to the climate crisis. It has exposed serious discrepancies between social and ethical values and environmental well-being.

While the pandemic itself does not do much to help the planet, there is another, stronger agent that can. Something – or someone – with a will like no other, the potential to make miracles happen, and the heaviest responsibility to do so. Yes, the tiny voice in your head is absolutely right; it is us – Homo sapiens, human beings, citizens, the people – who can save the planet and its beings, including ourselves. It is our responsibility to heal nature from the damage that we have caused to it. It is our responsibility to learn from our observations during the pandemic to create and maintain a sustainable, environmental-friendly practice.

… living Sustainably can surely help!

Living sustainably is not a walk in the park. The current system forces us in many ways to consume more than we need, increase our dependence on others to sustain ourselves, and view nature and the environment as something not central to our lives, and especially in urban settings. But the lockdown gives the privileged ones among us ample time to contemplate our actions and their consequences on the environment, and how they are bound to harm us in due course of time. It also serves as an opportunity to explore alternatives for our expensive and loud lifestyles and practise some small actions on a daily basis.

On asking several environmentally-conscious people from different areas of the country and of different ages to suggest ways for people interested in sustainable living to begin their journey, one common conclusion is reached – having small goals in mind is the key. With time, one may strive to aim higher and explore more impactful (but also difficult) ways to be environmentally sustainable.

Some of the small goals that one can set for oneself when exploring sustainable choices have been listed below:

1. Be Environmentally Aware

Change always begins with awareness. The first step to begin your journey to sustainable living is to find out exactly why you must do so. It is great to be motivated to make this transition upon hearing something from your friends, family, or other people, but it is even better to motivate yourself by reading and researching on your own about environmental issues around the world. This will lead you to be passionate about what you are doing, and thus, you will be more likely to be successful at it.

Moreover, being environmentally aware is a constant process of learning and unlearning; it requires updating your own beliefs with the help of facts, scientific evidence, and systemic factors. “Accept the reality”, says Hrithik Uppala, an active member of the climate action group Fridays For Future (India), “no magic can stop the changing climate”. According to him, it can only be dealt with by accepting science and logic.

Environmental awareness also intersects with social awareness. It is useful and important to learn about how the effects of the environmental crisis disproportionately impact different sections of society. Being environmentally aware also presupposes a strong sense of empathy – not only for other human beings but also for non-human animals and nature as a whole.

To begin with, you may refer to YouTube videos and follow popular environmental groups (like Fridays For Future India) on social media to update yourself on current environmental issues. For those who enjoy reading, environmental news websites like Mongabay and Sanctuary Nature Foundation are reliable sources of important information. Environment and wildlife themed cartoons from Green Humour and Wildscapes can come in handy to introduce kids to environmental issues.

2. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and REFUSE

Most of us have heard of the “Three R’s” of sustainability – reduce, reuse, recycle. Many of us have even been asked to write essays and deliver speeches based on these three words. But how many of us have contemplated deeply about what they really constitute? And how many of us practice it?

For most of us, our daily life is filled with examples of unnecessary consumption of resources, food, and other things. As one of the eco-conscious respondents rightly points out, “we do not realise how much water we waste while we’re dancing and introspecting about life under a shower”. Speaking of water, for example, the average shower-head in India releases around 35 litres of water for a 10-minute shower. Switching to good old bucket baths is the way to go!

Respondents also recommend reducing dependence on electricity through maximum usage of natural light. Dr. Oshin Behl, a vegan activist based in Mumbai, recommends limiting use of the air conditioner in the summer by placing wet cloths over the window, which acts as a natural coolant.

If there is one thing the lockdown enables us to “practise” thoroughly, it is reducing food consumption. With supplies in most neighbourhoods at a low, people are having to make do with the available options. They are having home-cooked food daily, as opposed to excess of packaged food items or food from takeaways and restaurants. The aim for the sustainability-fresher must be to, to put it quite simply, get used to it! Having home-cooked food automatically reduces packaged food consumption, which in turn reduces the consumption of plastic.

The plastic that is accumulated can also be reused in innovative ways. Vegan and eco-conscious student Jyoti Chauhan recommends growing plants in plastic cans and bottles and “whatever scrap you can find”! Old clothes can be reused, recycled, or donated (find out how what you wear affects the environment).

Finally, an important “R” that is often ignored by many is to “refuse”. Being environmentally conscious implies refusing to consume or engage with products and actions that degrade the environment directly or indirectly. Retired veterinarian and ornithologist Dr. K. Sudhir Reddy says, “The key to a sustainable lifestyle is to be holistic first and minimalistic next without giving into modern consumerism in a global market economy.”

All our actions must be filtered through the four golden “R-words”, and we shall find ourselves on the right path towards being friends of the environment.

3. Switch to Long-lasting Products

Reducing, reusing, and recycling are neither easy nor instantly achievable. However, there is a trick to making it so, at least a little bit. What prevents us from reducing consumption of packaged foods and reusing old clothes is their lack of durability. Food items come with fancy and elaborate packaging but minimal amount of contents (read: Lays packets). Most of our clothes are a product of fast fashion, which are made to become unusable quickly. The simplest solution to this is to switch to long-lasting products – buying food items in bulk rather than in a series of small plastic packets (aren’t we already on it during the lockdown?) and buying slow fashion clothes, which are made to last longer and are often made sustainably.

One respondent recommends using cloth bags for as many purposes as possible. Another example is to use bottles, straws, and cutlery made of steel, and to carry them with you wherever you go so that you can easily refuse the plastic alternatives. People using sanitary napkins (FYI: most of the popular ones are non-biodegradable) may switch to more long-lasting options like menstrual cups. What all this basically means is just this: there are plenty of sustainable options out there; you just have to choose wisely.

4. Learn to be Self-sustainable

Many of our actions that harm the planet actually arise from our dependence on external agents for our survival. We buy packaged food items because we feel like we cannot make them ourselves. With people learning to cook and bake at home during the lockdown, I am hopeful of a change in attitudes. Having home-cooked food may seem like too simple a task to be of any great use, but it does go a long way in the long run.

Even in the case of fruits and vegetables, there is a way to be more environment-friendly than you think (market-bought fruits and vegetables also have an ecological impact caused by irrigation, the use of pesticides, and the transportation required to get them to you). Student and wildlife photographer Dhruvam Desai recommends growing vegetables yourself, such as spinach, tomatoes, brinjal, and chillies. Growing these in your garden or balcony is, according to him, the “best way to start reducing cost and eating local!” (Refer to this article to kick off your home-gardening journey). And how exactly do you help your plants grow? By making your own compost using biodegradable waste that is produced in your household.

Simply thinking about all these things might make you dizzy (it does that to me, at least); there are just too many unnecessary things we are dependent on for survival! Similarly, we are dependent on automobiles for transport, forgetting our very own, unique biological mechanism for transportation. Considering that vehicular emissions constitute a major part of people’s carbon footprints, regularly walking to the local grocery store or nearby locations, or ditching private transport completely, would drastically reduce their contribution to air pollution and fossil fuel consumption. Reduce your ecological footprint on foot! (Speaking of ecological footprints, get yours calculated to work on what changes you need to make to reduce it).

5. What’s on your Plate? Be Mindful!

The impact of the food industry on the environment is unfortunately underestimated by most people. The food and agriculture industries globally produce 26% of anthropogenic (human-induced) greenhouse gas emissions, and almost two-thirds of that is linked to animal products. This may come off as a hard truth for many of us, but animal agriculture unsustainably consumes natural resources, causes widespread deforestation, affects freshwater quality, and produces a large amount of animal waste. Scientists from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations argue that animal agriculture is “by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land”.

As of 2011, India had the largest “national herd” of cattle and buffalo in the world and was among the top five egg and chicken meat producers in the world. How exactly is this harmful to the environment? While the ethical considerations of animals being ruthlessly butchered, confined to tiny cages, forcefully bred, and separated from their mothers are widely known (and often ignored), the environmental consequences of the entire industry are not spoken of as much.

While people in every corner of the world suffer from severe malnutrition and hunger, almost 50% of the grains produced worldwide are fed to livestock. The Water Footprint Network estimates that the production of one kilogram of wheat in India takes about 2,100 litres of water. One kilogram of pig meat takes over twice the amount: 5,218 litres. And one kilogram of chicken meat? 8,367 litres of water – around the same amount of water the average urban Indian householder consumes in two months!

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the perils of animal agriculture and wet markets.

The macchi on your plate does not have any fewer consequences – fishing, and especially mass fishing, severely impacts marine and freshwater ecosystems. It also contributes to water pollution and habitat degradation. Researchers have claimed that if the fishing industry is not made sustainable soon, seafood may completely disappear by 2048.

Those of you who are vegetarians may have drastically lower ecological footprints than meat-eaters, but vegetarianism alone, unfortunately, does not solve the problem. Ethical complications and the environmental impact of the dairy industry are overlooked by the majority of Indian vegetarians. The maintenance of dairy farms is heavily dependent on water resources, and directly or indirectly leads to water pollution. Dairy farms also produce a copious amount of waste – most of which is poorly handled.

And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Animal agriculture and consumption have adverse ethical, environmental, and social effects. If these facts alarm you, and more importantly, motivate you to change your habits, exploring a vegan diet (and lifestyle) would be the best ideal to aim for.

And trust me; it is not as difficult as it seems. Jyoti Chauhan, who was mentioned earlier in the article, says, “I have been a vegan for more than a year now and that has somewhat helped me reduce my carbon footprint to some extent. For example, I make coconut milk at home using dry coconut. The coconut which is left after filtering the milk can be added to oats or any plant-based milk kheer. That's quite sustainable, because there's no waste being generated.”

Vegan Mango Shake (left) and Coconut Milk Thai Iced Coffee

Images by Jyoti Chauhan

6. More about Food: Buy Food Seasonally and Locally

A vegan diet is not extremely easy to master, and neither is it practical for some people. The ethics of veganism is definitely not straightforward. However, knowing the facts – that is, knowing the effects of the food industry on the environment – the determined ones among you will surely feel encouraged to change.

The smaller steps that one could take before transitioning to a vegan lifestyle would include consuming food according to the season and buying food products locally. For example, catching a certain species of fish during its breeding season may have huge consequences on its populations. Know Your Fish is an initiative by wildlife scientists that releases monthly calendars with recommendations of fish species to buy according to their breeding and migratory seasons. Now you know where to go before having your next fish curry!

Even in the case of fruits and vegetables, the most sustainable option is to wait for their natural ripening seasons in order to discourage unseasonal ripening techniques. Moreover, it is also important to buy locally, which will reduce emissions from transportation, and discourage farming of non-native plant species. Many of us are already being forced to do this now, with the restrictions placed on transport during the lockdown. All we have to do is continue doing so! As our respondent Dr. P. Badami rightly says, “Stop trying exotic foods with fancy claims – they are an ecological burden to source!” If avocadoes are your new obsession, maybe this is the right time to rethink!

7. Connect with Nature

Image by Nayantara Siruguri

Nothing acts as a greater motivator for me to explore sustainable options than my love for nature and the wild. When one spends time amid the natural world, one develops a feeling of belonging to it. And when one feels belonging, one begins to care.

The unfortunate truth about our relationship with our planet is that most of us simply don’t care. And the biggest cause for this is our increasing separation from the natural world – not biologically, but personally. Not enough people care to learn about animals and other beings farther than Discovery Channel and zoos. And when not enough people care to know, they do not realise that our planet is, in fact, shared. As Aldo Leopold, the American author, environmentalist, and founder of eco-centric philosophy has said, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

So, during the lockdown, spend an hour or two at least in your balcony or looking outside your window. Observe the world around you, now with less human activity, and think about what you see. There are many more bird species than crows, pigeons, and mynas in our neighbourhoods; try to find out which (and exercise your photography skills on them)! Watch the dogs play, the bees fly around, and even the bats in the evening! If you’re a little more adventurous than me, look for crazy-looking insects inside your own house and try to identify them with the help of Google.

After the lockdown, you can further your new-found interests by attending nature trails, trying wildlife photography or even joining online courses to learn more about the natural wonders of the world. You can grow your own butterfly garden in your balcony or backyard, install bird feeders at your window; there are just so many delightful things you can do. With time, living sustainably for you will become not only a means to save yourself but also an impassioned choice to save the entire planet and its beings.

8. Be Active! Participate in Environmental Activism

Image by Markus Spiske

After you have done your research, made personal changes, and fallen head-over-heels in love with nature, your responsibility does not end there. Sustainability is not only something that you and I must individually aim for; it is a crucial goal that governments and entire systems must act towards. Sadly, environmental issues do not appear in the priority lists of most governments around the world. Without adequate environmental safeguards in place, the land and biodiversity of any country will be at great risk, and this will further exacerbate the effects of climate change on the entire world. Social and economic systems that put industry before ecology also threaten the well-being of natural ecosystems. Additional resistance to change is created by climate-change deniers, greedy industrialists, and the like.

The single solution to all of these challenges is environmental activism. This includes participating in rallies, events, and strikes dedicated to climate action. Fridays For Future (India) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) India (among other groups) regularly organise demonstrations and events to raise awareness about and gather support for climate action. During the lockdown, these groups are continuing their demonstrations online, in which even you can participate.

But there is much more than this to environmental activism. It also includes campaigning for environmental policy change and against ecologically destructive endeavours. For example, conservation scientists and activists are currently campaigning against a proposed hydro-electric project in the Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh, which will prove disastrous for not only the rich forests and biodiversity of the region, but also the communities living in the area (click here to learn more).

Finally, environmental activism equally comprises talking to people about the things you learn. Simply sharing the important information, news, and scientific knowledge that you acquire with your friends, family, and others would go a long way in mobilising support for climate action and sustainable living.

I am hoping that by the time you have reached this part, you have already gotten up and switched off that one unnecessary electrical appliance. If not, that’s okay too; maybe you’re already better than many others at living sustainably, or it just did not occur to you. Getting out of habits that we have learnt over the years is difficult and requires practise and perseverance. But like I said, once you learn enough about why you need to do what you need to do, you will acquire an unwavering passion that will make all of these things much easier than you would have thought.

When asked for her message to those beginning to explore sustainable lifestyles, veterinary science student Smriti Lal says, “It gets a little expensive and inconvenient at times. But at the end of the day, you go to bed with a clean conscience and a positive feeling of having made a difference, small as it may be. And that makes it all worth it.” Living a clean and eco-friendly lifestyle not only keeps you physically healthy, but it also constantly rewards you with the feeling of mental peace and alacrity. So turn your apprehension, guilt, anxiety, or whatever is it that you feel into an undying enthusiasm to help heal your planet. And soon enough, you never know, maybe we will see peacocks in Mumbai, dolphins in Venice, and of course, dinosaurs in Bhopal.

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