It’s been 14 months since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Hitherto, the ride’s been an abject one. There were moments when the virus threatened to take us back to the Middle Ages and, even today, we’re not in the clear.
As of writing this article, there have been 3.2 million deaths across the world (and that’s just the official numbers). What we do know is that this horror will pass because humankind, for its many faults, is also resilient.
One day, when we look back at the pandemic, we’ll search for silver linings.
Will we find any? Perhaps we will. Especially during lockdowns, the environment seemed to become freer and stronger. The triumph is Pyrrhic but that’s all right, we’ll hold on to everything we get in these dark times.
Lockdown effects on wildlife
As mankind reeled under one of the most devastating health crises in modern history, trapped indoors and unsure about the demons outside, wildlife came out to play.
For example, conservationists observing wildlife in Chile were in for pleasant surprises. Rare wild cats and otters were detected in urban areas where they would not be normally seen.
In many parts of the world, the endangered sea turtle freely hatched in beaches, away from the noise and hustle of human presence.
In America, the percentage of animal roadkill significantly reduced. As per research, the states of California and Maine saw a drop-off of 21 and 44 percent, respectively, in roadkills involving large mammals. Similar stats across the country would see 200 million small and large creatures survive annually!
Also, animals seemed to enjoy the new-found freedom.
In Trentino, Italy, deer and other critters roamed in the open in broad daylight. In Lopburi, Thailand, a troop of crab-eating macaques stormed the streets looking for food. Kashmiri goats casually walked the roads of Llandudno, Wales. And in Santiago, Chile, a puma strolled through a neighborhood, unafraid and unbothered.
The environment also must have breathed a huge and healthy sigh of relief.
Lockdown effects on the natural environment
Without road vehicles and particularly with the restrictions on airplanes that are responsible for seven percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, the air became cleaner. You cannot overstate this brief respite to the human lungs. Air pollution is responsible for more than seven million deaths every year. It reduces life expectancy by about three years, especially in underdeveloped and developing regions of the world.
One such place is South Asia, which is infamous for its industrial smoke and lack of air quality. Even here, the consequences were drastic. For instance, 88 Indian cities noticed a significant reduction in air pollutants; in some places, the changes were evident four days into the lockdown.
In neighboring Nepal, people were able to see Mount Everest clearly, for the first time in decades.
The gleaming snow offered more than just aesthetics for those living in the Indus Basin, where about 300 million depend on ice melt for drinking water.
Concentrations of industrial soot and other similar particles on snow decreased by 30 percent last year compared with the two-decade average. These particles reduce the snow’s ability to reflect sunlight, trap energy and cause the snow to melt quicker. And that is not a good thing. Clearer snow means slower runoffs that do not fill reservoirs too early, ensuring a steady flow of water throughout the year.
Non-potable waters too enjoyed the benefits of the lack of human activity.
With industries shut down, the quality of water bodies was always going to improve, free from the dangerous chemicals and microplastics that are a bane for aquatic life.
But those water bodies not in the line of industrial fire also showed positive changes.
A month into the pandemic, the murky waters in the canals of Venice turned clearer, without the boats disturbing them, as the sediments settled on the bottom. There were sightings of fish and plant-life that had never been seen before.
Also, parts of the Indian holy river, Ganges, one of the most polluted in the world, showed signs of improvement.
Alas, the utopia was always going to be short-lived for the fauna and the homes they inhabit. We are good with developing vaccines and the economy cannot stall.
So what now?
It’s not possible or at least ethical to create another virus in a lab just to give the environment a breather once in a while.
The lockdown showed us that good things can happen if we cut down on our extravagance and bad choices. What’s required are steps that any green living enthusiast worth their salt knows like the alphabet and have been clamoring for ages. For one, we have to seriously ponder putting fossil fuels in the burner (pun intended). That means giving renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind a proper shot.
How about cutting down on the beef market? We would not only be saving rainforests but by preserving our grasslands we are preserving the home of bees and other pollinators that are so important to the eco-system. Plus, we’ll also be reducing the amount of methane and other greenhouse gases cattle produce.
The sooner we address these and other issues, the better. Or else the day is not far when we are trapped and staring through the prison bars of our own making.