Things We Could Have Learned from the Pandemic

August 27, 2020
Agustin Martin G. Rodriguez


This pandemic of 2020 is truly one of the most catastrophic events of the 21st century, at least in terms of its effects on the global world order. For the first half of this year, we were witness to the shutting down of most of the world’s major economies and the temporary end of life as we know it. Though its devastation does not equal that of the two World Wars, particularly as it has kept physical infrastructure intact, this pandemic is a genuine disaster in terms of lives and incomes lost, grief, and the long-term damage inflicted upon small and medium-sized businesses. Disaster in the old sense meant the displacement of a star and the consequent havoc that it brings to the known world.

However, as we were all locked down in our own sheltering spaces, some of us who were lucky enough to be able to do so noticed some subtle changes in the world. The first was silence. The world grew silent and still, and things slowed down. People, for a while, appreciated the opportunity to do things that were suddenly allowed by the shock of the lockdown, such as to sit in the silence with themselves, engage in purposeless activity, and look at things for a bit. And then some of us heard birdsong, and we wondered if there was always birdsong and we just did not notice it before. But then, bit by bit, we noticed the sky being clear, clean, and bright, and realized that the birds were coming out because we were not. Those of us who could look outside began to see mountains and their horizons deepened and widened because we let the earth rest from our frantic moving about. The pandemic had forced us city dwellers to live in a way that allowed nature to be without our destructive interference for a while. This was so because we were forced to give up many of our defining activities, such as eating out, buying coffee, foraging in malls, and meeting up with friends to engage in novel adventures of consumption. Such seemingly necessary activities were, all of a sudden, not so necessary after all, and their cost became evident when the skies cleared and the birds sang.

Various studies were made and our intuitions were confirmed—carbon in the atmosphere was reduced by as much as 17% in April compared to the same month last year (Le Quéré et al., 2020). And for a moment of time, the skies cleared, and for those of us who could see, we were shown how they would look like if we cut our emissions to a level such that the world would not tip too deeply into catastrophe. Sadly, however, that moment did not last—when in June countries began lifting the restrictions that kept people in their dwellings, the carbon we spewed went up to only less than 5% compared to the same period in 2019 (Newburger, 2020). And that was when the restrictions were only partially lifted.

The world was forced to live in a simpler way under the shadow of the pandemic. It drove city folk crazy to have to stay still without the usual distractions. More than that, however, it caused immense suffering when many points of the economic web began to weaken and fail, when the interconnected system loosened and threatened to break apart. The informal economy that supported the poorest of the poor immediately disappeared. Small and medium-sized entrepreneurs who supported millions of formal economy workers as well as farmers and suppliers who had hopes of creating better lives collapsed. The economic web of life that supported us threatened to cave in on itself.
The lifestyle we had to adopt because of this pandemic should have modeled for us the kind of life that we were supposed to adopt to address the worsening crisis of global warming and achieve, perhaps, some level of sustainability. What it seemed to show us instead is that if we live the kind of life we need to live to avert, at the very least, the worst of our anthropogenic global disaster, our economies will collapse. Seeing this, then, how did we as a globalized, Westernized humanity respond? We could not wait to get back to our old lives, and our governments focused resources on the revitalization of our economies, a revitalization that means ramping up production and consumption systems to bring us back to the way things were before.

For a brief moment, people got a glimpse into a life that many of them never had a chance to experience. Purposeless activity, empty hours, unhurried sleep, and clear skies were suddenly available to us, and for a while we welcomed it as a remembrance of a better life we never had. Soon enough, however, we were impatient to get back to work, to business, to busyness, to consuming things and experiences, and to spending so that the world would go round again.

Soon enough, the world will go round again, and our economies will recover with a vengeance. Indeed, some think tanks are predicting that the stimulus that governments are giving to traditional industries to save their economies will stimulate even more unsustainable and destructive practices. Soon enough, we will be crowding the world again with our restless consumption—as we must. But do we even realize the chance we missed? Humanity was given a chance to rethink its development and growth models and yet all we did was pause and enjoy the enforced vacation without thinking that the forced vacation might be the real life we could aspire for.

Now that we have been given a taste of that life, perhaps we can develop a feel for it and understand how it is possible to live a more environmentally sustainable and humanly sustaining normal. Of course, people may ask, “Why would we even want to live that way?” We could throw the question back: “Why do you want to go back to the old normal with all the running about that destroyed things without the chance to discover the world and the people around you?”

This will not be the last global lockdown because of the way we live. We will create other pandemics and other disasters. We should have at least learned something important from the first.

Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R. B., Jones, M. W., Smith, A. J. P., Abernethy, S., Andrew, R. M., De-Gol, A. J., Willis, D. R., Shan, Y., Canadell, J. G., Friedlingstein, P., Creutzig, F., & Peters, G. P. (2020). Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change, 10, 647–653. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x

Newburger, E. (2020, June 18). Carbon emissions sharply rebound as countries lift coronavirus restrictions. CNBC.

The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.