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Is COVID-19 good for the environment? Is nature really healing?

These are questions I’ve been asked often during the enhanced community quarantine. It’s easy to see why it looks like nature is “healing” and has set a “reset button." Skylines in megacities like New York are clearer. Air pollution in some parts of NCR has dropped by up to 71%. There are photos of wildlife returning to places they would normally not be in. (Some, by the way, turned out to be fake news. Mga sira ulo. Pati hayop dinamay sa fake news.) All the restrictions on human activity, from local commutes to international flights to industries, have led to a drop in fossil fuel demand, which has led to a drop in oil prices and global carbon emissions. 

Now, I hate sounding like the annoying granola environmentalist who insists that everything is connected to the environment but... COVID-19 REALLY IS CONNECTED TO THE ENVIRONMENT. According to the Center for Disease Control, three out of the four 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from wild or farmed animals (called zoonotic diseases). Dengue, malaria, Zika, HIV - all. from. animals. On the same vein, the world has lost 60% of wildlife over the last 40 years, while the number of new infectious diseases has quadrupled in the last 60 years. 

Coincidence? I think not. Just bad luck? No way. The more we destroy and creep into our fragile ecosystems, the higher our risk is for contracting more zoonotic diseases simply because we’re closer to the source. Though the origin of COVID-19 hasn’t been 100% confirmed, there are genetic tests of the virus linking it to bats. The intelligent guess is that the virus came from a bat that was sold in a live animal market in China and consumed by a human a.k.a. Patient 0 a.k.a. s/he who fucked up the world. It spread quickly due to international air travel, and spread quickest in densely populated areas. Cramming more than 10 million people in a city is related to poor urban planning and an imbalance in resource allocation.

This health crisis has led to a waste crisis. With millions in hospitals, there’s been a spike in medical and bio-hazardous wastes. America alone estimated the use of as many as 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves, and 1.6 million goggles per month. Here in the Philippines, there are 11,162 hazardous waste generators, but only seven poison control centers, 108 DENR-recognized hazardous waste treatment facilities, and 265 DENR-accredited hazardous waste transporters. There’s also been an increase in single-use plastics due to relief goods (often consisting of bottled water and plastic-packaged food in plastic bags), takeout containers from dining establishments (I ordered from Yushoken this week!), and e-commerce packaging (my Lazada order arrived this morning). The end is nowhere near - the New Normal Bill, filed in Congress a few weeks ago, encourages continued take-out services and mandates disposable menus for up to three years. Recycling and municipal waste services have also been limited by the lockdowns. 

Some of these wastes are necessary. Medical waste is especially unavoidable. But for other single-use items, we need to innovate and, um, pivot (are you sick of that word too?). Or we risk undoing the hard work of so many scientists, advocates, and legislators to reduce plastic pollution. This worries me.

There are other unseen, less obvious environmental impacts of COVID-19. Early in the lockdown, my longtime "work boyfriend” from Cebu messaged me to say that illegal fishing incidences were increasing. No Bantay Dagat members patrolling, no income for many of the daily wage earners, and mounting pressure to find sources of food and income have set the stage. This is not unique to the Philippines — environmental organizations and agencies worldwide have reported higher incidences of poaching, illegal fishing/mining/logging, and animal trafficking.

Like many of our partners and friends, we can’t mobilize, hold events, and conduct fieldwork that are vital to achieving our vision. We try to find ways to do our jobs from home, which is getting harder due to budget cuts. COVID-19 has evaporated or diverted development funding sources and stifled socio-civic movements. A lot of NGOs, including Save Philippine Seas, rely on corporate partnerships, fundraising events/activities, and donors. Most corporations have lost huge profits, fundraising events/activities are not going to happen for ????, and increasing unemployment rates means little to no disposable income. Even if you continue to earn, donating to causes wouldn’t be a priority — and donating to a non-COVID-19 cause even less so. Just in the last two months, we’ve already lost about PhP4 million in funding, and we're just one small non-profit org in an ocean of non-profit orgs. Oxfam has already announced that they'll be letting go of 1,450 employees and withdrawing operations in 18 countries. Other NGOs are also laying off employees, but are not sharing it publicly. And while I understand this period of retrenchment, it still sucks. It really sucks.

So no, COVID-19 isn’t good for the environment, and nature isn’t really healing. Maybe we'll even be worse off? I don't know. Knowing what we do know, we need to act on other pressing questions. What changes do we need to make to maintain low air pollution? How do we resuscitate the economy without depleting our natural resources? How do we “develop” without harming wildlife and ecosystems? How do we pursue a truly inclusive, sustainable, and green economy? What does "green recovery" look like in practice and not just on paper?

I’m convinced that we’ve long known the answers — we just didn't have the political will, humility, and commitment to behavior change. This shitshow we've found ourselves in could be an opportunity to change our story, if we wanted it to. Except this time, we can’t ask if it’s possible -- we need to ask and answer what it would take to make the change possible then do it.


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