Schools closed, marketplaces gone quiet, streets devoid of the usual traffic. An uneasy calm prevails. That calm is occasionally broken by an ambulance siren raising a heartbeat or two. People nervously peep through their windows and get back to the mundane stuff, once the siren fades away.
This is the impact of COVID-19. Story of an insidious virus gone viral! Forcing humanity in abject submission, leaving a trail of devastation as it spread and tested our preparedness.
We have not seen anything like this before. Totally unprecedented. The scale of this crisis and its impact on our psyche. Anxiety and insecurity are as pronounced as its impact on the global economy. It exposed our frailties. It is paradoxical. We are locked inside when the air is at its cleanest, and must don masks as we step out.
We need to rebuild ecosystem to create healthier societies. It is an absolute must if we want to live in and leave a better planet for future generations
With nearly half of the world under lockdown, humans never looked more vulnerable. The tiny virus shook the mightiest on this earth and spared none. From ministers to celebrities. It makes no distinctions, as it engulfs the weakest and the mightiest with equal propensity.
Live animal markets, where illegal wildlife is sold, in contravention of international conventions and inadequate animal care have been the source of such infections, from SARS to COVID-19. The virus has infected over 4.3 million people and caused nearly 300,000 fatalities.
Fight the pandemic
Governments are doing their best to fight the pandemic. The strategies have been as varied as the diversity on this planet. Measures to test and contain, outlined by WHO has worked well in countries who took swift actions. UAE’s response to the crisis has been reassuring.
From closing schools early on to establishing drive through centers and field hospitals. Less than 1% fatality and aggressive testing, among the highest in the world is comforting.
The pandemic sent the stock markets in a tailspin and stuttered even the best performing economies. With travel and transport in a logjam, humanity under lockdown, the planet was paused! This health crisis, with enormous economic and social implications, has ecological underpinnings.
Environment has been the biggest beneficiary from the pandemic. The air is cleaner; rivers and oceans less polluted and the noise pollution is low.
Emission levels dropped between 20-50% worldwide. Not surprising, as the transport sector alone accounts for nearly 23% of global carbon emissions. Nitrogen oxide levels in Abu Dhabi also showed a 50% reduction.
Empty neighbourhoods are allowing animals to explore. We are seeing and hearing more birds. They are enjoying their newfound spaces and filling empty niches, albeit temporarily.
Finding more territories and making better mate choices. Animal sightings around the world have also increased. Restrictions and closures of nature reserves are encouraging animals to breed earlier than before.
Flamingos in Abu Dhabi started breeding earlier than expected. Stunning visuals of flamingos flocking at the NRI lake in Mumbai caught everyone’s attention.
The biggest disrupter
The COVID-19 has indeed been the biggest disrupter. However, this pandemic has taught us that we can manage with less!
Changes in our consumption patterns and individual behaviours can have profound impact on local and global climate. We must make those choices to live sustainably and prudently.
It has created more work life balance and strengthened family bonds. We are connecting more with our friends and families. We possibly are reading more, as I am, a habit that we seem to be forgetting.
Pandemic has taught us to protect species and their habitats, rather than poach and encroach upon them. The illegal wildlife trade, estimated at $15-20 billion, brings diseases closer to humans. This should be disrupted, and live wildlife markets be closed.
World Economic Forum ranks biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse among top five risks. Disruptive forces, such as infectious diseases or climate change emanating from them would continue to test our resilience. Fighting such forces, which transcend national borders, needs bolder actions.
We are certain this recess would end, and we would return to normal. Yet we are uncertain, if wearing mask and social distancing would be the new normal, until a vaccine is developed.
It is possible that the strains of this virus would circulate, like the seasonal flu. Returning every season, to strain our immune as well as our health care systems.
Amid these uncertainties and chaos, the pandemic has offered an opportunity. Opportunity to make a paradigm shift and shrug off the environmental inertia.
We need to rebuild ecosystem to create healthier societies. It is an absolute must if we want to live in and leave a better planet for future generations.
Whether we would learn from this recess provided by the pandemic or simply resume from where we left. Only time will tell!
Dr. Salim Javed is the Acting Director — Terrestrial Biodiversity, Terrestrial & Marine Biodiversity at Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD)