The Coronavirus has affected us all: Giuseppe, grew up in Bergamo near Milan, where he also spent a long stretch of his career. Bergamo, a beautiful historic town in Lombardy, home of good espresso, wine and beautiful nature (see pictures), has been ravaged by the Corona epidemic: old and vulnerable people are severely ill or dying, often alone, in hospitals and their homes. Elke was supposed to spend her sabbatical in Catalunya – another region in Europe that has been submerged in the pandemic. She has family there and is worried, not in the least because she recently spent two weeks at the hospital with her daughter who was treated with oxygen for viral pneumonia. The thought of her child no longer getting required medical treatment because of a flooded healthcare system is alarming. Gaby and her husband contracted the virus and were among the first confirmed cases in the UK. They both had very mild symptoms, recovered quickly and are now participating in the antibody test trials. The stories from our own students are also similar, many of them have lost jobs, been forced to return to their home countries and are now facing much uncertainty along with their families as lockdown measures are affecting more than a third of the world population. Many other colleagues and their loved ones are experiencing unprecedented suffering and losses right now.
We grieve with those who are affected: This is a deep sadness. Yet this is also a sadness that many others have known for a long time with the climate catastrophe, especially in poorer countries. This may also be a sadness that our children and grandchildren inherit. There is no consolation in the fact that Coronavirus is striking the regions which are the worst climate offenders (like in Lombardy, Wuhan, New York and London). It provides similarly little comfort that countries will only reach their Paris climate targets because their economies have come to a standstill and most industrial activity has ceased along with air and road traffic. Neither that, all of a sudden, what seemed to be impossible just one month ago (widespread digital conferencing, clean water in Venetian canals, clear skies, dolphins returning to the mediterranean coast) has now magically appeared. These outcomes could be reached easily without so much suffering. Nevertheless we feel compelled to offer our reflections on what we are experiencing. We feel this as a moral duty.
What we may want to retain of this experience
We are seeing the devastating economic and social impacts of a prolonged lockdown. This is often accompanied by many public stories of individuals hoarding, skirting confinement and acting out of their own self-interest at the expense of the more vulnerable members of our society. Yet it is incredible to observe how people adjust – rapidly – in the face of an immediate crisis. It has always been the tragedy of the climate crisis that it has not been “immediate enough” for many industrialized countries to fall into what in pandemic language is called “containment” and “mitigation” mode (despite the latter term being standard in climate policy). It was previously inconceivable that people could stop spending their holidays in faraway places or that many work trips could be replaced by video calls without causing a loss of quality of life and relationships. Many people have, for instance, (re)discovered the joy of nature walks as a main source of recreation. It’s remarkable how quickly those professions that are able to work remotely have been able to shift operations online.
This is not to say that no more holiday trips to other countries should be taken or that work meetings and conferences should never take place. The pandemic simply puts into perspective how travel, despite being easy, is many times unnecessary. It can be reduced without disrupting most people’s lives. Of course, industries such as the airline industry and the tourism industry will suffer severely. Without wanting to downplay the problems of many people and businesses suffering from this radical disruption in any way, what we do want to retain is the strong sense of having the power and capacity to act: to change things if it’s urgently needed. And as soon as we learn how to deal with the COVID-19 emergency, we must use the momentum to deal with the neglected emergency of the climate crisis, to avoid falling back into the same old deadly habits.
That’s why we list below what we learned from this quarantine.
We learned to let go
- Prioritizing work and productivity over family and health
- Material “needs” beyond food and shelter
- Unnecessary conference or work-related travel
- 24/7 “always on” culture
- Weekend trips to distant locations
- Food with a high carbon footprint
We learned the need to recover skills, knowledge and values from distant pasts
- Living close to extended family and friends and attending to our neighbors
- The places where we need to be independent (e.g. in food production and basic needs) and where we need interdependence (solidarity, collaboration regarding scientific knowledge and certain materials needed, e.g., for high-tech medical equipment)
- To appreciate materials that we would usually discard.
- Cooking skills and using a variety of local traditional plants to foster biodiversity
- Simplicity in life
- Revaluing the work of the so-called “unskilled workers’ (e.g., cleaners, shelf stackers, rubbish collectors, bus drivers and supermarket cashiers)
We learned the value of what we had taken for granted and want to have back from pre-Corona time
- The informal and spontaneous exchange of in-person interactions, compared to the very structured and focused online ones
- Socializing, warmth and openness – seeing others as friends and not as potential carriers of a deadly virus
- Moving and exploring (by foot, bike, train or other means)
- Carelessness and spontaneity – not obsessing about washing hands and everything we touch
- The touch, smell and presence of others
- Art – music, museums, cinema,… and socializing, going for dinners,…
- Heated face to face discussion at conferences with folks from all places
- Outdoor activities and interacting with nature
Famously, Greta Thunberg addressed business leaders in Davos at the World Economic Forum with the words: “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic”. At this point, we do not need more panic, but hope and solidarity. We’ve seen how quickly countries have mobilized to, for instance, develop vaccines and treatments, build healthcare facilities and spend trillions to support the economically disadvantaged. Yet Greta offers a point which is equally pertinent: “I want you to act as you would in a crisis, I want you to act as if the house was on fire”. We should not forget that once this particular crisis passes, the house will still be on fire. We should be prepared to put that one out with the same urgency as the Coronavirus.