Since the arrival of COVID-19, many cities are reporting cleaner air and less pollution. Are these real, long-term benefits? The truth is a bit more complicated. To ensure that we recover from COVID-19 in a healthy way for us the planet, we have a lot of work to do!
Is the environment really benefitting?
The idea that nature has been flourishing since humans retreated to their homes due to COVID-19 can be found all over the internet. Some are jokes (the humorous “nature is healing” and “we are the virus” memes are indeed hilarious), but many of the allegations that have been made in earnest have been debunked (there are no dolphins in the Venice canals, for example). Plus, when it comes to the environment, there are many other measures to consider.
Worldwide, including in Canada, air quality has improved as fewer cars have been on the roads, air travel has plummeted, industry has slowed, and people have been staying at home. On the bright side, a decrease in air pollution means health benefits, such as fewer asthma attacks and heart attacks, and may even decrease complications of COVID-19. However, it’s important to note that these decreases are temporary, as they’re linked to temporary measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The sad truth is that we’re creating all sorts of new plastic waste these days. Between stores and cafes not accepting customers’ reusables (such as cloth bags or travel mugs) and the increase in waste such as gloves, masks, and disinfecting wipes, waste is on the rise. Although medical supplies are necessary, we need to ensure that they’re disposed of safely and in a way that won’t harm the environment.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to examine governmental policies put in place (or removed) during this time. Disasters such as coronavirus can prompt governments to enact regulatory rollbacks and corporate bailouts—a phenomenon that Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”
Here in Canada, critics are pointing to Alberta, for example, and its “emergency” measures that amount to deregulation of the oilsands, as well as a controversial new bill protecting “critical infrastructure” from blockades and protests. Ontario has also suspended environmental protection oversight rules, citing COVID-19.
In the US, Trump has been criticized for deregulating environmental measures, also citing COVID-19. And China’s fossil fuel-powered COVID-19 economic recovery plan may be putting its 2020 climate pledges at risk.
What can we do?
Thankfully, there’s a lot we can do to ensure that we recover from this pandemic in a way that benefits everyone.
Model, actor, and activist Lindura and family physician Toni Sappong are the sisters behind the educational and social justice platform Plasticfree Toronto (; <instagram.com/plasticfreeto>.) Together, they advocate for resilient communities and host sustainability events.
According to Toni, “We see ourselves as separate from the environment, but we the environment. The two issues are interconnected. If we tackle one, we’ll benefit the other as well.
“The problem is not COVID itself. The problem is the sick systems that we have, where we continue to take from the earth. The pandemic is exposing how fragile our current systems are. A vaccine won’t fix the underlying issues of human and environmental exploitation that are causing the climate crisis—and that will bring new pandemics in the future.”
“Where is our imagination?” asks Lindura. “We need to dream bigger. Think of all that we can do if we try.”
Support a green recovery
We can take inspiration from progressive countries leading the way in a “green recovery.” This recovery would be in line with the UN sustainable development goals, reduced inequalities, good health and well-being, and sustainable cities and communities. Some of the EU countries discussing green recoveries include Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Finland, Denmark, Spain, and Germany.
What does this look like in practice? Specifics differ but can include measures such as the following:
• creation of green jobs
• investments in green technology
• support for people (such as universal basic income or fair living wage)
• environmental regulations
• strong health care systems and sick leave
• flexible working hours and remote working
• local food systems
• shifting to a low-carbon, circular economy
• supporting Indigenous rights
Across Canada and around the world, environmentalists and some politicians (including those in the EU) are also calling for a green recovery from COVID-19. Now is the time for us to become activists and push for meaningful change. Reach out to politicians, sign petitions, and speak up about how you want the world to look in the wake of COVID-19.
Build resilient communities
We can also do so much by “thinking globally and acting locally” to change the world around us. Helping to build resilient communities is a crucial way to improve the environment its inhabitants.
Toni elaborates: “Individually, we need to come together in community groups. How can we organize to get things done?” This can include getting involved in municipal politics, supporting local businesses and organizations, growing local food, and volunteering. Toni and Lindura cite examples including bike lanes, food banks, diverting waste from landfills, and reducing food waste.
Overall, Lindura is hopeful. “This is a huge turning point; we have the ability to move forward in a really positive way. I believe that generally we’re going in the right direction.”
Toni agrees. “We need to believe that the core of humanity is good; to shift from being consumers to being citizens; to continue to care for one another.”
Want to ask the Canadian government for a green recovery? Sign the David Suzuki Foundation’s green recovery petition at <davidsuzuki.org/action/green-recovery>.
Social learning and COVID-19
“Social learning” theory is the idea that people learn from each other and change their behaviour accordingly. We are currently learning valuable lessons in resilience and human adaptability, including how strong we are when facing a common enemy. Throughout the restrictions, many have connected strongly with the outdoors and their local environments.
Other potential things we have learned together? How to slow down, the importance of supporting local businesses, and even the value of listening to science: all valuable lessons connected to the climate crisis as well.