Soon after the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, it spread rapidly within weeks to become an international public health emergency. Though it took months for the root of the illness to be identified, the virus was carried by human hosts in a highly interconnected globalised world.
What would start as fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms began to lead to more severe cases of cardiac injury, respiratory failure and death. Those with pre-existing health conditions and the elderly were particularly vulnerable.
The pandemic hotspots shifted from China to northern Italy, New York, then it was Brazil and the second wave that is ravaging India and Nepal. People were locked in at home for months to stop the spread, and it came at an additional cost – the rise of a mental health crisis globally.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone and every aspect of our lives. The lockdowns may have helped contain the virus, but it destabilised economies, businesses went bankrupt, people lost jobs, again exacerbating the impact on mental health in societies.
The coronavirus emerged because of the over-exploitation of nature by a globalised mass consumption society. But the pandemic it unleashed has allowed us to think about that, and also allowed nature to begin to restore itself.
Studies have shown that lockdowns in response to the pandemic have significantly improved the air quality in many big cities due to the shutting down of industries and fewer vehicles on the roads. From Kathmandu, the Himalaya suddenly came into view.
The restrictions and lockdowns led to a decrease in economic activity, resulting in reduced air pollution and emission of greenhouse gases. Ironically, while the virus was attacking the respiratory system, countermeasures taken against its spread were also making it easier to breathe.
The ban on international travel also helped reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, dramatically demonstrating the path to reducing the impact of the climate crisis: the need to cap carbon dioxide emissions.
The collapse of tourism affected the economies of countries like Nepal, but it has allowed nature to regenerate. There is less waste along the trekking trails, less garbage.
Across the world, people are consuming much less than they used to. It is hard to say if this frugality will persist in the post-pandemic era, but it has set a precedent. Many of us are focusing more on our health, and have adopted better eating habits.
For nearly two months now, there is also less noise pollution. Kathmandu’s streets are silent, no roar of trucks, no honking, no construction work, and few jets overhead. Persistent ambient clamour is known to affect our physiological and physical health. With less unwanted noise, the soothing sounds of nature are more audible with bird song, frogs in ponds, and even the rustle of leaves on trees. The sound of silence, and comforting natural sounds carry many mental health benefits.
Cities attract people because of economic opportunities and their cosmopolitanism. The absence of people in these urban centres during the pandemic have allowed them to restore themselves organically – showing us that we have to tread more lightly on the environment. For once, the focus has shifted from people to nature so that it has a chance to recover from years of abuse.
All of this has come at a great price, no doubt, but Covid-19 has also shown us what we need to do for a sustainable lifestyle to reduce anthropogenic carbon and the burden on nature. If we focus away from the negative impact the pandemic has had on us, and redirect it to the nature around us, we see many positive outcomes that also have beneficial effects on our own lives.
We have started focusing more on relationships because earlier most of us were too busy to find the time to do so. We have begun communicating more with family and friends. The pandemic also offers us a chance to rethink our lives, and our purpose.
We have started consuming less because we realised that we do not need as much as we thought. There have been significant changes in consumer behaviour that have been good for the planet just because we use, and waste, less.
The world is recovering from years of damage that we were so disrespectfully placing on the planet’s resources. In Nepal, we have seen signs of the ecosystem starting to rebalance itself. The question is whether government policies will reflect this in the coming years.
It is terrible what Covid-19 has done to the world, but it has also shown us how to improve the planet’s health, and with it, the human condition. We desperately want to get back to our everyday lives, but being isolated has reminded us that even if we go back to the way we lived, we have to be mindful of our impact on the planet.
We can rebuild the economy, but the damage humans are inflicting on nature is irreversible. The pandemic provides the chance to take action to restructure the way we live.
Anjana Rajbhandary lives and works in Chicago. She writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues.