The Coronavirus Pandemic: An Opportunity to Reconsider Our Relationship With Nature

Raina Delisle ’02 is a senior editor at The Narwhal, an award-winning, nonprofit magazine that tells stories about Canada’s natural world. She graduated from Bishop’s with a B.B.A. In 2001-02, she was Editor-in-Chief of The Campus.

Raina Delisle ’02

As I stroll along Victoria’s Inner Harbour on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m struck by the stillness. The harbour is typically bustling this time of year, but today there are no floatplanes or ferries fetching visitors, no tourists going on whale watching tours and no seagulls swooping in to steal French fries. The 280-plus cruise ships that were slated to call in Victoria this season won’t be showing up, and the number of container ships plying these waters has dropped precipitously. Without all the vessel noise, fish, whales and other marine animals are better able to communicate, navigate, feed and reproduce, leading to untold benefits for their populations.

Similar snapshots of nature thriving in our absence are being captured around the world. On beaches in Florida and Thailand, leatherback sea turtles are nesting in higher numbers, unimpeded by tourists, poachers and trash. In Mumbai, India, flamingos are flocking to abandoned urban areas and enjoying a smorgasbord of food as a result of a reduction in industrial waste. It’s important to note, however, that many wild animals that have become accustomed to being fed by visitors are going hungry as tourism has shut down.

Meanwhile, air quality has significantly improved in big cities worldwide as people stay home and industry slows down. This breath of fresh air couldn’t come at a better time as exposure to air pollution makes us more vulnerable to COVID-19 and scientists have even detected the virus on particles of air pollution, meaning it could travel great distances even without human hosts. Not only that, people are spending more time outdoors since their regular indoor activities have been cancelled and the risk of catching the virus is lower outside.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with celebrated artist and naturalist Robert Bateman for a story celebrating his 90th birthday for The Narwhal and what he said about the potential perks of the pandemic stuck with me: “If people change their behaviour and actually get out in nature and go for a walk in a park and go and sit in the harbour and look at the ocean, I think that that will make them better when this is all over.”

The global lockdown is giving nature a temporary reprieve and inspiring people to reconnect with nature, but can this lead to a lasting impact?

To answer that question, we need to take a hard look at what caused this plague in the first place. Scientists are still trying to unravel COVID-19’s origin story, but many believe the virus jumped from bats to pangolins to humans, infecting the first of our kind at China’s Huanan market in Wuhan, where live wild animals were sold for human consumption. As we continue to expand our range into remote places to extract resources – whether oil, trees or wildlife for the illegal trade – we are coming into increasingly close contact with animals that harbour dangerous diseases. Indeed, three quarters of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they’re transmitted from animals to humans. Scientists are now trying to figure out if COVID-19 can also be passed from humans to animals after a tiger at a New York zoo caught the virus, highlighting yet another way in which our exploitation of animals – in this case for entertainment – leads to suffering.

All our natural resource extraction is making us sick in other ways, too. Deforestation and oil and gas production are major contributors to climate change, and our warming world makes us vulnerable to even more diseases as insects and ticks expand their ranges, carrying ills like Lyme disease and West Nile with them. At the time of writing, COVID-19 has killed 500,000 people worldwide. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization predicts 250,000 people will die every year due to global warming starting in 2030. But there is hope. The International Energy Agency estimates the pandemic will lead to an eight percent reduction in CO2 emissions this year – the biggest annual dip ever and just enough to put us on the path to meet the Paris Agreement target to limit warming to 1.5° C. above preindustrial levels. However, we’d have to keep making similar reductions every year for the rest of the decade to stay on track. Unfortunately, some governments and regulators in Canada and abroad are giving industry a vacation from environmental reporting during the pandemic, threatening this progress.

At the same time, the action, innovation and behavioural changes we’ve seen in the wake of the pandemic show us what’s possible when governments, the private sector and citizens join forces to fight a common foe. What’s important to remember is that foe may be us. So, will this be a tipping point for how we treat the natural world and translate into real change or will we go back to our destructive ways when this is all over? Now’s the time to reconsider our impact on the planet, our relationship with nature and how we want to rebuild the economy. COVID-19 has given us a glimpse of the world we could have – now it’s up to us to decide if we want it.

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