What does the future hold for us after the pandemic? I lie awake at night wondering where we will be in the next few months – or maybe the next ten years, all the outcomes of our own deeds and actions and what the future has in store for my loved ones. Even if we somehow are lucky enough to survive this, how are we going to make the Earth a better place, a "safe haven" for our future generations?
It seems not all hope has been lost. This is because while the world grapples with the novel coronavirus, the pandemic has had some unexpected, but positive, side effects – Mother Earth is healing.
The slowdown of human activity due to the pandemic, has so far shown to have had a positive impact on the planet due to: the lockdown, travel restrictions, dying consumption, and the overall fall of capitalism. Now, as uncertain as the answer to the question "how long will this pandemic exist?" is, even more uncertain is finding the exact answers as to how long these natural habitats will persist.
Birds are chirping louder than they have in ages, the air is fresher than what we have had in years – which, by the way, we are unable to breathe due to staying in during the shutdown – plus the tortoises and sharks are coming back to our seas and wandering in blissful harmony. They do not fear being hunted down or killed to meet the selfish needs of human kind.
Although both Covid-19 and climate change appear to be environmental problems at large, they are in fact social-economically driven. In fact, the changes due to climate change were supposed to be the next wave before the pandemic happened, and the catalyst was already in place. So as an aspiring environmentalist, I see two ecological futures intertwined after the pandemic: the continuation of this climate change and its subsequent effects on mental health and illness.
Now, what could be the possible connection of the pandemic and all these other associated factors to our mental well-being? Or, how do we need to mend our thoughts and actions if we after all, survive this? The answers to all these questions are integral to lessening the possibility of the next waves that are almost certain to embrace us after this storm hopefully passes – keeping in mind that all of these, and much more, might also somehow be the result of the pandemic and the existing lockdowns. All of this, for now, seems like a paradoxical nightmare that we cannot seem to wake up from. So what is the ultimate outcome?
Let us analyse some data to bring things more into perspective and make them clearer.
People living in places with air pollution have higher rates of depression and suicide, a systematic review of global data has found. Cutting air pollution around the world to the European Union's legal limit could prevent millions of people from becoming depressed, the research suggests. This begs the assumption that exposure to toxic air is causing if not all, most of these cases of depression around the world, or at least contributing to it.
Scientists also believe that this is likely, albeit difficult to prove beyond doubt. Think about it. The reason why our previous generations had fewer suicidal tendencies than now is perhaps because they had fresh air to breathe, more parks, playgrounds and areas of recreation near their homes to hang out in. Right now, factors like people staying home and lower emissions from vehicles and factories are, surely, helping us to breathe cleaner air. However, the condition of people having to leave nature alone and staying indoors to keep it fresh and healthy does not really make sense in the long run.
With isolation being imposed, and assuming that that in itself might be a reason behind the deteriorating mental health of a lot of people around the globe, the fresher air and healthier natural habitats outside are unfortunately, not really helping people struggling to cope with anxiety and depression, being locked down in the confines of their homes.
And as soon as this ends and the world gets back up on its feet, the economies will rise again and capitalism will climb back to its peak. Subsequently the chances of the climate being heated up and returning to how it was again, and the lack of fresh air will increase – leading to the outbreak of the next waves of climate change and mental illness in people. Surviving the pandemic only to end up having zero crop production, fighting droughts, having houses and livelihoods drown in water due to natural disasters, and the consequent lack of mental well-being in people overall seems to be a devastating future scenario.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 264 million people suffer from depression. With the increasing number of people having to deal with mental illness due to staying indoors because of the existing Covid-19 crisis, it has become crucial for us to highlight the prevailing connection between the environment and the state of mind of the people, to respond to the next big challenges ahead.
"We know that the finest particulates from dirty air can reach the brain via both the bloodstream and the nose, and that air pollution has been implicated in increased [brain] inflammation, damage to nerve cells and to changes in stress hormone production, which have been linked to poor mental health," a study by Braithwaite said.
The particle pollution analysed in the study was produced by burning fossil fuels in vehicles, homes and industry. The researchers said the new evidence further strengthened calls to tackle what the WHO calls the "silent public health emergency" of dirty air. So, basically, controlling human health and building a healthy environment for us to live in, both depend on how we regulate our socio-economic behavior post pandemic.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, the novel coronavirus, like climate change, is partly a problem of our socio-economic structure. Although both appear to be environmental or natural problems, they are more socio-economically driven than our minds can comprehend. Yes, climate change is caused by certain gasses absorbing heat. However, that is a shallow way to explain it. To really understand climate change, we need to understand the social and economic reasons that keep us emitting greenhouse gases – likewise with understanding Covid-19. Yes, the direct cause is the virus. However, managing its effects requires us to understand human behaviour and its wider socio-economic context.
As Sir Isaac Newton said, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." It is high time we understand the wider consequences of our social behaviors and think about building a sustainable future, in order to protect ourselves from the next possible waves. If we want to be resilient to future pandemics plus avoid the worst of climate change and air pollution, we need a system that will bring effective social changes – one which will not need people to stay home for nature to be at its best. We need a system that will enable people to enjoy it, while ensuring a sound and sustainable future, with optimised responses to the risks of forthcoming challenges.
A world of possibility awaits!