[OPINION] No, the coronavirus pandemic is not the planet’s way of ‘healing’ itself

In the event that humans would vanish from Earth, many imagine this would heal the planet. 

It is an intriguing thought, especially now when many people worldwide stay indoors to steer clear of the new coronavirus disease or COVID-19. In our country, people contend with a Luzon-wide lockdown that has rendered daily-wage earners unable to feed their families and homeless people arrested for being homeless. 

Staying ‘indoors,’ in this case, is mere precaution for the rich and a punishment for the poor. 

But on social media, people staying indoors has been lauded as a blessing in disguise for the environment. Viral photos of the Venice canal waters have caught international attention for what is apparently a rare occurrence – the popular tourist attraction’s waters have allegedly become clearer thanks to the drop in visitor numbers. In reality, the clearer waters are merely due to decreased boat activity, leaving sediments to stay at the bottom. Yet the feel-good picture perfect photos of a cleaner Venice have led others to point out the ‘bright side’ of the pandemic. 

At a time when more than 200,000 people worldwide have been infected by COVID-19 (as of posting), some have asked: Maybe this is the planet’s way of healing itself. 

It is not. 

It’s true carbon emissions have been plummeting worldwide because of how the new coronavirus pandemic has put a pause on almost all human activities. This is temporary. Companies and industries that have skidded to a halt will soon fire its engines back to normal after the outbreak slows down. Roads in Metro Manila that are eerily empty today will soon be clogged again with vehicles, adding again to the air pollution that kills commuters in the long run.   

Plastic, among other waste, swim along Estero de Vitas, a major estuary at the heart of Tondo, Manila. Photo by Renz Joshua Palalimpa

This temporary respite from pollution does not mean the pandemic is a blessing in disguise. It’s irresponsible to believe there are environmental benefits to a pandemic that has caused major social upheavals, resulting in the deaths of many. 

As pollution levels all over the world drop amid several lockdowns, it’s important to realize that humans and our daily activities are not the problem. 

The bulk of the world’s most pressing environmental problems come from the capitalist system which encourages the exploitation of both human and natural resources. It is a system that enables mass production and consumption without regard for sustainability. 

Not an individual problem 

To suggest uprooting people from their ordinary lives is the only way to deal with the climate crisis  is to pursue something close to fascism. ‘Cleansing’ the planet of vast numbers of people achieves absolutely nothing, when more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from only 20 companies

Blaming the environmental crisis on the general populace and imagining their disappearance as the solution takes away these companies’ accountability. 

If we truly want to imagine a better world, we have to start by imagining we can replace the current system that, for so long, has enabled the exploitative few to destroy our planet and blame it on the majority. 

Such is the case in the Philippines, where the working class and the farmers make up for the majority of the population.  They are those who suffer most from the current community quarantine in Luzon. To ‘imagine’ a world without them is impossible — we cannot live without them — as they are the ones we turn to for food security. Yet it is also them who will suffer the worst effects of climate change. Their livelihood depends on their crops and livestock, but without the support of climate-smart technologies or assistance from the government, even they will be forced to give up farming completely.

When actress Iza Calzado commented on Lea Salonga’s Instagram photo that she agreed that the coronavirus was the “Universe’s way of making the planet a better place,” she had ignored the thousands of families left vulnerable to the virus because they had no home. When travel host Drew Arellano said that COVID-19 was the “cure” and that we were the “virus,” his pseudo-philosophical take had ignored that for some families, the virus has literally taken their loved one’s life because a vaccine is still in the works.

Iza Calzado (missizacalzado) comments on Lea Salonga’s Instagram photo and says that the pandemic might be the “universe’s way of making the world a better place.”

It is classist to believe a pandemic that continues to threaten society’s most vulnerable has any good side effects act all. For those without the privilege to protect themselves with a fully-stocked refrigerator or money that can tide them over the next month, this pandemic has cost them endless anxiety about where to find their next meal, or who to turn to for help.

If a climate crisis happens, it is the powerful who have the means to comfortably sit at home and pay their way out of starvation. They have the means to get access to limited resources first, the same way today’s celebrities and politicians can immediately get themselves tested even before the rest of the general populace. 

Their privileged position affords them an ignorant, elitist viewpoint of the world that ignores how all of us have to fight tooth and nail just to get this government to protect us. 

Drew Arellano took to Twitter to air out his sentiments on the new coronavirus, saying that it is the cure and “we are the virus.” Arellano has since apologized, and the tweet has since been deleted.

Climate crisis 

If anything, this pandemic has only highlighted how unprepared we are for natural disasters. The Philippine government’s inability to handle a crisis stems from its long-held tradition of ignoring  experts, slashing the budget for health and science, and foolishly implementing blanket policies which ignore on-ground effects. 

And for the Philippines, this means trouble: as one of the countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis, we can expect more natural disasters to take place in the future. People will once again suffer not just from calamities, but also policies that ignore the majority of Filipinos’ access to resources and socio-economic realities.

A government that lauds frontline workers as “heroes” during a press conference but leaves them to fend for themselves with lack of institutional support is not a government which can protect us from the worst effects of climate change. 

It should not take a pandemic for the government to realize that we are facing a climate emergency whose future effects will mirror the situation we have now. The Duterte administration, and all those who will follow, must center policies on climate urgency from the national to the local level. Among others, it must punish and hold accountable harmful industries, such as mining companies, for polluting our waters and destroyingour rich biodiversity

As much as we want to believe the planet is healing itself right now with less people outside, it’s only through long-term policies and solutions that we can ensure the protection of the environment. 

Remember: the only thing this planet needs to heal from is the current capitalist system. Any perceived environmental improvements during this pandemic is a result of its disruption. If we want to change the system for good, we must go beyond imagining and do the radical act of looking out for each other. 

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