Lessons of Covid-19: Taking stock for next time

Universally familiar: For now, masks are the global identity. Image: By Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

The lessons of Covid-19 are stark: tragedy, horror and loss for millions. They are eloquent on the climate crisis ahead.

LONDON, 29 September, 2020 − The lessons of Covid-19 are still sinking in. The pandemic isn’t over yet: far from it. No-one knows even whether it’s here to stay.

It erupted at a time when chronic inequality and the climate emergency both demand action. But there are already specific life-saving lessons we can learn, says the UK-based Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA).

This highly abridged summary by the Climate News Network singles out a few highlights from the Alliance’s three published briefings on Covid’s lessons, with possible policy responses to help the benefits to last beyond the crisis.

Looking after each other better

This briefing shows some of the ways people around the world are looking after others in the pandemic, often with meagre resources and how they might do in the future .

Governments have – to varying degrees – paid the wages of millions of working people and provided help in kind. Togo introduced a mobile telephone-based cash transfer scheme for workers earning around 30% of the minimum wage. Others have tackled street homelessness and temporarily suspended evictions for those unable to pay rent.

Across Europe health workers have been heartened by regular sessions of public applause, thanks and support during the peak of the crisis. Delivery drivers and front-line care workers are finding their social status far above that of hedge-fund managers.

Working hours and practices have been radically adapted. Communities have acted together where necessary: Belarussians bypassed their president by implementing a people’s quarantine. Britons supported health workers by making protective masks and scrubs, providing hot meals and tutoring children. In Germany refugees joined in mask-making.

Spanish workers volunteered to clean care homes before elderly residents returned. In the US the World Central Kitchen has supplied up to six million meals to nurses, the sick and the homeless.

For the future, there is evidence from many countries of growing support for the idea of a Universal Basic Income and for encouraging (and enabling) more people to volunteer to help others, perhaps by paying them.

More space for people and nature

Responses to Covid show we can quickly make more urban space for people and nature. This briefing looks at how we do that, an increasingly important question as people learn more about the global plunge in plant and animal numbers, and about how habitat loss drives the spread of viruses between animals and humans, with ecological decline creating prime conditions for pandemics as human activities push climate breakdown and usurp the last wild spaces on Earth.

Covid-19 has driven a growing realisation that a simpler life can offer unexpected gains. A lot of travel proved unnecessary. Guaranteeing cleaner air and more room for nature demands big but possible changes, including greener public transport and streets designed for people, not just cars.

Older and simpler solutions are helping, like cycling in the UK, for example, Germany and (with new technology) further afield. A flexi-time approach has seen staggered starting times for schools and offices introduced in parts of Israel and the Netherlands. It’s often possible to avoid travelling by making contact online − when you can get the hardware installed. Frustrated villagers in Wales couldn’t, so they installed their own broadband instead.

There’s abundant evidence of the sheer good that green surroundings can do to people, ailing or not. They can improve air quality and even offset the heat island effect. And strengthening our relationship with nature can provide other severely practical benefits  − as the Cubans discovered several decades ago.

The Rapid Transition Alliance offers several suggestions for trying to ensure that we go on cherishing nature long after Covid-19 has been tamed:

Living with less stuff

This briefing examines how we’re adapting to live less wastefully and more thoughtfully. We’re learning to eat better, to waste less when we buy, and to enjoy making more with what we have already. (There have been and still are many people struggling financially and using foodbanks to keep themselves going. This briefing focuses specifically on those not in this situation.)

One implicit theme is that what we want and what we need may often differ. So mending, sewing and doing-it-yourself are regaining popularity, and some people are working their way out of debt: UK households were able to pay back more than £7 billion (US$8.9 bn) of consumer credit in the first month of lockdown.

Food matters − a lot. Many people are thinking more about their environmental footprint: more than a quarter of consumers in the US, UK, France, Germany and Canada say they now pay more attention to what they consume and what impact it has on the world.

In some of these countries, shops and brands have been running a campaign encouraging people to “only buy what you need” and “shop responsibly”. Organisers called it “an urgent entreaty to consumers to behave responsibly and think about others”.

Education matters too, however hard it may be to keep schools open. The World Bank has worked with numerous countries to form an accessible database of learning innovations across different nations that can be shared and used by online educators. The Times of India has looked at the opportunities to teach young people life skills and reading for fun – not just formal education.

And in a crisis, laughter can help. Russia is setting the world an example.

Locking in Covid’s lessons is essential, for this generation and for the future. The pandemic has often slowed consumption, making people more cautious and more aware of their purchasing power. But what now?

Buying only what we need, mending things when they break and re-purposing them when we no longer want them are life changes for the long term. The RTA has suggestions for how we could turn from being passive consumers to active producers. These are some of them:

The RTA’s briefings are a reminder of the daily torrent of practical goodwill that binds and sustains societies worldwide. The pandemic has intensified that determination to help people in need and to make vital systemic changes. The climate emergency is going to demand far more.

The Alliance thinks humankind can rise to the occasion: “There is now an opportunity to consider what we want from the future − the real price of things shown on labels, less choice but more quality, better lives for those who make and sell stuff to us, and an assumption that waste is unnecessary and will no longer be tolerated. These policy shifts might help to keep this element going as the world returns to health.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.