Written by Sam Watt – Edited by Sandrine Jacquot
COVID-19 was – and in some places still is, one of the most impactful, documented, and extreme events in modern history. Sweeping across the globe like a wildfire, there was not a single place left untouched by the effects of the pandemic. It invoked new procedures, social landscapes, and a reality many liken to popular media such as Station Eleven or The Last of Us. So, what’s the difference between apocalyptic fiction and the Coronavirus? The difference is that our world has another chance. There may be those who wish to move forward and not look back at the political, environmental, and institutional trainwreck that was the pandemic and lockdown. However, ignoring the lessons from COVID-19 would be wasting a valuable opportunity to take an objective look at what happens when the world we built is suddenly thrown upside down.
The impacts of COVID are innumerable. One could write a hundred papers on the topic and it still wouldn’t be enough to exhaust the list of affected groups, systems, and institutions. Though, one category of ramifications paint a clearer picture than others: those affecting the environment. Interestingly enough, COVID-19 hit the environment in both positive and negative ways. Nonetheless, the impacts reveal a society of extremity and fragility.
As COVID-19 shut down cities, commodity chains, and global industries, the earth used this silence and space to heal. Emissions from vehicles and related polluters reduced considerably, resulting in a worldwide drop in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This meant that over the course of the pandemic, cities everywhere experienced a visibly significant improvement in air quality (Rume & Islam, 2020). Transportation pollution particulates were not the only thing the pandemic positively affected: energy-related emissions declined by 7%, agricultural emissions declined by 2%, environmental noise dropped by 75%, and there was a double-digit decline in the use of non-metallic materials (such as materials used for construction). The economic ramifications of this ‘silence and space’ were, however, devastating. It is estimated 131 million more people were classified as ‘poor’ over the course of the pandemic.
While emissions were largely reduced due to struggling supply chains and locked-down cities, Novel Entities – which are things created and introduced into the environment by humans – increased at an unprecedented rate.
For example, the United Nations was part of a massive project to procure the correct protective and medical equipment needed to properly combat the virus. This initiative alone generated approximately 2,700 tonnes of waste from test kits, 731,000 litres of chemical waste, and 144,000 tonnes of waste from syringes, needles, and boxes of vaccines. Globally, it is estimated that eight million tonnes of pandemic-related plastic was produced, and 25,000 tonnes of this plastic was released into the ocean. The majority of this waste was generated within healthcare facilities, so much so that “COVID-19 has increased healthcare wa ste loads in facilities up to 10 times.” This additional waste load was set upon a global healthcare industry where 30% of facilities are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the extra pandemic waste. When you look at the Global South, this number jumps to 60% (WHO, 2022).
COVID-19 has painted a picture of the modern world: while it is possible for our environments to heal when given the slightest breathing room, in consideration for our economies and subsequently the livelihood of billions, it seems like our society will not allow for this healing. In order to save lives, we exponentially increase waste load on facilities already at their capacities; thereafter, a large amount of this additional waste is unleashed upon natural cycles.
As painful and uncomfortable as it may be, these are the complicated lessons we must learn from catastrophes like the pandemic. We must focus on asking important questions, such as: Is there a way to maintain a clean and sanitized environment while relying on less single-use, plastic materials? Can medical facilities advance their waste-removal practices so they can properly manage, at minimum, their normal wasteload? Is there a way to protect hundreds of millions from sickness without condemning an equal number to poverty?
More than anything else, COVID revealed just how unprepared the modern world is to deal with massive, unexpected events. We teeter on the brink of environmental collapse when everything is working as it’s meant to, and we teeter on the brink of economic collapse when everything doesn’t work as it’s meant to.
What must we do to build an efficient and resilient world? This is the question that, made clear by the recent pandemic, must be answered as quickly as possible. We may not get another opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
Rume, T., & Islam, S. M. D. (2020). Environmental effects of COVID-19 pandemic and potential strategies of sustainability. Heliyon, 6(9), e04965. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04965
The long-term environmental implications of COVID-19. OECD. (2021, May 31). Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/the-long-term-environmental-implications-of-covid-19-4b7a9937/
Pew Research Center. (March 18, 2021). Change in number of people in selected income tiers due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic worldwide in 2020 (in millions) [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1223317/covid-19-effect-on-income-groups-globally/
Novel entities and the GEF. Global Environment Facility. (2018, June 25). Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.thegef.org/publications/novel-entities-and-gef#:~:text=For%20the%20study%2C%20novel%20entities,modified%20organisms%2C%20nanomaterials%2C%20micro%2D
WHO. (2022, February 1). Tonnes of covid-19 health care waste expose urgent need to improve waste management systems. World Health Organization. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news/item/01-02-2022-tonnes-of-covid-19-health-care-waste-expose-urgent-need-to-improve-waste-management-systems
Peng, Y., Wu, P., Schartup, A. T., & Zhang, Y. (n.d.). Plastic waste release caused by covid-19 and its fate in the Global Ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(47). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2111530118 Maddipatla, M., & Farge, E. (2022, February 1). Huge volumes of Covid Hospital Waste Threaten Health – who. Reuters. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/huge-volumes-covid-hospital-waste-threaten-health-who-2022-02-01/