On May 9 this year, Kerala government released a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), declaring a total shutdown to be observed on Sundays until further orders. The first paragraph of the SOP read: “With a view to prevent the spread of COVID-19, improve the quality of life, reduce the carbon emissions, protect the environment and greenery of the State, the … protocol would be observed on Sundays across the State”
It won’t be wrong to say the SOP underlines state government’s forward-thinking. The efficiency of the Kerala government in containing the spread of the coronavirus has been widely lauded. The May notification is yet another example of the state’s strong social fabric and robust response to the pandemic. While preventing the rise of COVID-19 cases is their primary goal, they have not lost sight of new learnings this unprecedented time has led to.
Nature is healing. This is no secret or a lie. Various incidents from across the country have revealed the adverse impact human activity has had on the environment. During this period of minimised movement of people, nature has got a well-deserved breathing space. A NASA study said that air pollution levels in India were at its lowest in over 20 years. The record number of flamingoes painting the city of Mumbai pink, the view of the Himalaya ranges from Jalandhar in Punjab, the crisp blue skies of Delhi, cleaner rivers and the drastically improved air quality are all examples of a much-needed wakeup call pointing towards the disastrous present state of the environment. It is also saddening that this respite afforded to nature is temporary and once the world returns to normalcy, we will revert to polluted waters and unclean breathing air.
This is already the case in China. Air pollution in China is estimated to cost around $38 billion and around 1.1 million deaths per year. The pandemic had brought the country to a grinding halt and strict lockdowns ensued dramatic fall in air pollution. In March, the European Space Agency released a video showing the air pollution over China disappearing during the lockdown period and returning as China began to resume businesses. Reportedly, in April, as China returned to normalcy, smog did too, erasing any positive changes seen during the lockdown.
Dealing with COVID-19 pandemic is a three-step process: respond to the health crisis and the threats thereof, recover from the impact of the same and finally,thrive from the lessons garnered. While countries have pulled all stops to respond effectively to the pandemic and to recover from the economic slowdown it is projected to create, the last step is perhaps more crucial and easier to overlook.
In a video talk recently, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said we needed to learn the art of living with Corona. The way forward must also be to learn the art of living after Corona. And this cannot be without some changes to our lifestyle.
The lockdown has taken us back to rudimentary ways of living to ensure safety: staying home, venturing out for only essentials and resorting to non-motorized means of movement for small travel. Kerala’s SOP restricts movement of motorized traffic on Sundays (barring for the needs of essential services and health emergencies), permitting only non-motorized traffic such as walking and cycling. The SOP’s intention can be viewed to be two pronged: (a) continue efforts to curb COVID-19, (b)ensure the positive effects of the pandemic are not lost.
With other states taking steps such as suspending labour laws to ensure more production, this move by the Kerala government is novel and unique. And most definitely a necessity.
A 2018 Special Report on Global Warming called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” in every facet of the society in order to avert the dangers of climate change. Such warnings are not few, yet we are to see these recommendations being effectively implemented. And then came COVID. The pandemic transformed our perception of nature. Stay at home orders, closure of nature parks and forest areas has made us more respectful of these nature oases, particularly for those living in cities. There is an increased need for more greenery and our connection to mother earth has gotten more profound.
And the time to harness the power behind these feelings is now. Now is the time to keep the momentum on and take prudent actions.
There is an urgent need to bring modifications to our lifestyle and our priorities - both at the government level and people level. Asking industries to shut down or cut down on their functioning is unreasonable, however it is not so to expect ourselves to adopt cleaner ways of living, moderate our carbon footprint or as in the case of the Kerala Sunday lockdown, possibly reduce our activities once a week to give nature the time to rejuvenate. Governments are in a prime position to ensure such compliance - it would improve both government image and public reception.
A study by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department noted that people in areas with higher forest covers seemed to have better immunity. The nexus between cleaner environment and improved life quality is undeniable. Our urban environment is fragile and the way to protect its ecosystem is to nurture healthy habits. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown to us humans the immense scope for improvement and how even small lifestyle changes can bring about dramatic transformation in our environment. It has also shown that when the situation mandated, we were able to collectively harness resources and capabilities to fight the crisis. It is hence not unreasonable to ask for change in how we function. If we continue to refuse to accept the lessons the lockdown has taught us, nature will strike again and strike worse.
(The author is a risk analysis intern at India Bound. She is currently pursuing a Masters in International Studies and has a degree in Law. Views expressed are personal.)