What COVID-19 Teaches Us and Why it Should Change Us for Good

Rarely a day goes by without disastrous news about the global environment. Already, 2020 has been a year to remember, from bush fires burning more than 12.6 million hectares of Australia, devastating floods in Indonesia and now, more recently and closer to home – the emergence of COVID-19. Without much doubt, nature is sending us a message.

While many of us do care about the environment and show concern by carrying reusable cups, adopting meat-free days or using public transport there is much we should do to stem the public health threats of air pollution, plastic waste and global warming, for example. As the 4th most densely populated place on earth, an international finance hub and home to over 7.3 million people, Hong Kong has paid a heavy social and environmental price for it and Mainland China’s explosive economic growth over the past two decades. The challenges associated with this are apparent not only in terms of the quality of life of Hong Kong residents, but also in relation to the pressure placed on our natural resources.

Considering the need to address these challenges, in June 2019 ADM Capital Foundation initiative SupportHK commissioned the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) to survey Hong Kong’s attitudes about our environment and gather views on the usefulness of online petition platforms. In 1,000 phone interviews, the PORI survey reaffirmed the urgent need to build momentum around addressing environmental challenges.

While concerns differed among age groups, worryingly, one third of 50-55-year olds stated having no interest in environmental issues closely followed by 28% of 30-39-year olds. Issues mentioned included air pollution, waste management and wildlife conservation. Despite 30 years of increasing dialogue on the unfolding and increasingly urgent climate crisis, climate change consistently failed to capture the interest of people interviewed across all age groups. Issues cited by less than 10% of respondents included, marine ecosystems or marine life (6%), wildlife conservation (5%) and energy (5%). Alarmingly, the second most cited answer from over 1 in 5 respondents was that environmental issues were simply not of interest.

COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour. There is nearly always an ecological component and carrier agent when it comes to new diseases, and until we limit habitat encroachment, whether from urbanisation, population growth or to supply an ever-increasing demand for wildlife, then the threat of emerging infectious diseases will remain.

We are all beginning to adapt to a new normal under COVID-19, adjusting to social distancing, reduced travel and online meetings. This has also given us time to reflect on our previous consumption-oriented lifestyles. The global health disaster has given us an opportunity to assess which aspects of modern life are absolutely necessary. Much of the world is seeing clearer skies, reduced air pollution, reduced manufacturing, less air and road traffic in response to restrictions around unnecessary travel, closed borders and quarantine measures.

This highlights, of course, the positive changes that might be possible if we change our consumptive habits. With collective action we can achieve more, and while we are each at home missing our freedom, we have also learned about how fragile and interconnected our planet is. There is no better time than now to make noise around our degrading local environment, whether that is calling for street level air quality display monitors, stamping out illegal wildlife trade or urging the government to switch to green energy. The future is positive but we must lead the way and protect our environment if we want to create more resilient communities, with greater health and well being, and most importantly, if we want to inhabit a healthy planet.

Author: Liberty Mccarthy