Let’s Bounce Forward from the COVID-19 Pandemic

What lessons can we learn from the coronavirus pandemic that will help us end up in a better place when the crisis is over?

Alex Wilson

Alex Wilson, founder of BuildingGreen

Photo: BuildingGreen, Inc.
In a time of an unrelenting onslaught of devastating news from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to imagine that we will get to the other side of this mounting humanitarian and economic catastrophe. And it’s even harder to imagine that there could be good news that will emerge from it. But there may be some silver linings in this crisis…

  • The world might get used to cleaner air. As air traffic has plummeted and the world is driving less, blue skies have emerged where they haven’t been seen in years. Particulate pollution levels are down dramatically in China. The air is cleaner in cities worldwide. Perhaps this change will be noticed and—once the pandemic ends—we will collectively advocate for keeping the skies blue through such actions as converting to electric vehicles, instituting congestion pricing in our cities, building bike paths to facilitate bicycle commuting, and closing down the remaining coal-fired power plants.
  • Carbon emissions will be way down this year. Initial data from China showed a 25% drop in CO2 emissions during the initial four weeks following the country’s lockdown on February 3, 2020, and an 18% reduction for the seven-week period that began then. The worldwide reduction in carbon emissions may even be great enough that the instruments measuring CO2 levels on Mauna Loa in Hawaii (data producing the Keeling Curve) will show it. If that happens, it will provide compelling evidence that reducing the combustion of fossil fuels has clear, measurable effect on global CO2 concentrations, and it may inspire action.
  • China, and other countries, may finally terminate the horrible practice of taking rare animals from the wild and selling them live in markets. Endangered mammals like pangolins, which some experts suggest may be a source of the COVID-19 virus, are being driven toward extinction to serve the demand for exotic wild animal meat in China and a few other countries. China has announced that it is banning the sale of wild animals for food—though the same restrictions have not been announced for the Chinese medicinal trade.
  • All of us may learn to appreciate the importance of science. Science has been under attack in the United States. The exponential spread of COVID-19—on a curve predicted by epidemiologists that was long dismissed by anti-scientist politicians and pundits—may be convincing the public that we need to rely on science in making decisions that are most beneficial to the public. If that can happen with the pandemic, perhaps it can happen with other global crises, like climate change.
  • With measures to extend medical leave, provide free COVID-19 testing (where you can find it), and broaden access to medical support, we are inching toward the sort of universal healthcare that exists in virtually all other industrialized countries. The pandemic may broaden the support for that.
  • We’re learning that telecommuting—working from home—really can work to an extent not realized before. Videoconferencing platforms like Zoom and GoToMeeting are helping facilitate this. My guess is that many companies will recognize the economic benefits of maintaining a more liberal policy on working remotely post-COVID-19, and society will benefit from less traffic congestion and less pollution from vehicle use.
  • Even as COVID-19 calls for social distancing, it is bringing people together in wonderful ways. College students sent home have banded together to form Invisible Hands, a distributed support network delivering food and other supplies to those in greatest need. Local groups are getting together around the country to sew facemasks for their local healthcare providers unable to source that much-needed commodity. And, like a lot of people these days, I’m now on regular neighborhood check-in Zoom calls that will likely strengthen neighborhood bonds that live well beyond COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 is getting more of us outdoors and physically active indoors. In our rural area, I see people walking on the back roads more than ever, and I’m hearing people talk about spring wildflowers and songbirds. Participation in yoga and pilates classes, via Zoom, is increasing, from what I hear—and that can be done in urban apartments. Exercising and getting closer to nature are good for us, and maybe that will be maintained post-pandemic.
  • COVID-19 is demonstrating the need for people and nations to work together in bringing the pandemic under control. If such efforts are successful, it can demonstrate the power of cooperation that we will so desperately need for other global crises, such as the humanitarian efforts that will be required with climate-related refugee resettlement. There are even early signs of bipartisanship in Washington!
  • COVID-19 may bring about a shift in economic philosophies—convincing legislators that we need to “save for a rainy day”—paying down the national debt when the economy is strong, rather than the current practice of ever-greater deficit spending and tax cuts. There are times when we need to run up the national debt—times of crisis, like we’re facing today—but it would be a lot easier to do that if we had money in the bank. Cutting taxes and amassing debt when the economy is strong is bad economic practice.
  • COVID-19 and the empty food shelves many of us have seen in our grocery stores may help us value local, distributed food production. The just-in-time economy and centralized supply chains work really well for the profitability of businesses, but they are not resilient practices. Locally, small farms and CSAs are expanding their production, even as small farms that serve the restaurant and institutional markets are struggling. Seed suppliers are seeing a big uptick in sales to home gardeners.
  • Planning for the unforeseen may become part of our modus operandi—and this will have numerous other benefits. Resilient design is needed to protect against rising sea levels and storm surge along our coasts, to lessen the damage from wildfires in the West, and to design our buildings so that they will keep occupants safe if they lose power (passive survivability).

With resilience, we often think about bouncing back from a disturbance. But I prefer to think about bouncing forward. Let’s look for opportunities to bounce forward from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have a long way to go before recovery can begin, but let’s start thinking about how we want the future to change in response to the pandemic. How can we end up with something better?

Published April 10, 2020

Wilson, A. (2020, April 10). Let’s Bounce Forward from the COVID-19 Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/let-s-bounce-forward-covid-19-pandemic

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April 13, 2020 - 3:06 pm

Alex-- well done. Staying positive and moving forward is key. Every day when I call my 96 year old Dad he says,"Today's going to be a great day and I'm going to make it one."

April 13, 2020 - 4:27 pm

thank you Alex for your insights and contribution for a better world! hope to see you again soon.

April 13, 2020 - 6:56 pm

With more us spending more time in them, and everyone being conscious of respiratory health, the current situation may also make more people consider the importance of warmer, drier, healthier homes. 

April 13, 2020 - 11:27 pm

Thank you Alex for your insight and positive message. The world will definitely come out of this a different place, and we have the power and obligation to make positive changes.

Terry - I'm going to borrow your Dad's saying - I love it!

April 14, 2020 - 10:53 am

Mathew, love your comment about needing healthy homes since so many of us are sheltering at home! Thanks much!

April 14, 2020 - 12:51 pm

This is the first time I've seen what I've been struggling to verbalize expressed so well - of course it comes from Alex and Building Green!  Knowing that a crisis is a "dangerous opportunity" I've been wondering how we can use this awful time to make positive changes. We've known for a long time that the way humans are living can't last. Maybe this can be our wake up call. I too don't want things to go back to normal - I want them to be better than normal!

May 5, 2020 - 4:02 pm

I'm allowing myself to suggest a small change: All of us may learn to appreciate the importance of BUILDING science. 

May 5, 2020 - 4:58 pm

And how about all the great chefs this time is producing? Like my sons! Gardening and recycling clothing into creative projects such as hooked rugs and gifts are some of the relaxing activities that I've been doing during this time at home.