Covid-19: Do we want to do this again?

The bottom line to confronting an era of chronic emergencies sparked by global environmental damage: We must get it right this time.

03 Jun 2020
Environmental Pollution
The current suspension of environmental pollution appears to be an ecological reset for many urban regions. It is estimated that daily global emissions have dropped by as much as 17 per cent since the pandemic lockdowns.

At the start of the year, the relentless bushfires raging in Australia was viewed as an "apocalyptic" event that shocked the world. To many across the globe, the climate crisis Down Under was a warning of a looming disaster with wide-ranging effects that could disrupt and threaten their lives if no action is taken soon enough. Yet without the benefit of data or hindsight, few would have imagined the trajectory of events in 2020 could spiral further, much less pictured a greater cataclysm that would turn the state of the world on its head and render the spectacle of a continent in flames to a relative non-event.

In a matter of weeks, we are seeing clear blue skies across the world's most polluted cities and clear waters in the previously crowded waterways. The amazing regenerative force of nature has taken over as Mother Earth enjoys a prolonged snooze from the effects of urbanisation that has prevailed at its expense.

The irony is not lost on us. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Nearly three billion people around the world have been unable to venture beyond the immediate vicinity of their homes to witness the changes in their city skylines because of a novel coronavirus that has been spreading exponentially. Over six million people have caught the communicable disease to date, and for the billions of others who have not been infected, their entire ways of living and working have been radically disrupted in a global effort to combat an invisible enemy together.

We Have A Stake In One Another

The world's response to the Covid-19 pandemic offers the opportunity of a lifetime for us to recognise a greater truth underpinning our shared humanity, which, in the words of former US president Barack Obama, tells us that "we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart".

Responses and changes to our ways of living due to the pandemic have offered us a glimpse into what is possible when we work together to deal with a global threat. Both the pandemic and the climate crisis require a co-ordinated response that places equal significance on the remedial actions of the individual and the collective behaviour of a society as a whole. The failure to act in both instances has the consequence of disrupting our lives en masse.

In the case of the Covid-19 outbreak, a single individual's non-compliance with social distancing guidelines could trigger a domino effect of infecting a network within six degrees of separation or more. Meanwhile, a community's deep-seated attributes (centred on individualism or collectivism) could influence individuals to either obey or disregard quarantine orders in favour of civil liberties or civic consciousness respectively.

Similarly, taking climate action requires an equal-part participation by both individuals and community groups including businesses and governments. If individuals are doing everything they can to be environment-friendly, but policymakers and businesses are not implementing broad-scale measures to reduce emissions and transition to a carbon-free economy, it will not be enough to rein in climate change. Conversely, a top-down approach with regulators imposing restrictions to limit emissions and carbon footprints may not be effectual if individuals are not educated on how their personal lifestyle choices can impact the environment and contribute to climate change through a multiplier effect.

Back To The Biodiversity Crisis

One of the most important lessons from the pandemic which lacks global acknowledgment is that the emergence of the coronavirus is very much linked to the same root cause of the climate crisis - human-induced environmental degradation and the consequent loss of biodiversity.

As urbanisation leads to large-scale deforestation, destruction of natural reserves, erosion of living ecosystems and displacement of wildlife from their natural habitats, we are leaving our human populations exposed to zoonoses - infectious agents transmitting disease from animals to humans. Disease ecologists have found that many of these emerging and past viruses tend to originate from animals and wildlife, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) from bats, H5N1 from wild birds and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) from camels. This is further aggravated by wildlife importation and consumption.

As a growing pool of research attributes mankind's devastation of biodiversity to the emergence of new diseases, climate change and natural catastrophes, the World Health Organization's One Health approach addresses this very issue of planetary health as it focuses on the intricate relationship across environmental, animal, plant and human health.

This is a cause close to our hearts at MSIG. The protection of biodiversity forms part of our core mission to contribute to the development of a vibrant and resilient society and secure a sustainable future for our planet. Aside from incorporating environmental considerations of how we manage natural capital (water and forest resources such as paper) into our operations, we are also taking concrete actions to directly assist in environment conservation.

Across South-east Asia, we are collaborating with local governments and organisations on reforestation efforts and educational initiatives. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, we are assisting with the rehabilitation and growth of mangrove wetlands and restoring wildlife sanctuaries, planting 300,000 trees over 350ha of land.

In Singapore and Tokyo, we have introduced community-based initiatives to educate the public on the importance of nurturing biodiversity within a metropolis, such as the MSIG Biodiversity Trail at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Surugadai Building Green Space.

A New Broom Sweeps Clean

Many have cited the silver lining to the Covid-19 economic lockdown as the momentary suspension of environmental pollution caused by human activity and what appears to be an ecological reset for many urban regions. Researchers have estimated that daily global emissions have dropped by as much as 17 per cent since the pandemic lockdowns, down to the lowest since 2006.

As economies start to show signs of recovery and businesses gear up to resume with caution, we are given the rare opportunity to not return to the way things were and, instead, start on a clean slate. From the pandemic, a new generation of leaders will emerge with a sense of urgency towards ensuring disaster-readiness and societal resilience against future shocks.

A new way of thinking has evolved, and if we could resist the urge to revert to the status quo and instead choose ways to operate that will be more sustainable for both the economy and the environment in the long run, we could potentially avert another global catastrophe that we may not be able to survive.

Covid-19 has shown us how profoundly our lives could be impacted by a global human health crisis linked back to ecological disruptions affecting our planetary health. The bottom line to confronting an era of chronic emergencies around human, animal, plant and environmental health has to be that we must get it right this time. In the wake of many lives lost, people suffering, businesses shuttered, borders closed and the onset of a global recession, surely one thing we can all agree on is: We do not want to do this again.

An edited version of this article has been published in The Business Times on 2 June 2020.

The article was contributed by Craig Ellis, CEO, MSIG Insurance (Singapore) Pte. Ltd.