Postcards from a pandemic

Julie Arblaster (Monash University), Colleen Boyle (RMIT), Ruth Morgan (Australian National University), Kate Phillips (Museums Victoria), Alicia Sometimes, Simon Torok (Scientell), Rachel Webster (University of Melbourne)

 

How will people 50 years from now view the events of 2020, from bushfires, to a pandemic, to social upheaval?

 

On the 50th anniversary of Earthrise in December 2018, we reflected on how this profound image changed our perception of our place in space, fuelled environmental awareness, and showed us that the Earth is a connected system.

 

How will people in the future make sense of our everyday experiences of COVID-19? All kinds of diaries, letters, art, newspaper clippings, photos, videos, and social media will provide rich portals to the personal, intimate, and local stories of the pandemic, adding a human dimension to the myriad maps, graphs and statistics.

 

Imagine a world

Images have a way of encapsulating and reflecting ideas; they can also fuel the flame of ideological fires that may have been burning for some time.

 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we didn’t quite know what we were seeing. The 24-hour news fed us footage of communities in China locking themselves in and strangers out. As the death toll rose, the disturbing images began to make more sense.

 

Here in Australia, the trauma of an unprecedented bushfire season was still raw, the smoke was still choking us. We could be forgiven for being incredulous when confronted with images of police patrolling beaches and signs saying, ‘Beach Closed’. Such restrictions grated hard against our sense of freedom in a country that prides itself on sun, surf, sand and unlimited access to all three at all times.

 

Parks and natural areas became quiet; no cars, no planes, no boats, no human voices. Our land, skies and oceans fell silent, only to be filled with bird song. We saw images of animals venturing into human spaces, tentatively at first and then more boldly.

 

Some animals suffered from the lockdown; with city restaurants closed, rats moved to the suburbs, and the seagulls that used to terrorise tourists moved outwards in search of food. Sadly, many animals that don’t need people do need our protection, and when the world went into lockdown and tourism came to a screeching halt, so did some of the revenue for conservation programs and financial support for protecting threatened species.

 

I can’t breathe

Images can help us question the value of our civil liberties in the face of a pandemic. As Australia flattened the curve and New Zealand abolished it, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States sored past 100,000, with millions infected. Some people complained about the difficulty of breathing through masks, while others with virus-infected lungs required mechanical assistance to breathe. The virus may be indiscriminate in who it infects but the African-American population of the US are almost three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. When George Floyd was held down by police, pleading that he could not breathe, America, and then the world, exploded in anger.

 

In Australia, people worked with First Nations communities, who already suffer the poorest health in the country, to increase protection from the virus. But health in Indigenous communities is an ongoing political issue, and COVID-19 is just the latest in a string of diseases to wreak havoc on these minority populations.

 

The ability to breathe is a visceral example of every human’s fundamental connection to the environment. Surely a worthy aim is to have a society where people can breathe easily – with all the physical, emotional and mental connotations that has – along with freedom from ill-health, freedom from oppression and discrimination, and freedom from anxiety.

 

We depend on invisible cycles of exchange between the atmosphere, the ocean, soil and rocks, plants and animals. And human activities are accelerating parts of these cycles, with the burning of fossilised plants dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a much higher rate than can be absorbed, increasing its concentrations and resulting in climate change.

 

We know climate change will have adverse effects on human health in many ways, some related to breathing. Our lungs have already been under attack from the by-products of combustion of fossil fuels, from coal to petrol. And as the forests burned across eastern Australia last summer, and the air filled with smoke, even people hundreds of kilometres distant from the fires were breathing that smoke into their lungs.

 

An interconnected world

The bushfires of 2019-2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the interconnectedness of our world. Just as bushfire smoke was transported by the winds to far reaching places, the virus rapidly circled the globe.

 

Natural forces are much more powerful than anything we will ever conjure up. The night sky’s beauty and vastness paint an apparently unchanging image, not just on human timescales but on timescales of millions of years. But even our local galaxy can be punctuated by an occasional massive disruption, such as a supernova. Ultimately we are ruled by nature – be that a supernova, a bushfire or a pandemic. We are creatures of our universe, from the atoms of our human bodies to our entire fragile ecosystem. Our existence is completely intertwined with the very atoms that make up the universe.

 

This pandemic started with an animal virus being transmitted to humans, and progressed to stopping the world’s economy and killing hundreds of thousands of people. COVID-19 is no natural disaster: rather, it is of our making. Although the precise origins of the disease are not yet certain, we can already see how the forces of globalisation, urbanisation, industrialisation and industrial agriculture have rendered us increasingly interconnected – not just with each other through trade and travel, but also with animals and the atmosphere through pathogens and pollution. We’ve made for ourselves a planetary petri-dish.

 

The pandemic has shown the benefits of acting early to avoid the worst impacts. It has shown us the benefits of using evidence to advise decision-making. In many ways, action on climate change is just as urgent. We are already seeing the impacts of climate change and our choice now is to try to avoid the worst case scenario by flattening the greenhouse curve. Each day we wait, the more carbon dioxide is emitted and the greater the eventual costs on our lives, our livelihoods and on the Earth. Waiting limits future choices.

 

We can also plan for the future by looking to the past. Past diseases, epidemics and pandemics have revealed the extent to which microbes have shaped human societies, from the earliest agriculture to the Black Death, nineteenth-century cholera to the Spanish Flu and polio, and more recently, HIV-AIDS and Ebola.

 

But the uses of the past have limits. Tempting as it may be to seek lessons or some certainty from past pandemics and epidemics, such as H1N1 or SARS, this search for similarity and analogy may blind us to other problems and leave us unprepared for other possibilities.

 

Wish you were here

At this moment, it’s easy to feel as if we are in our own personal snowdome. The universe will proceed on its course with or without us. But while events such as COVID-19 and the 2019-20 bushfires are not under our control, we can affect our interaction with our environment as it unfolds. We are responsible for our future within the universe

 

Imagine a world where we can breathe. Where we can balance our civil liberties with law. Where we can act ethically towards others. Where we can act in the face of inequality and bring a sense of balance to the world.

 

Imagine a world where we change our approach to animals, where we are kind and considerate, where we are quiet enough to hear their voices, so we can all thrive.

 

Imagine a world where we listen to scientists. Where we respond to empirical evidence and acclaim scientists who spend their working lives analysing the myriad of facts surrounding their chosen fields. Evidence-based scenarios about the effects of climate change or how COVID-19 can sweep across a community provide the best chance we have for a thriving future society.

 

Imagine a future where we flatten the greenhouse curve, see a decrease in zoonotic and vector-borne diseases; witness a rise of biodiversity; increase all habitable regions; pay attention to our elders; partner with Indigenous and other communities to listen to Traditional knowledge; nurture curiosity and learning; accept and respect our Earth and each other, and carve out a new equilibrium. One where we all share one main concern—our planet and how best to live on it.

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