Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
—from “Keeping Quiet,” c.1950, by Pablo Neruda
We were gulping down as much as we could, whizzing around in trains, planes and automobiles, dumping children in daycares on the way to work, grabbing fast food dinners on the way home, insisting the economy must grow, the stock market must rise—while the fortunes of billionaires ballooned and the pittance of the poor shrank. While the polar ice caps melted, the forests burned and the animals went extinct.
Nothing could be done about these catastrophes, we were told. It was just the free market at work executing the will of each individual.
Then it all came to a stop.
And it happened: the exotic moment—without rush, without engines—when we were, in fact, all together in a sudden strangeness. How lovely. How amazing that the world could be brought to a halt just as we raced to the precipice of disaster. We were given the opportunity to cease the frenzy of getting and spending, consuming and wasting, polluting and destroying.
Everything became quiet. A huge silence prevailed. There was no traffic on the highways. No one was driving to work. Offices were shut down. Schools closed. People were told to stay home, shelter in place, work from home, have no outside contacts. No unnecessary outings. Planes stopped flying, cruise ships quit sailing. Streets were empty. The water in the Venice canals became clear and sparkling. A jellyfish was spotted “serenely swimming through near-transparent waters.” As the air cleared in India, the Himalayas came into view.
Los Angeles lost its smog. Ed Avol, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, said, “It’s obviously very unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to get us to think about these things and to see this improvement. It should give us all pause to think about how much driving we each do, and whether we really need to do so much of it. Telecommuting from home, for those who can, even just for a couple of days a week, can have a marked reduc-tion in terms of emissions.”
Staying at home significantly cut down on pollution, including noise pollution. According to Science, noise attributed to human activity dropped more than 50 per cent. When the world went quiet, something marvellous happened. Nature was given a reprieve. As people lost their jobs, governments provided money for those with no income with no questions asked. Attitudes toward helping people changed. Families reconnected.
Mothers, fathers and children who formerly barely saw each other, suddenly were spending 24 hours a day together. The mad dash of getting kids out the door on time every morning with both parents working full days—all that rush ended. Everyone just had to stay home.
The lines between home and work blurred. People we formerly knew only in their public capacity as news anchors, talk show hosts, political pundits—the CBC’s At Issue panellists Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne and Althia Raj—were broadcasting from their homes. We saw the pictures on their walls and the books in their bookshelves. It created a strange melding of domestic and public life.
These realms of the public and the domestic used to be divided along gender lines. It was believed that a man’s place was in the wider world while a woman’s place was in the home. Even in the 1970s, six out of 10 women still identified as housewife or homemaker. By 2015, 82 per cent of women worked outside the home. Today most families have two working parents. Before the pandemic, there were more women than men in the Canadian workforce.
But society and the workplace have not made the necessary accommodation for families with children. The kind of energy it takes to do a full-time job leaves little for domestic life. Who makes a home today? What happens to the children? Who takes care of them?
With COVID everyone was at home. For troubled relationships the forced togetherness increased the risk of conflict, abuse and even divorce. Isolation from the wider world created its own kind of suffering. But for many, being at home gave them the time to make that home livable.
In April there was a run on yeast. It was kept behind the customer service desk in Co-op, only one tin per customer. People were making their own bread. We paid more attention to the food we ate. With restaurants closed and time in the day, people began to make meals from scratch. Not being able to go out and shop, people mended and sewed their own clothes. They started seedlings under grow lamps and planted gardens in the spring. Parents spent more time with their kids playing games, doing schoolwork, talking. Spouses also had more time together and a chance to reacquaint themselves with each other. One study from the Vanier Institute of the Family found that 8 out of 10 adults in couples said they were supporting each other more during COVID, and 4 in 10 said they were having more meaningful conversations. Six in 10 parents said they were talking to their children more often than before the lockdown began.
One study in the UK that collected data from 5,500 parents found that the COVID-19 stay-at-home policy strengthened parent–child relationships. In the May 2020 survey, nearly 40 per cent of parents who reduced their hours to look after their children reported their relationships had become better. One-third of the women surveyed reported that they have become closer to their children.
The pandemic could result in permanent changes for families. Working from home has been discovered to be not only feasible but beneficial for family life. Employers might make the practice more widespread even after COVID. Parents may have different priorities about how they use their time. They might even job share, both parents working half-time in order to better care for the children.
In the September 2020 throne speech, the Canadian government pledged support for an affordable nationwide childcare system to help women, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Of course, a man has an equal obligation to care for his children. It’s parents, not just women, who need childcare. It will be a good day when we hear advocates of childcare say “men need childcare if they are to continue to work outside the home.”
Just as families’ priorities changed during the pandemic, society had to reassess what was really important. Cities were shut down: no shops, no theatres, no restaurants, no bars. We were all faced with the question What do we really need? What is essential? Anything deemed non-essential had to stop.
Obviously frontline medical personnel were essential—the nurses and doctors who deal with the sick. It soon became clear, however, that humble grocery clerks and shelf stockers were also essential. People still needed food. Truckers bringing fruits and vegetables from California into late-winter Alberta were also essential, as were meatpackers, temporary foreign farm workers, staff caring for the elderly in nursing homes—all of whom are put at great risk because of their working conditions. Cargill’s High River slaughterhouse had Canada’s largest outbreak, with 1,500 cases and three deaths linked to the plant.
As this unknown plague stalked the earth with the potential to kill anyone it touched, we suddenly appreciated workers. At 7:00 p.m. every evening, in cities around the world, people went out on their balconies with pot lids, bells or any noisemaker they could find to express their gratitude for the nurses and doctors risking their lives to treat COVID patients. Workers in nursing homes were also finally given some attention. COVID shone a light on the hard work and low wages of caregivers to the elderly and exposed the terrible conditions in nursing homes. Over 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada were in long-term care. Exhausted staff couldn’t keep up with the work. In Quebec and Ontario the military had to be brought in to manage the disaster.
Part of the reason for the high infection and death rate was that caregivers had to work in two or more facilities to cobble together enough hours to make a living. The facilities wouldn’t offer full-time work, to avoid having to pay benefits. The public were appalled and began to demand better conditions for these workers. Alberta committed a $2 an hour wage increase for health care aides. The BC government raised pay for all continuing care workers from $14 per hour to the same $24.83 starting wage as for unionized workers in public facilities.
Not just waiters and bartenders but workers in many industries lost their jobs as revenues dried up. Borders closed and people quit travelling. Airplanes quit flying. Airlines lost money and laid off thousands of employees. Air Canada carried less than 4 per cent of the passengers from the same period last year. WestJet laid off 9,000 of its 14,000 employees and grounded two-thirds of its fleet.
The UCP government contributed to the problem by cutting non-teacher funding to schoolboards, resulting in layoffs of 20,000 education workers: aides, teaching assistants, cleaners, support staff, bus drivers and substitute teachers, with directives for them to apply for federal support.
The federal government had to provide money. People without jobs or income couldn’t be allowed to starve. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) of $2,000 a month was quickly distributed. Everyone could see that CERB was necessary. As people lost their jobs or had no work through no fault of their own, it was accepted that government must provide support for food and other necessities. CERB inspired consideration of a guaranteed annual income.
Workers’ low wages and vulnerability forced us to question the inequity of our system, with its concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The heyday for the relatively equitable distribution of wealth and income in Canada was the late 1970s. Then, a senior executive might make 20 times what a worker in the same company would. Now, that differential is 227 times. A worker at Suncor might make $48,000 a year, and the CEO $12-million.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2012 the top 20 per cent of the population had 47 per cent of the wealth while the bottom 20 per cent had 4 per cent. A significant factor in the inequitable distribution of wealth is the decline of unions. Free trade enabled the easy flow of investment anywhere in the world so that many manufacturing jobs moved to countries where workers could be paid very little. Another factor is the changing nature of work. Technology and automation have eliminated many jobs. Whereas at one time a person could expect to have a good job for life, now whole generations have never had steady jobs. They eke out a living in the so-called gig economy.
The pandemic has not only exposed injustices to workers, it has given us an opportunity to reflect on and address social inequities. According to The Star, insiders in Justin Trudeau’s government are saying, “Now is the time, with the cost of long-term borrowing so cheap due to historically low interest rates, to address those inequities for the longer term.” The new mantra for recovery is Build Back Better. The appointment of Chrystia Freeland as finance minister signals the “remaking the country’s socio-economic architecture.”
When everything stopped, the planet had a chance to breathe for a while. China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, shut down its coal-fired power plants and factories. The pollution over China—which kills a million people a year—for a time disappeared.
The end of traffic cleared the air the world over. Air traffic alone generates huge pollution. Its carbon dioxide emissions reached 900 million metric tons in 2018. Still, that was only 2.5 per cent of all global CO2 emissions, much less than that produced by cars or power plants.
Before the shutdown, the situation for the environment was very bad. Scientists told us that since the coal-fired industrial revolution in the 19th century, the planet’s average temperature has increased almost one degree Celsius. With the Paris Agreement of 2015, all nations seemed to recognize the need to limit the rise of temperature to below two degrees by decreasing the use of fossil fuels. The US was a signatory to the 2015 Agreement to wean away from fossil fuels and hold the temperature increase, but in 2017 President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US’s support. Alberta began transitioning from coal-fired electricity generation to natural gas. But when the UCP came to power in 2019, they removed restrictions on coal mining and set the stage for coal mining expansion.
So the use of fossil fuels continues apace. As the world warms, the polar ice caps melt. The ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica is worse than predicted. The largest block in the Arctic split in two in 2002 and is now disintegrating. In July 2020, the last intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic collapsed.
Without the ice caps that ordinarily reflect sunlight out of the atmosphere, warmth will be absorbed by the ocean and ocean temperatures will rise further. Warmer oceans cause destructive weather events. Most major cities are in low-lying coastal areas which will be inundated when sea levels rise.
At the same time, the Amazon rainforest—the lungs of the planet, producing 20 per cent of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere—is being cut down or burned at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year. More than half the world’s species live in rainforests; according to Rainforest Action Network, deforestation causes the loss of 137 species a day—50,000 plant, animal and insect species every year.
The destruction of natural habitat and loss of biodiversity contributes to the rise of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Less habitat means animals become crowded together. The species that survive are the scrappier ones such as rats, which then come into greater contact with people. In the case of COVID-19, a disease possibly carried by a bat was transmitted to a human.
According to a United Nations report released in 2019, around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, including 10 per cent of insect species upon which the world’s food crops rely. Robert Watson, the chair of the panel that produced the report, said, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
Humans seem to believe they are not part of nature, that they are separate and superior to it. But all life on earth is connected; if nothing else, the coronavirus has shown us that. We were eroding the very foundation of life—until the coronavirus came along. Then a huge silence interrupted this “sadness of threatening ourselves with death.” This strange time made us stop what we were doing and put a pause on the destruction of nature.
Most Canadians want to continue to reduce emissions when the pandemic is over. According to an Ipsos poll, six in 10 (61 per cent) Canadians think government initiatives for economic recovery should make mitigation of climate change a priority. Job creation could include construction of clean energy infrastructure such as solar and wind power. Investments could be made in public rapid transit, electric vehicles, renewable jet fuels, bitumen-based carbon fibres. We could adopt net zero building codes. The pandemic has opened a door.
The ways we assault the environment, the ways our economic systems allocate wealth, even the ways we organize family life—all seem to be beyond the planet’s power to influence. But what if Earth has an intelligence of its own and an interest in surviving mankind’s folly? What if COVID-19 is the inevitable consequence of that folly—over-consumption, pollution and habitat destruction leading to viral mutation.
What if COVID-19 is Earth’s way to make us change?
Jackie Flanagan is the founder of Alberta Views.