War, disasters and disease, riders of the Apocalypse, have throughout history caused tremendous suffering, but also prodded innovation and change. Past epidemics from the black plague to small pox and tuberculosis all spurred scientific discoveries and improvements in society as communities tried to suppress their spread.
In the end they improved how we act and live. People no longer spit in the street after prohibitions due to the spread of tuberculosis. Vaccines for smallpox and polio were discovered and inoculations became common. Now, these horrific diseases that killed millions have virtually been eradicated. Pasteurization, sewage disposal and human hygiene, to name just a few, are not the least of these.
What changes and improvements might we expect from our current pandemic distress?
Perhaps a reduction in air pollution, for a starter, which will result in a reduction in the lung diseases it causes. For example, nitrogen dioxide pollution in China dropped substantially over the last several months due to a slowdown in manufacturing and travel. Satellite images from NASA showed clear skies and a drop in air pollution that no environmental regulations could have accomplished. Some medical experts went so far as to say more lives may have been saved from the reduction in air pollution than were saved by the lockdown. But then China waived its pollution laws to jumpstart the economy and China’s notorious bad air is returning. Did China fail to learn a lesson that would have helped improve the health of their society? Recently, President Trump followed suit and waived air pollution regulations in the U.S. Does this action signal a failure to take advantage of a positive outcome that might have resulted from the setbacks caused by the pandemic?
In Santa Clarita this morning I opened my front door to hear bird song instead of the roar of freeway traffic. People who can are working from home, substantially reducing the traffic and air pollution. The increased howl of jets that we have recently been subjected to from the changed flight patterns over our valley is less. This means the air pollution they cause is less as well. I have no doubt we will be enjoying a similar improvement to air quality here in Santa Clarita and the greater Los Angeles area as that experienced in China.
Unfortunately this joy of clear and quiet skies has been bought at a great cost to our economy and the well-being of those suffering from the new virus. Kids are not in school, parents not working, society is at a standstill and some have lost their lives. The anxiety is apparent in the panic buying of common daily items like toilet paper and paper towels.
But why not make these hard times also a time of reflection and change? Companies may discover that having employees work from home several days a week is really a practical solution that gives everyone more time with family and less time sitting in a car in traffic. Could this be the answer to clogged freeways and unbreatheable air? Or how about teleconferencing? That capability has been available to us for some time now, but not extensively used. Do we really need to fly all over the world or drive great distances to see each other when we can have the capability of face-to-face meetings electronically?
These are not solutions for the many service workers who make our society function. Companies and local governments have recognized the severe impact to these workers and small businesses in this time of crisis, making unemployment benefits and small business loans more easily available. Can we find a way to retain this empathy and understanding as this crisis diminishes?
But those companies and employees that are able are going to have the opportunity to practice teleconferencing and working from home over the next several weeks. Perhaps the habit of it and the great benefits will be apparent and at least some of these changes will remain with us. If so, the difficulties from this hard time we are all now experiencing may, as in former times, result in improvements in communities. In our case, it may be a healthier lifestyle with cleaner air, reduced noise and more family time.
Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.