It’s as though Covid-19 never happened at all...

This, too, is why I don’t think the Covid-19 issue, in all its ramifications, should be so lightly be brushed aside. For all the death and devastation it left in its wake, that little virus also taught us all a few valuable lessons… the hard way

It says something, I suppose, about the sheer speed with which we all ‘returned to normality’; but this morning I sat down to write an article about the Covid-19 pandemic… only to briefly wonder whether the whole darn experience was in actually just a figment of my imagination; something that never really happened at all.

Even so soon after the events themselves, there is something vaguely unreal about my memory of the past few months. As I recall, for instance, it was only last March that the first signs of global emergency precipitated a mass bulk-buying frenzy from supermarkets: complete with fights breaking out over the last packet of toilet paper, or the last discounted cans of tuna or corned beef.

Then, for the next eleven or so weeks, the entire nation was glued to the daily 12pm Covid-19 updates on TV: with the implications of each new announcement debated endlessly on social media. Then came the doomsday prophecies; the conspiracy theories; the constant warnings of a ‘second wave’…

In brief, for three whole months you couldn’t open a newspaper, or surf the Internet, without every headline and every update screaming ‘COVID-19!’ in great big capital letters.

And yet… within two weeks of the first easing of health-restrictions, all that fear, anxiety and hysteria seems to have just evaporated to nothing, in the glorious heat of the mid-June sun.

Just like that, everything has now gone back to ‘normality’. Not only have the daily briefings stopped; but the entire discussion on Covid-19 seems to have likewise been put on total lockdown (even though we are re-opening our airport today, with health authorities warning that ‘now is the time for extra caution and vigilance’).

The issue has in fact fallen so far off the national radar, that I’m even finding it hard to locate articles I read about it just two or three weeks ago… including a couple I wrote myself.

They’ve all been buried under a fresh wave of stories (often just as paranoid and hysterical) about all the other things that were put on hold for the duration of the lockdown: including last December’s political crisis, which was so rudely interrupted in March… but which now seems to have simply picked up where it had left off (again, almost as though nothing of importance happened in the meantime).

And that’s the part that worries me in all this. For something did happen over the past four months; or at least, I’m pretty certain I wasn’t imagining things, when a discussion slowly started to take place… not just here in Malta, but all over the world – about a lot more than just the ‘fear, anxiety and hysteria’ we all associated, until very recently, with the novel coronavirus itself.

Briefly – ever so briefly – Covid-19 also got us to talk about revisiting our traditional (i.e., ‘normal’) way of life… not just in terms of health precautions, or social distancing measures; or even of our own individual life-work routines. No, for an agonizingly fleeting moment, we also started changing our perceptions of the way we generally interact with the planet we’re living on: questioning the sustainability of our energy, consumption or land-use policies; the impact of our industries on the global ecosystem; as well as our broader rapport, as a species, with all other living things.

And let’s face it: this is something we would probably never have got round to discussing at all, had that microscopic virus not paid us a little visit from China last March: bringing with it so many drastic changes to our lifestyles to the bargain.

But there was more to the discussion than just the possible beginnings of a new, improved sense of global awareness. In some ways, the pandemic itself also laid bare the sheer cost of some of the ‘normal’ lifestyles it interrupted; and to which, unaccountably, we all seem so eager to flock back at the earliest opportunity.

Consider, for instance, that in March alone (i.e., the first few weeks of social distancing measures), there was a registered 70% drop in Nitrogen dioxide levels in Malta’s atmosphere: mainly attributable to a drastic reduction in car-use, as workplaces shut down, and people were encouraged to work from home .

Naturally, this might seem poor consolation to the many businesses that are now in dire financial straits because of that same crisis – especially considering that our ‘return to normality’ has also meant returning to precisely the same old air pollution levels we were used to before.

But… well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The reality is that we shouldn’t have just gone back to precisely the way things were before.

Just as it shouldn’t have had to take a full-blown global health emergency, just to get us to finally realise what should have been obvious all along: i.e., that our massive over-dependence on cars is also a serious health issue in its own right; and one which, at the end of the day, has a much higher chance of killing us all, than any number of fancy viruses imported from China.

Besides: if there’s one issue we’ve all been complaining about for years anyway, it is precisely the intolerable traffic situation we were accustomed to until last March: with all its undeniably harmful effects on our collective physical and mental health, which you surely don’t need me to spell out to you.

Yet, it had to take a State-mandated lockdown, in response to a deadly global pandemic, for us to suddenly (and accidentally) stop using our cars so much for the space of just a few weeks… with the unintentional side-effect of achieving such remarkable improvements to air-pollution levels, in such a short time.

Going only on the experience of last March, then: we should, in theory, be able to replicate (or at least approximate) that same performance, every month of every year.

Not by imposing another lockdown, of course; but just by enacting a few national policies here and there, to encourage teleworking wherever possible… to provide alternatives to private vehicles, in the form of cleaner and more varied modes of public transport… to make our roads safe again for pedestrians and bicycle-users…

… not to mention wild animals. OK, so maybe the ‘Return of Mother Nature’ was slightly less dramatic here, than in other countries: as attested by all those (now forgotten) headlines about ‘dolphins in the Venice Canals’, if not tigers or bears suddenly popping up on people’s doorsteps in remote parts of the world.

But less dramatic does not mean less important. And fewer cars on Maltese roads also means that our own, much more modest indigenous fauna – our hedgehogs, snakes, lizards, chameleons, etc… heck, even our stray cats – might actually be able to cross a street in safety for a change.  (For ‘cross the street’ they must… because we have also designed our road-network with not an inkling of thought or care for all the natural habitats we’ve destroyed in the process...)

Sadly, however, in all the above spheres, we seem to have gone about things in the clean opposite direction.

When government recently announced an end to its interim ‘teleworking measures’… it simply ordered all its employees to return to exactly the same old work routine as before: you know, the one that necessitates a twice-daily commute, to do a lot of office work than could (in most, but admittedly not all cases) quite easily be done from home.

No thought whatsoever, it seems, was given to the possible benefits of extending the new teleworking culture beyond the crisis itself… even if, in the absence of any lockdown, the same measures could prove beneficial from both environmental and work-efficiency points of view.

Likewise, government’s strategy to reignite the local economy seems to depend entirely on the same old unimaginative assumptions of yesteryear: such as, for instance, that people can only ever get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ by driving the distance in their own car.

So the CVA entry-charge for traffic into Valletta was lifted… even if there are other ways to encourage shoppers to visit the capital city, without also encouraging them to clog up the roads and pollute the atmosphere as much as possible (by offering discounted bus and ferry fares, for example).

And yes: there may indeed be environmental costs to some of the habits we were recently forced to adopt. Longer hours at home also means more domestic energy consumption; which in turn implies more power production (and therefore higher emissions) for the national grid.

But this, too, should really have sparked a discussion of our national energy policies… possibly leading to the beginnings of an energy reform that might help us one day reach those elusive Kyoto  Protocol deadlines: i.e., the ones we have already missed twice in a row (unsurprisingly, seeing as we never even tried all that much to begin with).

This, too, is why I don’t think the Covid-19 issue, in all its ramifications, should be so lightly be brushed aside. For all the death and devastation it left in its wake, that little virus also taught us all a few valuable lessons… the hard way.

And if we’re not even going to learn those lessons under such duress… it can only mean we will never learn them at all.