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The coronavirus pandemic has turned the way we live on its head, but there is some good that may come from it – from improved air quality to becoming more health-conscious to finding new ways to connect with our loved ones. Photo: AFP

How the coronavirus might change the world for the better, from less pollution to improved family bonds

  • The world has been thrown into disarray thanks to the coronavirus – but not everything has been doom and gloom
  • The Post spoke to three people who believe there are silver linings to the crisis, from better personal hygiene to a reduction in greenhouse gases

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on an unprecedented scale. With nearly 70,000 deaths and an impending global economic meltdown, the world has been thrown into disarray.

The way in which we live has been turned on its head, but maybe for the better.

For one thing, people’s personal hygiene and daily health management has improved, the environment has benefited from a reduction in greenhouse gases, and on a familial and community-based scale, stronger bonds have been formed.

The Post spoke to three Hong Kong professionals who are optimistic that there are silver linings emerging from the current crisis.

An aerial view of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. Traffic has decreased since travel restrictions have been put into place to combat the spread of coronavirus, benefiting the environment. Photo: Winson Wong

Hahn Chu, director of environmental advocacy at The Green Earth, a Hong Kong NGO promoting green energy and environmentally friendly living, says we should see the outbreak as a warning to change the way we behave. Physician Dr Amy Wang says people are more health conscious and are giving each other more personal space. Relationship and wellness coach Sonia Samtani says people are re-evaluating their personal relationships and families are learning about respecting boundaries.

Chu says global travel restrictions have had unintended benefits for the environment.
According to NGO Clean Air Network, the work from home arrangement in Hong Kong has led to a reduction in air pollutants.

From February 4 to 10, the city’s air quality index nearly matched the World Health Organisation’s standards. The same data showed much higher levels of air pollutants measured from January 7 to 13 – before the work-from-home directive came into effect. Then, the concentration of PM10 and PM2.5 – small and very small pollutant particles in the air – were 75 per cent and 53 per cent higher, respectively.

Hahn Chu says global travel restrictions have had unintended benefits for the environment. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Similarly, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent research organisation, reported that four weeks before March 1, China’s carbon dioxide emissions fell 200 million tonnes, or 25 per cent, over the same period last year.

“We are already seeing the immediate benefits of using technology to conduct our daily business during this difficult time”, noted Chu. “But on the other hand, because we are trying to minimise physical contact with others, most people are buying takeaway food and generating a lot more waste.”

He also pointed out that the excessive use of bleach as a disinfectant may harm our own health as well as the environment.

Chu notes that more people are buying takeaway food and generating a lot more waste. Photo: Nora Tam

Every action has its pros and cons, so we need to exercise our best judgment, Chu says. “For example, when we buy takeaway food, we can try to bring our own containers and avoid using disposable cutlery.”

He also points to the disparity between the rich and poor when it comes to access to resources.

“The less fortunate are being left behind because they don’t have the electronic devices required for distance learning. We need to provide them with adequate support because sustainable development does not just concern the environment, but also other social factors such as elevating the less privileged so that they can be part of the environmental movement.”
Chu suggests people should try to bring their own containers when buying food to take home. Photo: Shutterstock

Chu stressed that community care is just as important as environmental care, and we must ensure that the less fortunate are protected with adequate masks and medical care and have access to healthy food.

Thinking ahead to a post-pandemic world, there is a concern that people will rush to return to their previous lifestyles.

“It is not just ‘revenge consumption’ from ordinary people that we should be worried about, but also businesses, cities, and countries that want to recoup losses. In my opinion, I think we should seriously consider the concept of a ‘green economic circle’ that encourages people to support eco-friendly businesses.”

With regard to mental health, good habits that should be continued include more meditation. Photo: Shutterstock

Chu says such businesses need the collective support of consumers, civil society and community leaders. “Every citizen of the world must now take this time to pause, reflect and be committed to moving forward in a sustainable lifestyle for the greater good. The possibility is there, we just need to keep expanding it into reality.”

Meanwhile, Wang says that, with people spending more time at home, learning to prioritise our health is something that needs to become a lifelong attitude.

Besides improved daily hygiene practices, such as wearing a mask, she says that other preventive measures against the spread of coronavirus have brought an early end to the winter flu season. “According to government data, the incidence of influenza infection has fallen to less than 1 per cent at the end of February, which would normally happen around the end of March or early April.”
Dr Amy Wang says people are more health conscious and give each other more personal space. Photo: Amy Wang

To make good practices a permanent feature in daily life, Wang says health education should be done from a young age.

With regard to mental health, Wang says good habits that should continue include better “me time” management to clear the mind and get focused; more meditation to relax the mind and body; and more time to get organised and reduce stress.

She says social distancing should not become a habit, especially for children. “If they are placed in an isolated environment for a long time without any parental involvement, it will hurt their learning ability.”

Families are spending more time together at home. Photo: Getty Images

Wang also says: “People have learned to give each other more personal space, which is a good habit that can be continued in the future.”

Samtani also makes this point. She says many people are re-evaluating their relationships, and families are learning to make sure every member feels like they have their own time and space.

“It’s a chance to learn that not everyone operates like you and how not to impose your views, expectations and preferences on others, and instead learn how they operate.”

Sonia Samtani says families are learning to respect boundaries. Photo: SCMP

The crisis is also an opportunity for growth, Samtani says. “Now, with rules on social distancing and restrictions on moving around, we have developed new ways of being, such as how to handle ourselves and our business online.

“On a mental level, figuring out new ways to connect with our loved ones has caused us to discover novel ways to cultivate meaningful relationships with people across the globe. On an emotional level, we are building closer relationships … and converting fear into faith.

“We can change our attitude towards the crisis and see it as an opportunity to permanently enhance our behaviours instead of [just] practising ‘crisis management’ for the moment.”

Families are having to figure out new ways to connect, such as playing board games at home. Photo: Shutterstock

Samtani suggests we can assimilate them into a “new normal”.

“What was normal before may be different by the time the global quarantine is over; communication has gone online and we have become used to spending more time with family.

“We are an incredibly adaptable species. If we do something different for 90 consecutive days, it becomes our default way of being.”

Luisa Tam is a correspondent at the Post.