Life Lessons From a Pandemic

Emma Despland is a friend and colleague who’s blogging here as an ecologist – but also as a citizen and and a parent.  Her thinking about our current pandemic melds these perspectives, and that in itself is an interesting and important thing to me.  That’s because scientists are, of course, just people like everyone else, who call their friends and bike with their kids when they’re not running an analysis or thinking about the Earth’s systems. And the scientist perspective and the citizen perspective and the parent perspective aren’t mutually exclusive.  Read on:


Covid-19 has imposed dramatic lifestyle changes on many of us, most of which I think we see as short term inconveniences that we hope will soon pass. However, this imposed slowing of the pace of life creates space for reflection.  Despite the obvious tragedy and fear, not all the new experiences we are living are bad.  Some, perhaps, have something to teach us about the world we’d like to live in when all this is over.  Here are some of my observations – as an ecologist but also as a person and a parent – of what I’d like to maintain in a post-Covid world.  Going from the small-scale and personal to the global:

  • Spending more time with family: staying home all day with kids, especially while trying to get some work done, does give one more respect for the work done by teachers! Nonetheless, this time together is precious and a reminder of what really matters.
  • Connecting with far-away friends: who wouldn’t rather meet their friends in person than through a screen? However, I’ve found myself calling far-away friends with whom I hadn’t spoken for a long time, and taking the time to keep the connection alive in a way I might not have done otherwise.
  • Awakening of urban wildlife: the streets are much quieter, and we can hear the returning migratory birds far better than usual. We even saw a groundhog in the back yard for the first time!
  • Taking back the streets: I’ve been cycling a lot with my kids because it’s spring and they want to get their bikes out. It’s also a great outdoor activity that keeps them multiple meters away from other people while keeping their hands busy and not touching random potentially contaminated surfaces. While biking happens every spring, there’s something different this year: there’s so little traffic it’s much safer than usual! So we’ve been able to go along main arteries I wouldn’t normally venture onto.
  • Cleaner air, clearer skies: Satellite images show lower air pollution in China, northern Italy, Toronto, and Los Angeles than before, and people in India are seeing new mountains appear on the horizon because the air is clearer than ever in living memory. While it doesn’t diminish the tragedy of each death, reduced air pollution will save lives even as Covid-19 takes others. However, we are warned that decreases in emissions are only a blip, which will likely disappear when “normal” activity resumes.  This, of course, is exactly my point: we have an opportunity to think about what aspects of pandemic peculiarity we might actually want to keep.

Obviously, we all want to see the pandemic end with as little loss of life and prosperity as possible. But we also all know that we live on a finite planet and that dramatic decreases in resource extraction, fossil fuel use and land conversion and the accompanying biodiversity loss are desperately needed if our lives are to be able to continue as anything resembling “normal”.  Surely, this enforced economic slowdown can be a time for reflection, and we should think carefully about how to restart the economic engines burning in a way that transitions to the more sustainable economy that we all know we need.  We already knew that some economic sectors would need to slow down or even close down; so how can we perpetuate the Covid-19 induced slowdowns without harming the livelihoods of the people who depend on those industries?

The pandemic-caused drop in emissions hasn’t made a dent in the atmospheric CO2 concentration yet.  Ralph Keeling had predicted that a year-long 10% decrease in CO2 emission would be necessary for a 0.05% drop in atmospheric CO2.  So far, we seem to have reached a 6% drop in emissions, but nobody is hoping that the status quo lasts for a year!  Now is the time to have the conversation about how to maintain these lower emissions without harming the most economically vulnerable. Plans for Covid-19 induced economic rescue are underway, and these need to keep the broader context of a limited planet in mind…

And if we can keep cities full of birdsong and streets open for pedestrians and cyclists – including small, impetuous and inexperienced ones – that’s an extra bonus!

© Emma Despland  April 16, 2020

Image: Kids taking back the streets of Montreal; © Emma Despland



2 thoughts on “Life Lessons From a Pandemic

  1. Pingback: Covid-19, mystery novels, and how science works | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  2. Carly Ziter

    Really enjoyed this reflection, Emma! We’ve also been enjoying biking through the much quieter streets, and connecting with far-away friends and family much more than usual.



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