By Wendell Chan

Thanks, or no thanks, to the ongoing pandemic, the world has been forced to make many changes. Organisations have adopted work-from-home arrangements or flexible working hours to avoid peak hours, and some have moved employees to backup offices to reduce physical contact.

Video conferences are now the norm for business meetings and classroom teaching. Even world leaders had to adapt quickly to this sudden change for the latest G20 meeting in March.

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Tai O. File photo: Tom Grundy.

However disruptive it may be to normal working arrangements, Covid-19 has brought some unintended positive effects on the environment. For a brief period of time, carbon emissions have dropped sharply with countries going into lockdown.

Nationwide quarantines and global travel bans have cleared the skies of smog and other air pollutants. People stuck in homes picked up sustainable hobbies such as reading, gardening, or cooking.

Not all is good, of course. In addition to the massive disruption to our daily lives, the desire for public hygiene means mountains of surgical masks, gloves, and tissues are being disposed of daily. Food retailers are using more packaging to protect their products.

More people are ordering takeouts to avoid being in close contact with others. All the progress made to encourage responsible use of plastics has been thrown completely out the window.

Once the pandemic is over, we cannot simply return to the old normal as some may want. This crisis did not just show the speed at which people can adapt to sudden changes. It also gave us insight as to some of the ingredients that make a society resilient.

It is important that we address these going forward—not just for the next wave of outbreak but for any crises in the future including but not limited to climate change.

Plastic utensils beach Hong Kong
Pieces of plastic utensils on a Hong Kong beach. Photo: Greenpeace.

A strong, resilient infrastructure system—both physical and digital— is an important backbone to any society.

In the initial weeks after the Covid-19 outbreak was declared an emergency in Hong Kong, stores and supermarkets were constantly cleared of sanitary and hygiene products and food items by panic buying. The fear even made news with bizarre events, like armed robbers stealing hundreds of rolls of toilet paper.

A strong supply chain should ensure that shelves will be quickly restocked during similar disruptions.

In addition to the ability to buy basic necessities, a resilient society should also allow people to continue to carry out societal functions. When the government adopted work-from-home arrangements, many public functions were disrupted. E-governments enable society to continue to run even with physical disruption.

The need for a strong digital infrastructure goes beyond the government to the adults and children who have to work and learn remotely from their homes. Lack of access or poor network speeds have turned from being a minor inconvenience to a major source of frustration, as video conferencing is now a primary method of communication.

File Photo: Pexels

Secondly, a strong sense of civic duty is crucial. At the individual level, this means the willingness to adopt new practices to—in the case of this outbreak—limit the spread of Covid-19.

For climate change, these could be difficult changes such as avoiding frequent long-distance travel or switching to a plant-based diet.

This sense of civic duty extends to businesses and other institutions as well, like employers making alternative work arrangements and implementing measures to provide a safe working environment for employees.

Manufacturers have quickly re-geared factories and distilleries to produce essential healthcare equipment and items like ventilators and hand sanitisers. Of course, not all actors will be good; an American video game retailer insisted it was an essential business and refused to follow stay-at-home orders, a decision changed after a severe public backlash.

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File photo: Pixabay.

Although we like to say every small action counts, there is only so much that individuals can do without support from the government. The government has a duty to protect and provide for their citizens—particularly those who are more vulnerable or are exposed to forces outside of their control.

For this outbreak, this meant enacting measures to curb the spread while providing supplies to those who have difficulties in securing them; for climate change, this is putting climate policies in the forefront to make the needed radical transition to a low-carbon economy.

The effectiveness of policy implementation however is contingent on government legitimacy. In Nordic countries where there is both strong civic duty and a high trust in the government, people were more likely to abide by health advice and guidelines.

Elsewhere, people come up with their own creative but not necessary effective measures to combat the virus. In extreme cases, people may even turn to harmful “solutions” that they find through social media, such as consuming animal urine, alcohol, bleach, or disinfectant.

Whether it is a few months’ time or within a year, Covid-19 will eventually be contained. We will need to deal with the aftermath, from assisting those who have lost their family members or loved ones to helping the economy recover.

Unlike this outbreak, however, climate change will be a slow and creeping crisis and will not just end in a year or so. Societies may collapse as cities become uninhabitable for humans and nations sink under sea-level rise.

There will be no sudden wake-up call. Some, in fact, believe that the alarm has long been blaring and we have conveniently tuned it out as noise. Will we prepare appropriately and in time to become a resilient society or will we once again be caught off guard?

Wendell Chan is a Policy Research and Advocacy Officer at Friends of the Earth (HK)

Friends of the Earth (HK) was established in 1983 as a charitable organisation. It is one of Hong Kong's most prominent green groups. Our vision is to establish a healthy and sustainable environment for all. As a leading environmental advocacy group, we focus on protecting our local and regional environment; offer equitable solutions to help create environmentally sustainable public policies, business practices and community lifestyles; and engage government, business and community to act responsibly.