The Drillfield lies empty as Virginia Tech shuts down classes and moves to online-only in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, March 18, 2020.

The past few months of the coronavirus pandemic have highlighted many failings within our response systems. However, one notable positive that some are highlighting is the apparent rebirth of nature in areas now desolate of human activity. While it is doubtful one can truly appreciate this fact when staying indoors, the many photos of clean rivers and clear skies are a welcome sight. It is certainly welcome to see humanity’s impact on the environment, as it highlights how much pollution has changed our world. On the other hand, the decrease in emissions due to the coronavirus signals a fall in nations’ production, with economic stagnation and recurring recessions seeming likely. Is the coronavirus the wakeup call that humanity needs to restore the planet? Or is it only a slight bump in the road for industry, which will possibly double its emission use to make up for this loss?

I personally think that the revitalization of nature in some areas is a good thing, though it must be clarified what really is changing due to the virus. Carbon dioxide emissions have gone down steadily in countries such as China and Italy. This is due to a combination of roads and transportation hubs not being used, along with fossil fuel industry activities dropping. However, this doesn’t mean the air is free of all pollution, as there are many man-made products, such as aerosol emissions, which affect air quality. There have also been reports of decreased seismic activity in the Earth’s crust, as people are traveling less and staying at home more. This reduction in background noise can help geologists better detect smaller earthquakes and monitor volcanic activity, though many monitoring stations in remote regions won’t notice much of a difference. The result of this new reality of ours is a greater connection with nature. People on social media have reported hearing birds call more loudly as noise pollution is reduced and spring migration takes place. Others estimate that thousands of people may have been saved from deaths caused by air pollution, notably in cities in China. While the coronavirus does have its silver lining, it would be naive to assume that its positives make everyone happy, or that it bodes well for industry.

Reduced greenhouse gas emissions means that economic growth is stagnating, and that many more people will be out of a job. President Trump signed a bipartisan relief plan of $2 trillion to aid Americans impacted by the coronavirus, but it won’t help in the long-run without more planning. 

The president has recently released a message on the economic situation, saying that he is “continuing to take concrete actions to protect the American economy and the hardworking men and women of our nation.”

That may help at a national level in the U.S., but average coal consumption has reached four-year lows in certain areas of China, and many oil companies are forecasting less demand. Airlines have suffered from the virus too, with United Airlines saying it will cut domestic flights by 10% and international flights by 20%. Companies now have to revamp efforts to localize production, manage the contraction of the economy and hope for the best with ripple effects throughout the global economy. 

In China, it is said that activity in key industrial areas declined by 15-40%, and that its major trading partners, Germany and Japan, may be facing harsh recessions. Due to our own close connections with these countries, it is not far off that we will start feeling some of these effects. We must ask ourselves what we are willing to sacrifice during these times, and what we can pick up after this is over.

Our world is changing quite rapidly from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to increased quality of nature at the expense of industry. Moving forward, it would be wise to come up with plans to revitalize the economy, but also to go down a more sustainable route. If we want to ensure a better life for generations to come, now is the time to exact change instead of rushing back into old ways.

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