The end of 2020 is – finally! – approaching. By any standard, this has been a hard year for the whole world. More than 1.4 million people have died from Covid-19, leaving behind grieving families. Countless others have been unable to see their loved ones. Loneliness is rife, jobs have been lost, businesses closed and countries around the world are scrambling to deal with faltering economies.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. In the last few weeks, two effective vaccines have been announced, with hopes that a third is imminent. They offer real hope that humanity will come through this global trauma and be able to resume ‘normal’ life: hugging friends and family, travelling, going to work and participating in other meaningful accoutrements of 21st-century life. It’s a comforting thought. And yet, we cannot, must not, return to ‘normal’. Normal life in the last two or three decades in particular has required ever-increasing resource use, so much so that now, Earth overshoot day lands in mid-August. Modern life is incompatible with planetary sustainability and, as we only have one planet, we must therefore adapt our lives.
In fact, if we reflect deeply, we have to ask: do we really want to resume normal life? While lockdowns around the world have had untold negative ramifications they have, ironically, given many of us a clue as to what a better, more fulfilling way of life could look like.
So what lessons can we take with us into 2021 and the ‘post-pandemic age’?
Community and connection
Before the pandemic, the world was waking up to a loneliness issue. Most particularly in wealthier countries focused on individualism and self, people of all ages – not just the elderly – were feeling increasingly lonely. A 2018 survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than one fifth of American (22%) and British (23%) adults always or often felt lonely, lacking in companionship, felt left out or isolated. Indeed, the UK has created a Minister for Loneliness in an effort to address the problem.
Sadly, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem, with many people stuck at home alone. However, it has also reignited a community spirit in many places. In South Africa for example, Community Action Networks are bringing residents from diverse backgrounds together to solve Covid-related issues collectively. In the UK, 10 million adults volunteered in their communities during the first lockdown, with many of those saying they would continue to volunteer after the lockdown ended.
Connection thrived in many ways beyond formal volunteering: around the world people came together to applaud healthcare workers, neighbours checked in on vulnerable members of their communities and helped with their shopping, and ordinary people raised millions for charity.
Being a part of a community has proven time and again to have myriad benefits for mental health and social wellbeing: a feeling of belonging is a fundamental human need. Indeed, the benefits are so strong that, in some instances, ‘social prescribing’ – the practice of referring patients to support in the community – has been shown to be as effective, if not more so, than conventional medication.
A quieter life is often a better life
The small acts of kindness which bind a community together were perhaps easier to notice because the pace of life has slowed dramatically. In the pre-Covid world, ‘busy-ness’ was a badge of honour; being constantly busy was equated with importance. A whole culture and marketplace developed to support busy, important people: products to help them become more and more effective but also to help them destress and cope with the pressure. The boom of the ‘wellness’ industry was testament to the burnout that many people were feeling. It was as if we wanted to be eternally occupied because we were worried about what we would discover in a quiet moment.
But the pandemic has forced many people across the world to embrace a simpler way of life. Many people who can are working from home, and business travel came to a dramatic halt. Meet-ups with friends and family have turned into quizzes over Zoom, and shopping trips seem like a distant memory. Instead, many have started to embrace a quieter way of life, exploring hobbies, cooking from scratch, baking, spending time with their children, reading books, exercising or simply taking the time to be still and appreciate small pleasures. We have found deeper meaning in previously mundane, everyday activities. It will be fascinating to see whether this quieter, more peaceful way of life translates into fewer stress-related illnesses in the next year or two.
Improving our relationship with the planet
More time for contemplation and reflection has also allowed many – even those in urban areas – to appreciate the world around us. In upsetting and distressing times, the continuity of nature has offered great comfort. Nature in all its glory provided solace to people struggling with the isolation of lockdown: witnessing the annual cycle of a tree, noticing the departure and return of migrant birds, spending more time watching animals. Indeed, a poll by the National Trust revealed that a third of UK adults have become more interested in nature since the first lockdown in the country began, and more than two thirds said that spending time noticing nature made them feel happy.
Human lockdowns offered some respite to the natural world and effects were seen almost immediately. A dramatic reduction in the number of flights taken contributed to a decrease in carbon emissions, and also allowed many to notice birdsong for the first time, as it wasn’t competing with the roar of airplane engines. There are countless examples of nature reclaiming territory: fish returning to Venice’s normally polluted canals, baby turtles safely reaching the water on Brazilian beaches, and whales being able to increase the volume and frequency of their communications with one another in quieter oceans.
These are all wonderful to hear, but they should also serve as a stern reminder to humanity that they shouldn’t be unusual. The impact of human behaviour on the planet is unfathomable, and the Earth is staggering under the weight of our collective arrogance and greed. The pandemic has shown us beyond any doubt that we are part of – not separate to – the Earth’s ecosystems: we have encroached too far into nature and we are now feeling the consequences. If we are to thrive into the future, the planet must thrive. You cannot have a healthy human race without a healthy planet, and that means that we must change our behaviour. Nature helped so many of us through a difficult year – it’s time we return the favour.
Appreciating the important things
The American festival of Thanksgiving is on Thursday, followed swiftly by Black Friday, a homage to consumerism. In this unusual year, let’s use Thanksgiving as a chance to express our gratitude for the things that money can’t buy: the communities we belong to, the new habits and peace that we have adopted, and the beautiful planet that we call home. As we emerge into 2021 and – hopefully – a post-pandemic world, let’s not forget to take the valuable lessons that we have learned in this difficult year with us, so that we can create a better future.