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The Important Life Lessons We Can Take From COVID-19

History has shown us that major catastrophes can serve as valuable catalysts for change

Mere months ago, accounts of a strange SARS-like virus began emerging from China. Fast-forward to today, and what we now know as COVID-19 has sent shockwaves around the world with the global death toll now standing at over 302,000 and the number of confirmed cases ringing in at more than 4 million.

Beyond this heartbreaking loss of life, the fallout from COVID-19 has ricocheted into all other areas of our lives. Unemployment has surged and experts are warning we’re entering a deep economic recession, we have a mental health crisis on our hands, and our regular daily routines have been disrupted beyond recognition while we’ve been forced indoors to self-isolate.

There’s no way of sugarcoating the situation around COVID-19: It has and continues to wreak devastating consequences we never dreamt possible in 2020.

At a time like this, it can be difficult to find many – or even any – positives. However, history has shown us that major catastrophes can serve as valuable catalysts for change. Besides providing possible guidelines for how we can handle future pandemics, COVID-19 has also given us further insights on the looming climate change crisis, and further brought to light the gross inequalities that exist within our societies.

While we continue to fight COVID-19, search for a vaccine, and come to grips with our ‘new normal,’ it’s important we reflect on the valuable life lessons the pandemic has taught us and keep sight of these while working towards progress.

So, when we come out the other side of this pandemic, what will we have learnt?

Here are a few thoughts…

Human life on Earth is not a given

Although the extinction of many animal species has been well documented, many of us have never considered the possibility humans could one day become extinct too. COVID-19 has forced us to examine the fragility of our own mortality.

As grim as it is to consider, it is just one of many recent reminders that we may not be immune to being wiped out. In recent years, we’ve seen the global climate crisis escalate, coming to a crescendo in Australia with extreme weather events like droughts, floods and last summer’s bushfire crisis.

Now, we’re facing a pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times and it has brought life as we knew it to a halt. The pandemic has seen countries we’ve previously seen as strong and medically advanced – such as China, Italy and the US – brought to their knees. We’ve watched in horror as makeshift morgues and mass graves have appeared to whisk away inconceivable numbers of bodies in the worst-affected nations.

Swift, globally co-ordinated action is needed to protect against universal threats

Including future pandemics

COVID-19 has shown us not all our world leaders nor the systems we’ve placed faith in are equipped to cope with major global threats like COVID-19. We already knew from the early 2000’s SARS-outbreak that better information-sharing between countries and swifter, globally co-ordinarted is one of the best lines of defence against future pandemics. Yet, we failed miserably when it came to remembering these learnings and working together.

Public health experts have argued that had we seen early, more-aggressive and globally-united responses to COVID-19 (such as synchronised lockdowns and perhaps universal financial support packages) we may have mitigated much of the social and economical carnage we’ve seen.

And, climate change

While reporting around climate change has largely been forced into the backseat lately, this looming crisis won’t wait until the pandemic is over. We urgently need to apply the same principles of globally-united action to lower our greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late. No country is insulated against the effects of global warming and we are playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with the planet the longer we delay.

Changes in human lifestyle and behaviour can have a meaningful impact on the planet’s health

COVID-19 has highlighted the link between damaging human activity on Earth and climate change. Although we’ve seen many excited reports about the positive effect the pandemic has had on climate change (the cleaner air and recovery of wildlife has been impressive), the International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted 2020’s annual emissions to be down by just 6 to 8 per cent. Frighteningly, although it seems we’ve made huge improvements, this year is still on a collision course to be the hottest ever recorded.

Further, we remain on the brink of missing the internationally agreed target set during the Paris Agreement. Even the dramatic lockdowns and travel limits over the last few months haven’t put us on track to reduce our emissions by the agreed 7.6% each year to 2050 that will allow us to limit global warming to 1.5C (above pre-industrial levels).

Although terrifying, these sobering statistics show us just how drastic the changes we’ll need to make must be to make a meaningful impact in the fight against climate change.

If we can apply the same strategies of serious, speedy action, that we successfully used against the pandemic in Australia, to climate change, and look to countries like South Korea that are investing in green energy as part of their COVID-19 economic recovery plan, we’ll stand a chance.

Being cynical is dangerous (and costly)

In the United States, we saw Trump continuously spreading disinformation and reassuring Americans COVID-19 was “under control,” the US was in “great shape” and that they’d “pretty much shut [the virus] down coming in from China” all the while relying on the frighteningly misplaced hope that in April “it would disappear like a miracle” with warmer weather.

It didn’t. 

Dismissing claims the virus was serious, Trump remained bullish in his stance, refusing to lockdown the country and declaring repeatedly that America would be open for business again very soon. Meanwhile, his public health officials and many governors continued to warn that this strategy could result in a second wave of COVID-19 cases that would again overwhelm hospitals.

All the while, COVID-19 continued to spread around the United States at an alarming rate and the country quickly surpassed all others to become the hardest hit. Had the Trump administration acted faster and more aggressively to implement social distancing measures, testing and contact tracing, the United States may have had been in a far better position.

Looking to countries like Australia and Japan, it’s clear early action is the most economically sound approach. Countries that ignored the advice of health experts are now the ones paying the biggest price both in loss of life and economic devastation.

Don’t be afraid to take a sick day – it could save a life

In today’s fast-paced world, working through illness is often seen as a badge of honour. Many of us feel extraordinarily guilty for calling in sick to work and will present ourselves to the office unless we’re pretty much bedbound.

The result? We risk infecting our colleagues, which then has a greater flow-on effect on the company’s productivity than if we’d just stayed at home and kept our germs to ourselves. Plus, we not only risk sharing the virus with our co-workers but also anyone we brush shoulders with commuting to work or while stepping out for lunch. 

In the case of COVID-19, a number of ‘super-spreaders’ who kept going about their business while sick have been identified as being responsible for multiple outbreak clusters.

The lesson? If you’re sick, stay home.

Temporarily compromising your personal freedom could save a life (or many)

As Australians, we’re known for our optimistic, ‘no worries’ attitudes, and flouting the rules is often regarded as being ‘cheeky’ than seriously frowned upon. Ordinarily, this optimistic outlook is endearing but in a pandemic, it can be dangerous.

When our government began to roll out warnings around public gatherings, instead of heeding this advice with caution, record numbers of Sydney-siders flocked to Bondi Beach to enjoy the sun. After the beach was closed and further restrictions were broadcast around the nation, we started to get the idea. And, after we saw the global number of confirmed cases skyrocket what we dreamt possible, we really started to get the idea.

Let’s remember, keeping physically distanced is one of the most effective measures against infectious diseases.

Keeping physical distance doesn’t mean you need to be socially distanced

Many of us have interestingly found we’ve been more social with friends and family than before – even making contact via phone and video chatting with people in other states or countries that we ordinarily don’t see regularly in person. Perhaps we’re making much more of an effort to catch up virtually because we’ve suddenly become fearful of being ‘socially distanced’? 

Let’s not wait for another pandemic to give ourselves reason to pick up the phone, let’s keep this contact going. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve now taught many of our grandparents and older generations to use tools like FaceTime to implement regular face-to-face catchups from a distance.

Pandemics are not ‘great equalisers’; we have an enormous amount of work to do to ‘close the gap’

COVID-19 has been dubbed the “great equaliser” by some who’ve argued the virus’s inability to discern between race, class and socio-economic standing means it will affect all communities equally. But, this is not so.

It is far easier to ‘work from home’ in a white collar profession where simply all that is needed to perform one’s duties are a computer and WiFi connection and human contact can be minimised. Research conducted in the UK found men in low-skilled jobs like manual labour are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than men in professional occupations. Meanwhile, women working as carers are twice as likely to die as their counterparts in professional and technical roles.

The pandemic has laid bare the inequalities that exist in our society, hitting those from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds the hardest. We have intensive work to do to close the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’

Mere months ago, accounts of a strange SARS-like virus began emerging from China. Fast-forward to today, and what we now know as COVID-19 has sent shockwaves around the world with the global death toll now standing at over 302,000 and the number of confirmed cases ringing in at more than 4 million.

Mere months ago, accounts of a strange SARS-like virus began emerging from China. Fast-forward to today, and what we now know as COVID-19 has sent shockwaves around the world with the global death toll now standing at over 302,000 and the number of confirmed cases ringing in at more than 4 million.

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