Life in the time of COVID-19

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It’s been 8 weeks since the pandemic started. The countries around the world have started seeing a decline in the number of positive cases and deaths but it is too early to say whether the worst is behind us. I thought it is timely to reflect on the quarantine days as we are at the cusp of returning to some sense of normalcy with the coronavirus still in midst of us.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was voraciously consuming all the coronavirus-related news. Obsessively refreshing my browser to check whether the number of cases has changed in the John Hopkins University portal. With time, information, misinformation, and the whole political circus surrounding this pandemic made it look more like a soap opera. I eventually started spending only half an hour in the evening for daily updates. Most times, I felt a sense of general hopelessness with all the overdose of COVID-19 news. That’s when I decided to write a story of a different kind.

With each day in quarantine, I noticed that instead of my usual iPhone alarm, something else was waking me up, chirping of birds. Our house is surrounded by a canyon and occasionally we get visitations from wild animals like coyotes and rattlesnakes. I have seen some finches and ravens. With the car and foot traffic declining due to the quarantine, the variety of birds just exploded in our neighborhood - Cooper’s hawk, Goldfinch, Northern Mockingbird, Spotted Towhee, House Finch, and many more. Believe it or not, from just the balcony of our 3rd-floor condo, one day, I saw at least half a dozen different birds. All the bird photos posted in this article were taken within a 5-mile radius of my home. With fewer cars and people on the street, I guess they reclaimed their natural habitat! 

Not just in our own neighborhood, this is being experienced on a global scale. More than 90% of flights are canceled worldwide and the positive impact we are seeing on nature is simply unprecedented.

In a way, this has been a real-life human experiment that could not have been performed at any normal time. With the entire world in lockdown, we are setting live experimentation, where we can compare 2020 with 2019 and ask how do our actions affect our surroundings? The verdict is unequivocal- with shutdown in place, we are seeing that mother nature has started to breathe and thrive.

Let me start with my home state of California. California national parks have seen a massive uptick of animals in places that are usually crowded with hikers, tourists, and campers. A recent news article on NBC reported Agassiz’s desert tortoise sunbathing on the main road of Joshua Tree National Park. Bears are roaming near the Yosemite National Park visitor center. A Smithsonian article says that bobcats, deers, foxes, and bears have descended into the Yosemite valley where traffic jam is the usual sight. Just imagine more than 400 bears were hit by cars in Yosemite since 1995!!!. Not only the USA but several parts of the world are also experiencing a similar phenomenon. A CBC news article reported coyotes and elks roaming the sidewalk of Banff national parks. BBC reports lions napping on the road in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. It clearly shows how severe is the impact of human actions on wildlife. As if we banished them from their own homeland. Our quarantine gave them the chance to return to their habitat, and the voids left by us have been filled up by the natural residents of these areas.

Global climate similarly experienced a positive impact. As we are staying inside, the environment is slowly healing: smog-filled skies are getting clear. Air pollution has dropped to a remarkably low levels worldwide. New Delhi, the capital of India, and one of the most air-polluted cities in the world, has seen a 60% drop in the particulate matter. Los Angeles, Jakarta, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Manilla - stories are the same everywhere. A clear blue sky is being seen in decades. World meteorological agency said that 2020 is on its way to see the most considerable global decline in emission.

The problem is, this is not a sustainable way to keep our wildlife and environment healthy and safe. The economy has to open. We want to travel, visit places, and enjoy nature’s offerings. Is there a sustainable way to keep our ecosystem healthy? I know that is a question for policymakers. But, can we contribute to this effort even in the smallest way? I read a nice article in New York times on how to travel the world while protecting it. Here are some of my favorites: 

Travel places where government promotes conservation (like Namibia)

Experience eco-tourism (Costa Rica is a prime example of that)

Take public transit Travel light while flying (Yes, every extra pound of your baggage causes more fuel consumption)

Try low-carbon options like hiking, cycling, and camping

I plan to implement these suggestions in my next trip. Will you?

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