Has COVID-19 “cured” nature?

The global shutdown in 2020 seems to have surrendered city streets (and canals, said to be) to wildlife. Ecologists see something deeper.

Animals enter the city
A group of Kashmiri wild goats have lived near Llandnor for nearly two centuries. In bad weather, they sometimes come down from the Great Orm. But in the spring of 2020, when the human world came to a standstill, they settled in the town for a few days, gnawing on hedges, and jogging on the empty streets.

These goats joined a group of animal stars who claimed to have transformed the city and became Internet celebrities: dolphins frolicking in Venice’s clean canals, elephants drinking corn wine in a tea plantation in Yunnan Province… People have to be forced by the 2019 coronavirus. Isolation at home, nature is recovering from human abuse.

Although the goat did come to Landnor, many other reports were false or exaggerated. These “Venetian” dolphins are actually in Sardinia hundreds of miles from Venice. Does all this show that the new crown pneumonia epidemic has really cured nature?

“The situation is much more complicated than this,” said Seth Magell, an ecologist and director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Chicago’s Lincoln Zoo. “For us, this epidemic seems to be very long in our lives. , But from an evolutionary and ecological point of view, this is really just a blink of an eye.”

A study in Science in September 2020 showed that, in fact, sparrows in San Francisco do change their calls during confinement. But Chris Schell, an urban ecologist at the University of Tacoma in Washington, said that it may take months or years before we get extensive data on the overall impact of the pandemic on wildlife.

Magell said that so far, there is some anecdotal evidence of changes in animal behavior. Raccoons usually move at dawn and dusk, but they sometimes move at night when people are nearby. There are fewer and fewer people going out during the quarantine period. Raccoons no longer just come out at night, they start to come out at dusk.

He also suspected that some animals ventured into urban areas not to regain their historical territories, but because more humans ventured into animal habitats.

Mager said: “In fact, some of our natural spaces may be being used more by humans, which may push animals to cities more.”

Although scientific research is still inconclusive, stories and social media can convince us that animals are bolder during the lockdown. Maybe you will find that the number of birds in your yard is staggering. However, Magell warned that this may just be a coincidence. “Maybe they always arrive at your house at 11 am, you just came home, so you saw it,” he said.

Reduced traffic makes the air cleaner
Animal behavior is not the only change that people notice. In some cities, the reduction in traffic has made the air cleaner. In the spring of 2020, as people stay at home instead of driving, carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by 17%.

The climate scientist Corinne Le Quiré of the University of East Anglia published a paper on this phenomenon in Nature. She said that in the long run, the impact of a spring on the earth’s climate is only a drop in the ocean. She said: “As far as we know, although this is an unprecedented significant drop in emissions, the drop in emissions has little impact on mitigating climate change.”

This is because for decades, humans have emitted billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A few months’ reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is not enough to solve this problem. Substantial changes require long-term changes in policies and industries.

Le Quéré said, “This means that the response to climate change requires the leadership of governments.” Schell thought that this moment was like going to the hospital because of a minor injury, only to find that he had a serious underlying heart disease. When people stay at home, the air becomes cleaner and the animals become bolder, which reveals that we need to make greater structural changes, including social changes.

“COVID-19 is not necessarily a cure for nature.” Schell said. But it does draw our attention to the way humans affect the environment: what happens in society is fed back to the ecosystem. Similarly, years of inequality and systemic racism have created an “unequal environmental mosaic”-greater ecological hazards in poorer and more marginalized communities.

The spring of 2020 has given us a valuable opportunity to understand what life will be like if we make systematic changes to help improve the environment in the long term. Mager said: “I hope that after this pandemic is over, we will really continue to do so. Yes, our communities need animals. They make us feel like we live in a primitive and unexpected place. , Which can surprise us in a truly positive way.”