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The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the reality that nature deserves our respect. It sure knows how to punch back, with countries and its citizens across the world reeling from its effect. And, it challenges us to make sure that we do not forget the lessons it brings to us. History has not been kind to us in our inability to shun from similar mistakes. Of paramount importance then is to take to heart and enrich those painful lessons so that nature and people can co-exist with mutual respect, harmony and benevolent interdependence.

Unfolding of unprecedented events

The Novel Corona Virus, now commonly called as the COVID-19, started to show its dreaded face in Wuhan, China towards the end of 2019 spreading rapidly to many parts of the world including industrialized countries like United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom and France. Globally, more than 200 countries have reported cases of COVID-19 and were overwhelmed with how fast the virus spread infecting thousands and with a great number of fatalities.

Eventually, the virus found its way into our country and spread rapidly, particularly in Metro Manila and many parts of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. With no ready vaccine and discovering one still uncertain, the government had no other feasible recourse but to impose calibrated quarantines depending on the gravity of virus contagion of the locality.

From data provided by the World Health Organization, there are already 10, 185,374 confirmed cases with 503,862 fatalities worldwide as of June 30, 2020. In the Philippines, the infected cases are already 37,514 with 1,266 dead. Authorities are yet to officially declare the flattening of the curve of COVID-19 cases. The number of cities and localities worldwide that imposed community lockdowns is the first of its kind in the recorded history of mankind. It is unprecedented and unimaginable, so to speak. People from all walks of life were stopped on their tracks. Practically, everyone was forced to stay in their homes and with limited mobility. It affected our very own way of life like never before. No more parties, social gatherings, and travelling around. The most common phrase worldwide now is SOCIAL DISTANCING. An uncomfortable compromise on our part for we are social beings by nature.

Respite to Mother Nature

Forced to stay at home and stay apart resulted to the reduction of carbon footprint. This is an expected after effect considering there are less vehicles traversing the roads, temporary stoppage of factories and malls that consume large quantities of fuel and electricity, and many other human activities that adversely impact the environment were put to a halt. All over the world, localities have started to report cleaner air, clearer water and reduced quantity of solid waste recorded during the quarantine period. Different species of wildlife have been seen roaming on places where humans used to frequent before their hasty retreat to their homes. It would appear that the COVID-19 induced lockdown has revealed, if not conclusively confirmed, that human activities are the principal culprits of all forms of pollution and the diminished capacity of nature to sustain a healthy and sustainable environment.

“It is observed that with less human intervention, nature is given the needed window to resuscitate itself. Left alone, nature regenerates on its own,” says Tirso P. Parian, Jr., Regional Executive Director of DENR in Eastern Visayas.

The Environmental Management Bureau in the region is in the process of collating data from its ambient air and water monitoring stations to study how the community quarantines in different parts of the region has made an impact to the environment. However, there is reason to be optimistic that air and water pollution may have registered a decrease in the region. In Metro Manila, for example, the air pollution monitoring stations in Las Piñas, Marikina, Muntinlupa and Parañaque have readings indicating reduced air pollution. Based on these initial indicators, DENR Secretary Roy A. Cimatu was able to see the silver lining with the present pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic saw the Earth healing with cleaner air and water. Let us make these and our changed behavior the new normal when this crisis is over,” says Secretary Cimatu.

Nature has found a way to bounce back and heal itself. Humanity’s greatest contribution to Earth’s healing is simply by doing nothing. A direct affront to us, for humanity has always been proud of showcasing its ability to control nature and the seemingly wanting of remorse in the exploitation of our environment and natural resources for the perks of a modern and civilized society. In a way, nature is just showing us a glimpse that society can continue to exist less the wants of modernity.We can have less of what nature is capable of providing society, with us still flourishing and excelling as human beings.

It is just unfortunate that while most people are locked in their respective homes and communities, there are still many that capitalize on the pandemic with their sinister plot to ravage our natural resources. Records from the DENR Enforcement Division in Eastern Visayas would show that from March to May of 2020 alone, more than Php5.5 million worth of illegally cut lumber were seized. This goes to show that our duty towards nature knows no pandemic. We always must be on the lookout for violators of environmental laws.

The challenge now is how humanity will respond. Are we capable of rising up to the occasion and become our better selves? If and when a vaccine is found, are we going to revert back to the “business as usual” mentality?

If we remain shackled to our egocentric attitude, we will miserably fail this deadly lesson. The next time nature fights back, the price may be too high and its effect already irreversible. Unless we realize that whatever gain can be alluded to nature because of the pandemic is but temporary - a short sigh of relief - we shall end up regretting this golden chance. Once we act like masters and less as nature’s stewards again, then we are back to where we left off prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Political will and personal commitment to sustain nature’s gain

While it is true that high-impact and far-reaching resolutions should come from the policy and decision-makers, it should not be an excuse for ordinary citizens to just wait on the sidelines and allow events prejudicial to our right to live in a balanced and healthful ecology. Everyone must jointly and individually find ways to sustain nature’s road to full recovery and implement the same. One such way is reduction of pollution that is strategically feasible and sustainable.

The new normal must include the thrust towards a greener economy – from automobiles, factories and even sustainable and greener source of energy.

In an article online, Åsa Persson, research director at the Stockholm Environment Institute was quoted as asking the right questions. She asked, “Will governments seek to shore up the economy by bolstering old, polluting industries, or embrace calls for a “green stimulus” and use recovery funds to create jobs in sectors such as clean power and energy efficiency? On that same subject, Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst of Friends of the Earth said that, “allocating those vast sums in a way that moves the world toward a low-carbon future - and also addresses the racial and economic inequalities the pandemic has laid bare—would yield far more than a few months of reduced emissions.”

Sensible ideas that deserve our serious consideration.

Individually and collectively, private citizens can do their part. Basic is the mantra that if you can’t reuse it, refuse it – a simplified phrase to the usual 3 R’s of reduce, reuse and recycle. While we try to limit our consumption to essentials only, whatever waste we generate must be properly segregated and disposed of to prevent polluting our waters and air. A simple way of reducing our carbon emission is not to burn our garbage, reduce our use of automobiles, or conversion to e-buses instead of the fuel-dependent vehicles. Already, people are now embracing the use of bikes as an alternative mode of transportation. And with the government putting up the needed infrastructure to encourage more bikers, this a positive prospect to lessen our carbon footprint. Another thing that all can do even in the privacy of their homes or vacant lots is tree growing. Not only will it provide the needed shade, trees are also efficient in sequestering carbon in the atmosphere. Yet another important aspect is a shift in our attitude towards all forms of wildlife. Their continued existence in the wild is an important factor for a healthy biodiversity. Any disruption causes an imbalance that, more often than not, adversely affects human health. Illegal wildlife trafficking and unregulated consumption has to stop.

The call is really for transformation of every individual’s viewpoint and standpoint. The pandemic has shown us positive changes. In the words of Sec. Cimatu, “we hope these positive changes brought about by COVID-19 could carry over beyond the current pandemic.”

Turning defeat into victory

Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic has made us face our mortality as a human race. We were caught off guard and by the time we reacted, it was too late. But that is now water under the bridge and we are still trying to contain it though there are now indicators that we are effectively managing the spread of the virus. But as they say, it ain’t over until it’s over. We may be down but we are definitely not out. As Filipinos, we have shown our capability to adapt and to overcome the many obstacles that come our way. We are resilient that even in the face of death, we still know how to smile. These are qualities that we will be needing once again as we embark into this new normal. A new episode with greater respect and appreciation of nature.

The pandemic has given us TIME FOR NATURE, as the theme for this year’s celebration of World Environment Day (June 5) suggests. The DENR challenges the public to transform that time to reflect into action as embodied in this year’s theme of Philippine Environment Month (June) which is, “PROTECT NATURE, SUSTAIN OUR FUTURE.” Rightly so.

Mr. Ross accurately capsulizes our urgent task to afford nature the protection it deserves. “We’re not going to get another shot at this. We cannot afford to rebuild into the old status quo.”