Urban Drive Environment

The old normal was never normal: Will we learn anything from the Covid-19 pandemic?

Will we learn anything from the pandemic? Or will we go back to our old, bad ways?

On a recent Zoom call with the extended family across the country and abroad, we asked each other to share the positive changes we’re seeing around us. Vendors and shopkeepers ditching plastic for cloth bags, lower pollution levels, and how many have become self-reliant were some common observations. More importantly, we spoke about how the crisis has forced people to take a closer look at issues that urban planners have been stressing for years: well-designed cities, better pedestrian infrastructure, more public amenities. The discussion made me realise that some changes might, unfortunately, be short-lived. And the others might not come.

Dreading the ‘normal’

With each passing week, as I come to work, I have seen the city gradually getting back to normal, a normal that wasn’t okay to begin with. The rash drivers, underage motorists, the ones on the phone when at the wheel are back on the roads. Men are urinating on sidewalks. One-way rules are being ignored. Littering has started. I could go on. With arterial roads such as Mount Road and OMR now open again, it is a free-for-all. It seems like people have learnt no lessons at all and have been waiting to get back to their usual, reckless routines.

A question that’s been on my mind for a while is ‘where are the disposed masks going?’ Masks are going to be a part of our daily wardrobe for a significant time to come, and unless we sport reusable, handmade ones fashioned from cloth, we are in for trouble. In the last three months alone, copious amounts of masks – be it surgical, N95, etc – and gloves have been disposed. We’ve diligently wrapped them in paper or plastic and trashed them in the bin. But what happens after they leave our street? Why haven’t we begun to segregate them from household waste to make things easier for workers handling such waste?

Focus on industries

International Energy Agency’s Global Energy Review 2020 reveals that the pandemic has contracted energy demand – oil, coal, gas and nuclear power – by 6%, the ‘largest in 70 years in percentage terms and the largest ever in absolute terms’. It goes on to explain that ‘the impact of Covid-19 on energy demand in 2020 would be more than seven times larger than the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on global energy demand’. Thankfully, what we will see more of is renewable energy. The report mentions ‘renewables demand is expected to increase because of low operating costs and preferential access to many power systems’.

Before you get too optimistic, let us look at what happens when daily lives and industries resume. The analysis states explicitly: ‘...the rebound in emissions may be larger than the decline, unless the wave of investment to restart the economy is dedicated to cleaner and more resilient energy infrastructure’.

Who is accountable?

But how can we expect this in a country where the government has learnt nothing from the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy – the world’s worst industrial disaster – and continues to brush industrial accidents under the carpet.

Earlier this month, panic spread as news of the toxic gas leak (at LG Polymers’ polystyrene plant) in Vizag killed 11 people and injured over 1,000. On the same day, a gas leak at a paper mill in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district led to seven workers being hospitalised. This week, an ammonia leak from a public sector plant in Chennai’s Manali triggered panic among residents. Rather than hold the companies accountable, the government is slapping cases on anyone seeking an answer. Ranganayaki Poonthota, a senior citizen from Guntur, was arrested for questioning LG Polymers on Facebook.

Is this new normal we’re all hoping for? I don’t think so.

A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 2:27:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/will-we-learn-anything-from-the-covid-19-pandemic/article31648354.ece

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