SOME POTENTIAL BENEFITS FROM AN AWFUL SITUATION

Silver Linings

  • 02 April 2020
  • 10 mins reading time

While the effects of Covid-19 unfold, we thought it might be worth taking a few moments to consider some potentially positive side-effects that this unquestionably awful pandemic is having.

Source: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146362/airborne-nitrogen-dioxide-plummets-over-china

Lower pollution

The maps above show how nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen across China since the lockdown took effect there. NASA describes nitrogen dioxide as “a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities”(1).

While there is usually a drop-off in pollution levels around Chinese New Year, it appears to be different this time. “This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer” according to Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon. Falls in nitrogen dioxide are being recorded across most countries that have implemented a lock-down or a reduced travel regime. For example, roadside monitors are already showing reduced levels of pollution in hot-spots such as Marylebone in London(2).

Paul Monks, Professor of Air Pollution at the University of Leicester, speculated that lessons could be learnt in the pursuit of a low-carbon economy. He also drew attention to the more immediate potential benefits, “It could reduce the spread of disease. A high level of air pollution exacerbates viral uptake because it inflames and it lowers immunity”(3).

There is also some positive news for those who are more directly affected by the virus and rely on others for support.

Supporting the NHS

On 24 March, the National Health Service (NHS) launched a campaign to recruit a “volunteer army” of up to 250,000 people. These people would be called on to do simple but vital tasks such as delivering medicines from pharmacies, driving patients to appointments, and making phone calls to check on people isolating themselves at home.

Within less than a week, more than 750,000 people had offered their services, leaving the NHS having to suspend recruitment.

Supporting neighbours

At the beginning of its volunteer campaign, the NHS made it clear that it was “not intended to replace local groups helping their vulnerable neighbours”(4). The speed at which local mutual aid groups started springing up showed that the NHS concern was not going to be a problem.

According to The Guardian, the first group was set up in Lewisham on Thursday 12 March. By the following Monday the number had exceeded 700. An umbrella organisation, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, has been set up to exchange information, best practice and advice. Looking at that website on 1 April 2020 showed almost 3,000 organisations listed across the UK.

Lower levels of “serious” crime

As well as more helpers, there appears to have been a drop in the number of hinderers. Police forces on either side of the Atlantic are reporting lower crime levels as people have had to isolate themselves and stay indoors. With fewer crowded places, less business being conducted and people occupying their homes, there are fewer opportunities for crime.

New York City’s Police Commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, noted that there had been a 25% decline in the number of serious crimes such as burglary and assault(5). His counterparts in Los Angeles and Chicago have made similar observations.

There has been a similar pattern closer to home. The drop in crime in Durham has been registered at 20% with officers reporting 130 crimes a day as opposed to 165 before the lockdown was imposed(6). Meanwhile, Chief Constable Andy Cooke, who leads the National Police Chiefs Council on crime, noted that “there is less violence from pub fights and fewer burglaries as everyone is at home.”

Cutting through bureaucracy

With so many people at home, completing otherwise simple tasks requires a new approach.

India has a poor reputation for bureaucracy. The process of completing many public-sector processes can be a painful experience.

However, now that people are having to work and meet remotely, the focus is shifting from sheaves of paper, to electronic communication.

According to a report on Bloomberg(7), the Finance Ministry is “moving all communication online, while keeping minimum staff on roster to attend to critical work”. While this is only one step, if it can leave a legacy of electronic processing and a more efficient approach to administration, the world’s second-most populous country could release at least one of the handbrakes impeding its economic progress.

Positive legacy

Talking of handbrakes, there is the potential for a more efficient use of remote working and commuter choices everywhere.

A study by the London School of Economics found that the London Underground strike of 2014 led to around 5% of commuters sticking to the new routes to work that they’d found as an alternative to underground trains. These commuters “became aware of a better route to work thanks to the strike”. The researchers behind the LSE’s study felt that this supported the hypothesis that “imposing a constraint on an economic system can enhance efficiency over time”.

If the same principle can apply now, we might see both a greater take up in the most efficient modes of transport to and from work, as well as the appropriate reduction of the need to travel by enabling and encouraging remote working.

Conclusion

There is no escaping the human tragedy that the pandemic is bringing. We must adopt the government guidelines in the effort to combat the spread of Covid-19. But, as the points discussed in this briefing suggest, the world after the pandemic has the potential to be a better place.

Notes

  1. Source: “Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China”, NASA, 26 March 2020

  2. Source: “Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution”, The Guardian, 23 March 2020

  3. Source: “Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution”, The Guardian, 23 March 2020

  4. Source: “Your NHS needs you”, England.nhs.uk, 24 March 2020

  5. Source: “Coronavirus: Crime plummets across the US amid lockdown”, The Independent, 26 March 2020

  6. Source: “Coronavirus crisis leads to steep drop in recorded crime”, The Guardian, 26 March 2020

  7. Source: “Virus Lockdown Forces Indian Policy Makers to Embrace Technology”, Bloomberg, 31 March 2020.

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