With the world in utter disarray due to the spread of COVID-19, it is understandable that the celebration of Earth Day may have slipped the minds of most people. However, it is important to take a break from the perhaps overwhelming headlines and take a moment to acknowledge a day that was a monumental victory in the environmental rights movement. April 22 marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, and while we are unable to convene in person to show our support, it is still very much a milestone worth commemorating.
Through the championing efforts of Former Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day was created on April 22, 1970. The original goal was primarily to raise awareness for environmental issues, but also to bring communities together. Senator Nelson was determined to demonstrate that the general public cared about the environment in the hopes that legislators would work to implement better policies. His efforts and the actions of other environmental rights activists led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December of 1970 as well as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act shortly thereafter.
It is important to remember the goals of the first Earth Day, especially in the midst of this pandemic, because there is a relationship between long-term exposure to pollution and the death rates of coronavirus patients.
The presence of pollutants in the air can make people more susceptible to the more serious consequences of COVID-19, namely its impact on the respiratory system. These pollutants mainly come from automobile emissions, refineries and power plants. If a person is continuously exposed to such substances in the air, their lungs are weakened, and as a result it is harder for them to fight off respiratory infections. This finding could have an impact on how ventilators and respirators are distributed, because communities that have higher pollution rates could have a more pressing need for these resources. It is also critical to note that low-income communities have a higher risk of being exposed to high pollution levels than more affluent communities, so the government needs to take this into consideration when distributing resources.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has done little to reduce pollution levels in recent years, and people are being forced to pay the price of this oversight, sometimes with their lives. However, this problem is by no means just restricted to the US — China, which is the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions, has only reduced emissions as an unintended result of the virus, not because of a preventative response.
Earth Day 2020 will be a chance for us to come together as a community even though we may not be able to be physically together.
It is completely understandable that the world’s efforts are currently dedicated to curbing the spread of COVID-19, but the environmental implications should not be ignored. Deaths from pollution are not unique to this pandemic, but they are exacerbated by the spread of the virus and should be taken as a sign that we all need to take environmental issues more seriously.
While it is certainly good news that many countries have reported lower carbon emissions because there has been less production and air travel due to the coronavirus, these levels are likely to rise once the pandemic subsides. For example, transportation levels in the US have fallen as many states are implementing a shelter-in-place policy, but once it is safe to resume a normal routine, automobile emission levels will probably return to levels seen before the pandemic started.
Perhaps the most important thing that people can do on an individual level is to use this time to re-evaluate their own contribution to pollution levels. If we are now able to reduce our emissions because we are more or less forced to, hopefully it will make us more cognizant of our decisions, even when a state of normalcy returns. If we are able to limit our trips to the grocery store and other errands to once every week or so now, we can also try to do this even without the demand of a pandemic. It is seemingly small acts like these that are within our control and will have a cumulative impact if we all try our best to demonstrate a sense of environmental awareness.
In terms of Earth Day, it is making history this year in two ways. It is both the 50th Anniversary and the first time that Earth Day is going digital. With the help of an organization called Earth Day Network, there are several activities that people can participate in from the safety of their homes to show their support for the environment. This includes limiting your meat consumption, raising awareness about the importance of voting green and several other ways to educate yourself on environmental issues. On April 22, there will be a digital celebration with teach-ins, performances and different means to facilitate global conversations.
It is heartwarming that, even though we are unable to celebrate Earth Day in person, there are still ways in which we can show our support. Earth Day 2020 will be a chance for us to come together as a community even though we may not be able to be physically together. It is important that we all do our best to remember Senator Nelson’s original goal for Earth Day and that we do not lose sight of that, despite everything else going on.
Surya Swaroop encourages everyone to remember to do their part in taking care of the environment, even in the midst of a pandemic.