Earth takes a breather

Published April 22, 2021, 11:35 AM

by Johannes Chua

Pandemic cuts down man-made pollution… but will we learn in the long run?  

The health pandemic, like what experts have said at the beginning, is not going to go away soon. If there is a thing – a good one – that came out of our worldwide ordeal, is that the earth took a breather.

“It’s such a beautiful morning—the sky is blue, the trees are green, and there’s a strong breeze outside that signals a beautiful day.” This is how BPO worker Jayjay Montecillo described the daily scene outside his home in Pasig.  

Sunrise from Antipolo, Rizal. Photo by Paolo Syiaco (Unsplash)

“I’ve been living for years with my family on the fourth level of this building. It is a rare sight to witness birds chirping freely, to see the panoramic views of the mountains of Rizal, and to hear how the leaves of the trees rustle with the wind,” he said. “During the long lockdown, I wake up every day to something like a rustic countryside scene. There’s no noise and no pollution. Even when the economy somewhat opened in the early part of the year, it was not the way before pre-pandemic.” 

This is also the experience of Anthony Lim, a financial analyst who now works from home in Quezon City. 

“I live along a major road so I have a hard time working at home in the past because of all the noise from cars, buses, jeepneys, and tricycles,” Lim said. “When I started to work at home in March 2020 until now, I always open the windows and I could feel the clean air unlike before when it was very dusty. I have been working from home for almost a year now and I could say that I’m adjusting well.” 

For Marga Bulato, an NGO worker who is based in Bonifacio Global City, but now works at home in her family’s residence in Antipolo, the yearlong lockdown was like “a never-ending Lenten break in the province.” 

“I have been used to the fast-paced environment of the metro—the stressful work, meetings, socials, and parties. I never got to stop and pause. I never had the chance to think about the carbon footprint that all those activities entailed. Environmentalism was just lip service for me then. This ‘forced stop’ allowed me to evaluate what’s important,” Bulato said. 

Pollution deduction

Major streets are empty of vehicles during the hard lockdowns. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP)

With the yearlong lockdown, home quarantine required majority of citizens to work from home. Unnecessary travel, especially for leisure, is not still allowed. Limited public transportation is now available, but prior to that, there was a visible decrease of pollution emitted by diesel-fed jeepneys. 

There is still no reliable data on the decrease of pollution in our country, specifically in Metro Manila. But basing from international reports, such as the one released by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) last year, “China’s discharge of carbon dioxide (CO2) fell 200 million tons, or 25 percent—equivalent to annual CO2 emissions from Argentina, Egypt, or Vietnam. As the country’s economy slowed to a crawl, coal consumption at power plants in China declined by 36 percent, and the use of oil at refineries by nearly as much.”

The decrease in pollution related to the reduction of man’s activities—lesser plane rides, reduction of waste in buffet restaurants, cutting of carbon footprint produced during major events such as concerts, among others—is an inevitable outcome. But environmentalists hope that people will also become aware that the prolonged pandemic is a “warning” to care for our common home—the earth. 

“As if the world needed another wake-up call, the message is clear: the global Covid-19 pandemic is an indicator of the need to protect our environment,” said John Leo Algo, program manager of Living Laudato Si Philippines and a member of the Haribon Foundation. 

“Coronaviruses are naturally zoonotic, or transmitted between animals and people. It belongs to the same group of diseases as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), of which an outbreak occurred in southern China from 2002 to 2003,” he said. 

In 2017, it was discovered that the SARS-causing coronavirus was likely transmitted from horseshoe bats to humans through intermediaries such as civets, which were being sold in local markets and restaurants. Another coronavirus-related disease, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), was shown to have been transmitted to humans through dromedary camels. It was the cause of several outbreaks from 2012 to 2018, killing one-third of the diagnosed patients in multiple countries, including Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Environmental impact

According to Algo, the pandemic signifies the need to obtain proper knowledge and understanding of the biodiversity that surrounds us and avoid endangering them even further. 

“This is best exemplified by the pangolins, which some ecologists fear will be killed en masse due to previous speculations that they are a direct source of the virus,” explained Algo.

(Photo from NASA via Unsplash)

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, three of eight pangolin species are critically endangered, including the Palawan pangolin, an endemic species to the Philippines. 

Even without being targeted due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they are already under threat from poaching for medicinal, dietary, and spiritual belief purposes. In fact, pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world, with an estimated one million pangolins being smuggled from 2000 to 2013.


“The loss of pangolins, the only known mammals to be covered in scales, could lead to significant disruptions of ecosystems worldwide. They contribute to improving the nutrient quality of the soil and provide habitats for other animals. They also help regulate populations of pests such as ants and termites; a single pangolin can consume up to 70 million insects every year. At a time when their conservation should be prioritized, misleading information could simply drive them (and other species) closer to extinction,” Algo lamented. 

Algo also said the outbreak proves once again that we fail to learn from our history. 

“This reality is not just limited to armed conflicts, political patterns, or social revolutions; it also applies to the way we treat our environment,” he added.

New approach and mindset

Now that the world has been reminded again of how disregarding others, humans or otherwise, could directly impact its wellbeing, perhaps this might finally initiate a chain reaction that could break us out of the self-destructive cycle.

“Maybe global and local laws and policies toward biodiversity conservation would finally be consistently and strictly enforced. Maybe more people would be proactive in joining calls and actions on preventing these outbreaks from happening again,” Algo said. “From now on, we hope the notion of protecting other life on earth will become as imprinted in our consciousness as sanitizing ourselves for self-preservation.”

Addressing the pandemic is not just a health issue, but also a commentary on how we regard our environment. Environmentalism is not just about having clean air or a noise-free morning, it is a change of the old mindset that whatever we do to the earth will not affect us—the pandemic has showed that it will not only take lives but will also disrupt drastically our way of life.