A realization hit me after an early trip to the grocery store pre-COVID-19 shutdown. Sections of shelves were bare, the usual, relied upon foods or products were missing or in short supply. Anxious faces, including mine, glanced right, left, and center, trying to make sense of these familiar, yet surreal surroundings. A critical element of our survival — ready access to food — was under threat. The burning question, how deep the threat and how long would it last?
In the first weeks, toilet paper shortages created panic buying.
We now hear key medicines could become harder to get, threatening the lives of people with health issues like diabetes. Without creative thinking (perhaps self-control) contraceptive shortages will definitely change people’s lives. There are concerns that during the outbreak hospitals will be unavailable or unsafe for mothers giving birth, especially those at high risk or in rural areas.
Second only to people getting sick or dying from the virus, all but essential businesses are shuttered, employees let go or laid off. The ability to raise money, a driving reality in all our lives, means society’s underpinnings have weakened and the bottom-line security for many is gone or deeply damaged. And we are creatures who hate confinement.
For many years, I’ve been involved in one aspect of the environment or another, lately on pollinator conservation. Conditions affecting the lives of other creatures suddenly seem all-too-true for human beings. Due to the COVID-19 virus are we not facing similar realities that the natural world has faced every day for a century? The biggest impact? Stress levels have skyrocketed.
Stress is the inability of an animal to adequately deal with its environment. Whether a lack of food, water, shelter, medicine, disease, pollution, climate changes, and freedom of movement, without basic securities all animals suffer some level of stress. All stress affects our ability to be productive even survive.
What the COVID-19 pandemic challenges remind me is that many animals in our world experience similar trials attempting to survive and produce a successful next generation. On a daily basis, their world is not about fulfillment, it’s about scarcity. While a large number of people in this country and around the world endure lives steeped in scarcity, most of us don’t. We expect so much to be at our fingertips. As if it is our right.
Food: A trip to the grocery store should be easy, right? We know where the food is. We buy what we like and can afford. Heaven forbid our favorite pasta sauce should be our-of-stock for two weeks, or the “must-have” out-of-season fruit is tasteless and “too” expensive.
Medicine: Although there’s a lot wrong with the system (sometimes the care), we get treatment if we are sick or need mental health support.
Housing: The majority of people have adequate, if not superior, shelter.
Communication and connection: In a flash, we connect with the small circle of those we love or with millions of virtual “friends” and strangers. Various forms of entertainment help us relax or deal with stress. If we’ve the money, we can change scenery and get access to anything we want or need.
How many animals experience anything remotely close to these basic securities in their lives? Fewer every day. In order to create our real and imagined living and entertainment needs, habitat loss has escalated so sharply much of the natural world is in crisis, in some areas to serious levels. Given the rates of some changes, the ability to adapt and change for most animals is limited if not impossible.
Food supplies, medicinal and host plants needed to survive, produce the next generation or provide shelter are reduced or gone, replaced by crops, lawn and hybrid plants. Many of these as useless to wildlife as a plastic cup.
Water is limited or diverted, streams and wetlands covered, breeding grounds lost to development or agriculture. Communication corridors (think courting whales, birds, insects, amphibians) are overrun with noise — shipping, undersea military explosions, airplanes, automobiles. Pesticides and pollutions harm us all, but the smallest in the food chain the most and the most immediate.
We’re all affected by changes that have happened to the planet since the beginning of the Industrial Age. We’ve just been too self-consumed and too noisy to experience the cost.
COVID-19 has generated stress levels unknown for decades, maybe centuries. It has also granted us many gifts. Perhaps the most precious and important is the quiet.
Nature feels it too. If it knew how to thank this deadly disease, I think it would.
We have this brief chance to notice, to pay attention, and to hear. What will change if we see our own struggles mirrored in the nature around us? If we better appreciate how we’re not so different? To feel the importance of not only filling our basic needs, but also what it means to go without. What will it take to imagine and live ways of change?