Quarantining, the systematic confinement of the ill, has been in practice for at least a thousand years, but never on the scale seen in 2020, when Covid-19 was officially declared a global pandemic. The entire world was locked down, sent to sleep by a fevering planet. After decades of being told to do all kinds of different things to solve global problems, suddenly “doing nothing” became the best way to save the world for the average person (excluding the many essential health and frontline workers). Now, humans have never been good at doing nothing, so instead of just going to sleep, we started to dream.
The surreality of quarantining, day in day out in the same monotonous space, resembles that of a strange dream – a quarandream. Obviously, the word “dream” has multiple interpretations: it can refer both to the imaginative stories and visions our unconscious creates for us while we sleep, which range from pleasant to bad and downright bizarre, as well as to our ambitions and aspirations. One of the theories of why we dream is that dreaming constitutes a form of contemplating the future and poses as a practice room of sorts, allowing our consciousness to prepare for threats, which may arise in the real world. Similarly, quarantine can be utilised as an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the state of our world and how to change it.
This winter, the new Omicron variant is once again sending people into quarantine. Like so many of my fellow Londoners I find myself in self-isolation once more, where my world is reduced to a few small screens and the windows leading onto my street. As my physical reality shrinks, I want to use this opportunity to explore the dreamscapes of a world after Covid, specifically our relationship with the environment. Was the impact of a global pandemic profound enough to shake up the pre-existing structures and make our wildest dreams come true? Or, will we wake up to find our nightmares have become the new reality?
While I have heard several people describe the past two years as a ‘fever-dream’ – a dream with bizarre plotlines the dreamer has no control over – I believe it is time to reclaim power over our headspace and think about what an ideal world after Covid-19 might look like.
In an UCL Minds Podcast, researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, including natural and social sciences, discuss the impact of Covid-19 on our environment. As everyone went into their homes, carbon emissions began to drop, the air in some of the most polluted urban areas of the world became significantly cleaner, and the way we work and teach went through a digital revolution, leading to reduced use of public transportation and office space. As the guests of the podcast point out, this transformation was heavily accelerated by the emerging pandemic and could have otherwise taken a lot longer. This shows that a rapid and deep systemic change is possible on a global scale, giving reason to hope when thinking about other global challenges such as climate change.
Covid has highlighted how our health and the environment are intimately entangled. As more and more habitats are destructed – directly by humans or indirectly by climate change – zoonotic diseases become more common as animals migrate to spaces already inhabited by humans. This increases the likelihood of spillover events, where infectious diseases, originally only found in animal species, jump to human hosts and rapidly spread from there. Covid-19 may have been the outcome of such a spillover event, which are poised to become more common due to globalisation processes, thus increasing the frequency of future pandemics altogether. While it is hard to find out of where exactly pathogens jump from an animal host to a human one for the first time, taking preventative measures is a lot easier. In a dream world, humans would be able to respect the habitat of other animals and create spaces where we can safely co-exist with one another. This can be accomplished in multiple ways – such as stopping direct habitat destruction by humans, spreading awareness about animal-human spillovers, and taking measures to prevent spillovers in the first place, through education and sanitation. In addition, tackling climate change itself would help hinder the emergence of new pandemics by preventing indirect habitat destruction, which will remain a challenge after Covid.
However, even the quasi-iconic idea of a world after Covid might be nothing more than a beautiful dream; instead, we just have to learn to live with it. Scientists expect the virus that causes Covid-19 to become endemic, meaning it will start to only affect small pockets of a population, similar to the flu, and therefore pose less of a threat. While we may be able to eventually live with the virus, rapid climate change will continue to terrorise our sleep for much longer.
For many people, the pandemic is an ongoing a nightmare. I cannot begin to fathom the grief that comes with the loss of lives and livelihoods, but what happens when the nightmare does not end once we learned to cope with Covid? Earlier, it was suggested that the measures introduced to combat Covid also mitigate carbon emissions and adverse effects on the environment. However, rapid climate change is not solvable by individual behavioural change alone, such as avoiding public transport and working from home, which happened during lockdown, yet they can be a great way to start advocating for systemic change. Carbon emissions in 2020 only dropped by 5.4% and have since risen back to almost pre-pandemic levels, despite the massive reduction in air travel, tourism, and air pollution, showing that the most visible drivers of climate change only amount to fractions of the global carbon emissions, while big drivers such as energy use in buildings go almost unnoticed.
This Kurzgesagt video does a good job in explaining the complexity of rapid climate change and why the blaming of individual action is overplayed, when structural change is desperately needed.
Scientists have been shockingly accurate in predicting the effects of climate change from the 1970s, however, it took a lot longer for them to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. To continue our current trajectory would mean to create a vastly inhospitable planet plagued by natural disasters and cause a rapid loss of biodiversity within a single lifetime. If we don’t wake up now it might be too late to stop the events of this nightmare unfold.
Ultimately, all dreams have one thing in common: they will end eventually when the dreamer wakes up. The value of dreams lies in this awakening, as it holds the possibility to realise – or prevent – the visions of the future seen in the dream realm. As quarantines start to end and ‘a new normal’ begins to settle, we finally have the opportunity to learn from the past two years and build back better.
In the UCL Minds podcast episode mentioned above, Chris Rapley, a climate scientist, states that we are suffering from pandemics and climate change both in a form of ‘slow violence’, a term which was first coined by Rob Nixon in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, where he says:
By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.
Both climate change and pandemics build up over time until they suddenly and violently strike. Covid-19 was unprecedented in the global response it received and could have been even less severe in the UK if the pandemic threat would have been treated seriously by having a basic institutionalised emergency system in place. As governments should have prepared for an infectious disease outbreak, they should start to develop effective responses to natural disasters. Similar to Covid-19, rapid climate change cannot be solved by individual action alone and the effects of quarantine on the environment were more accidental and circumstantial than a sustainable solution. An example of real systemic change would be for individuals to actively participate in politics so their government can invest in a low-carbon economy transition. Nevertheless, the global lockdown experiment we just went through may have been the wake-up call we need to question deep-rooted systems in place that damage our environment and gives us the imagination and foresight to enable the rise a of new world – from dream to reality.
Title image: Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781). Source: Detroit Institute of Arts
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