Coronavirus and sustainability: Lessons from the global pandemic

Coronavirus and sustainability: Lessons from the global pandemic

There’s no doubt that the current global pandemic has affected billions of peoples’ everyday lives. Lockdown has forced us indoors, to stay away from friends and family and to work from home. Even now, as restrictions are slowly being lifted, it’s hard to see normality returning, if ever.

It’s bleak. But, predictions as to what the new post coronavirus world will look like are surfacing and it’s looking bright for sustainability!


Resilience is a buzzword we’re hearing a lot more of in these unprecedented times as, across the globe, national systems are being put to the test: health services are strained; supply chain security questioned; and political systems reevaluated. Their capacity to cope and recover quickly from such difficulties will define their resilience – a trait vital during widespread catastrophe.

Healthcare services have undoubtably been put under the most pressure by the pandemic. The strain caused by dramatic intensive care submissions and overstretched staff has highlighted the system’s capacity to deal with such an ordeal.

The USA have recorded over 100,000 deaths due to the virus (so far, the highest tally for a single nation) putting the American healthcare system under extreme duress. For years there has been much arguing for a change to the system and coronavirus is only adding more fuel to that fire.

However, mortality rates in many European countries, such as Italy, France and the UK, dominated by national healthcare services, are much higher than their friends’ across the pond (as of May 2020). So are they fairing any better?

Suffice it to say coronavirus has put huge pressure on all healthcare systems around the world regardless of how they’re set up. Once give respite, politicians and directors will reflect and reevaluate how these types of services are run and what they can do to better deal with large scale shocks in the future.


Businesses too are being tested. The shock of the coronavirus is exposing weaknesses in supply chains calling for more transparent suppliers. A survey of around 800 Harvard Business review readers revealed 60% warn that poor visibility of who companies do business with is a significant source of risk.

In the retail sector many companies have ceased manufacturing in an attempt to protect workers and limit spending over a period of uncertainty. However, experts warn, when production resumes, businesses’ levels of detachment with suppliers can come back to haunt them. Some supplier may not survive the lockdown and when normality resumes it may become a question of who can start up again not when.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a prime example of the importance and fragility of supply chains. It is relatively cheap and abundant, so hospitals previously didn’t worry about how or where it came from so long as it met standards. But now businesses have been forced to shut down, PPE resource suppliers have had to follow suit. A lack of transparency meant many healthcare systems realised too late they were unable to acquire the PPE they needed causing significant problems.

Coronavirus is exposing weaknesses in supply chains across all industries calling for companies to respect supplier transparency more and hold how they operate with greater importance. Lessons learned now will ensure more resilient systems in the future.


Coronavirus has been hailed the ‘great leveler’. The lockdown applies to us all. Every single one of us has been plundered into turmoil, insecurity, and isolation unsure and uneasy about the future. Biologically, it doesn’t discriminate either. Black or white, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, gay or straight, you can catch the disease.

But we are not suffering equal. Changes to normality are affecting us in different ways. To describe the pandemic a great leveler would be ignorant and naïve. Here’s why.

In an interview with the Guardian, one migrant worker from Columbia revealed how he and two of his colleagues were made redundant from a pub in west London. No 80% subsidy, no furlough. A father of four thrown into extreme difficulty. To claim we’re all in this together is “just not true” he exclaimed.

Coronavirus is amplifying existing inequality. It’s subsequent economic crash will not fall on us all equally but affect the vulnerable more.

We are seeing this happen already. The wealthy are more likely to own their own home, or at least benefit from a mortgage holiday. Whereas low earners still have to pay a substantial amount of their wages on rent with many asking: where are they expecting this money to come from?

In day to day spending the well-off may actually see an increase in their savings according to a Fiscal Study as spending ceases on social activities. In contrast, poorer households are seeing their limited income being spent more on necessities putting a strain on already fragile finances.

Even simple aspects of life such as being able to work from home is not issue that is equally shared. Those less-off are more likely to struggle to work from home than those better-off.

All these factors are causing a positive feedback loop. The combined causal effects of poverty on health and health on poverty is seeing a downward spiral. So much so that, in England and Wales, black people are four times more likely to die from coronavirus than white.


Pre-existing differences in communities’ wealth, health, education and living arrangements all play a part in driving coronavirus inequality. It is the poor who are hardest hit financially, it is the ethic minorities who will suffer loss the most, and it will be the young who are hardest hit come the economic onset the pandemic will leave in it’s wake.

But there is still hope. Coronavirus has shone a light on societies flaws. Suffering today will mean change tomorrow, and those hardest hit will be the first on the mind come times of change.

We are already seeing significant movement in the war on racism. Although not sparked by coronavirus itself, the inequality and injustice amplified by the pandemic has arguably stoked the scale and seriousness of the movement George Floyd’s death has started.

In the workplace

As social distancing measure have been put in place so too have measures to ensure the possibility to work from home. Businesses are going to great lengths to allow staff to isolate yet still continue to do their jobs. This change is opening a plethora of more sustainable avenues for the future previously thought impossible.

Now we are over two months into lockdown it has been proven that working from home can work. We have managed to embrace the technology available to sufficiently communicate with colleagues and complete tasks with little disruption. So well in fact, large corporations are seriously considering opening more work-from-home positions and increasing staff flexibility.


But there is concern over whether opening work-from-home positions is fair for all. Not all people are able to work from home and simply do not have the resources to do so. As a result, we may see infrastructure changes as governments and organisations focus connectivity development to poorer and more remote areas. Similarly, not all will be able to afford the additional cost of working from home. Businesses will have to look into energy allowances to compensate staff for the extra electricity consumption.

Coronavirus has opened our eyes to a new world of work. Workday weeks may become a thing of the past as working hour change to suit the individual. This will mean a better work-life balance and better social sustainability on the whole.

The environment will benefit too. Daily commutes distances are decreasing from miles to yards. Less cars are on the road and public transport use has eased, alleviating the ever-increasing strain these systems face. We are already seeing changes. As discussed a few weeks back, carbon emissions have been dropping as a result. China’s emissions have fallen 25% since the start of the year, New York has reported a 50% drop in pollution levels compared with the previous year, and satellite images have measured a reduction in Nitrous Dioxide levels over Italy, Spain and the UK.

However, coronavirus is stifling sustainability progress within business. An Edie survey of over 100 sustainability professionals found more than half confirmed their organisations were postponing sustainability related announcements. Additionally, 37% of respondents reported that investment in sustainability/energy-related technologies, processes or systems over the coming months would be paused or postponed due to the pandemic.

Climate change

But we should not be discouraged. Parallels can be drawn between the shock of the current coronavirus pandemic and what we are to expect from climate change.

It’s encouraging to witness the level of adaptability humans have shown over the past couple of months. The speed in which society has changed in light of a crisis has been phenomenal in its collective take-up. Of course, it hasn’t been easy or entirely without hiccup, but the lockdown’s effectiveness goes without saying.

When climate change reaches a tipping point, we will see many shocks much like the coronavirus outbreak. Extreme weather such as droughts, floods, typhoons, and tsunamis will become more frequent leaving areas across the world vulnerable. Land change and mass migration will disrupt communities and people will have to adapt. But lessons learned from one global catastrophe can be taken into another and coronavirus has not left us uneducated.

Climate change will flip normal life once again but this time it won’t come as such a shock.

Chris Hazell

MSc Sustainability & Consultancy

profile chris 1 | 04/06/2020

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