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Less than two months ago our lives took an unexpected turn. The COVID-19 outbreak developed quickly into a pandemic, spreading through countries and continents, uprooting our way of life as none of us in our generation has seen before.
While humans derive many benefits from nature, including food, recreation, and psychological benefits, we have often been terrible stewards of these ecosystems. Humans have significantly altered three-quarters of the land and two-thirds of the ocean. The result is more spillover of viruses from wild animals to people.
During the period of “lockdown” (in Italy where I live we have reached 48 days of lockdown now), while people dreamed of a walk in a park, a swim in the ocean or a hike in the woods, nature claimed back its space. We see deer resting on sidewalks, clear water in the Venice canals, improved air quality (in some cases up to 50%!), and all signs indicate that whales and other sea life are enjoying an unprecedented hiatus in underwater noise.
If nature and oceans have bounced back so quickly after just one month’s break from human pressure, imagine how much they could recover if we made lasting changes to our lifestyles, moving away from the constant growth in consumerism and globalization.
However, while we wish for ocean life to recover, the slowing economy has created significant social and economic downsides for ocean-dependent sectors, particularly fisheries and coastal tourism. Most fisheries and fleets have remained in port over the last month, hotels are empty, and tourism-related activities of coastal communities have not been able to benefit from the rewards of healthier seas – more whale watching, better water quality, happier tourists. Between the need for new safety regulations – that include physical distancing – and lack of opportunity to sell and trade, the fishing and seafood sector has been particularly hard hit.
Across the world, several countries have produced stimulus packages and safety nets for fishers. For instance, the European Commission modified its Fisheries Fund (EMFF) to allow for the mitigation of the impact of COVID-19 on the fisheries and aquaculture sectors. At WWF, we have continued to stay in touch with the fishers we work with to offer solidarity but also to learn about the creative solutions that some of them, particularly in local ports, have found to earn income. We have publicly expressed our support for the European Commission’s use of the EMFF to sustain the sector while we have highlighted the importance of maintaining the application and enforcement of current regulations.
At the same time, the risks and predicted economic impact on the tourism sector are astounding. I am thinking particularly about those communities in coastal areas that earn a year’s worth of revenue from a short tourism season driven by clean beaches and healthy seas. The UNWTO already predicted a 20-30% decrease in international arrivals, with countries like Italy, Spain and France to be hit the hardest, with Croatia, Turkey and Greece not far behind.
At WWF we know that sustainable use of marine resources is a key part of the equation that lets people and nature live in harmony.
The storm created by COVID-19 will pass, but the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come. Over the last few weeks, we have seen political and world leaders – including the UN Secretary General Guterres – agree on the need to build a new, better world from this crisis. We cannot simply go back to societies that are vulnerable, from a social, health, and economic perspectives. But also vulnerable because we have altered nature to the point where human-nature interactions cease to produce positive outcomes and instead become sources of human disease and misery – a state made worse by climate change and unabated human pressure. As an example of that, earlier this month, in the midst of the COVID-19 rapid escalation, the Great Barrier Reef suffered the third mass coral bleaching event in five years.
Once we weather the storm of COVID-19, we must take action to rebuild with a new vision for the world, a vision that leads us towards a sustainable economy founded on healthy ecosystems and delivering on the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the Mediterranean, and particularly in Europe, we look to our institutions to de-invest in harmful and polluting industries and instead to encourage and create new incentives for environmentally sustainable activities that deliver social benefits, strengthen existing environmental standards, and improve the overall environmental health of our societies and the ecosystems they depend on. The New Green Deal provides this opportunity and the parliamentary vote that occurred last week puts the European Green Deal at the core of the upcoming EU recovery and reconstruction package.
COVID-19 provides us with an unexpected (and probably unwelcome) opportunity for change. It has been relatively easy to listen, reflect and adapt during the lockdown period. We have not had much choice. Will we continue on this path of change or will we return quickly to business as usual? The choice of a better world is only ours. Nature will respond accordingly.