Covid-19: The effect on society and the environment

The local government is providing water in JoJo tanks which doesn't last long and this makes it difficult for aged Citizens to fetch water in places as far as 4km. Photo Simphiwe Mbokazi/ African News Agency (ANA)

When you think about the environment and protecting nature you may seldom associate it with our basic necessities like water, food and fresh air. Living in harmony with nature is largely considered to be a privilege especially for the vast majority in a developing nation like South Africa. During times of crises, such as a global pandemic, one can merely afford to consider the fragility of human life, value what is most important and find ways to stay safe and live through this time. The last thing on your mind may be our natural resources, wildlife, or climate change, but these are in fact critical in future-proofing our home. This is no elitist agenda but rather an opportunity to make fundamental links between our environment and our day to day living. Delving deeper into the value of nature is essential for human survival. 

First and foremost, it is necessary to acknowledge that health is the number one priority at this moment in time. A health crisis requires health solutions. In addition to this, Covid-19 has highlighted and exposed many other gaps in society that have been ignored for too long. Many of these are basic needs that are connected to ecosystem services. Ecosystem services can be defined as the many and varied benefits to humans gifted by the natural environment and from healthy ecosystems. 

Water and community 

The core preventative measure against Covid-19 thus far has been to wash our hands. However, the reality is a country that knows too well what drought and day zero looks like. Coupled with difficulty in accessing clean water we have sadly had a disaster waiting to happen. Water is the lifeblood of our planet and one ecosystem service that we simply cannot live without. One of the greatest goals during the global pandemic has been to avoid community transmission of the virus, but many of us have wondered how handwashing and social distancing could be possible especially in South Africa’s informal settlements, housing large numbers under one roof with few resources. Many of these may be children who deserve to be at school but cannot afford to, or who need to care for each other. Many adults may be surviving on a pension, are unemployed or have an income below the minimum wage. Some of the children in these households may have relied on a meal from their schools, which have been closed, impacting not only education but also the nutrition required for adequate growth and development. 


Many South Africans work in the agricultural sector on small scale farms to grow and supply fresh fruit and vegetables to local communities, informal traders as well as larger retailers. Besides being income-generating, these jobs may be a small spoke in a massive wheel, yet a critical one – highlighting the intricate ecosystems that exist throughout the supply chain, before food even gets to our plates. This is yet another example of an ecosystem service. These are all around this in many forms, however, the way we view them as resources rather than limited provisions has led to an oversight of their true value.

We are being nudged to go back to basics and may regret if we don’t heed the call. Think of your grandmother – she knew where her food came from, knew local farmers, perhaps grew her own food and supported surrounding communities. We have lost indigenous knowledge systems and ways of being, yet education on nutrition and immunity through food has never been more important than now. This brings me to behaviour change and the need to make choices that support our physical health as well as our environment – It is possible. The freedom of choice and the flexibility of one’s wallet are perceived prerequisites it may come as a surprise to learn that a nutritious meal can cost less than R17. Such meals and food packs are currently being distributed through local farms and activists to feed families who have not been able to afford a living during the lockdown. Appreciation for our food system and provisions during this time has been unparalleled. 

Travel and air pollution

Clean air is one under-appreciated ecosystem service. The manner in which we travel and our frequency of travel has been heavily compromised during the lockdown, but the Earth is thanking us for it. Less traffic, flights and cruises simply mean less Carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the air. In some of the most highly polluted countries, there has been a marked decrease in pollution and an increase in visibility of the skyline. This is due to multiple factors such as reduced industrial activity and fewer vehicles on roads. It is time to reimagine our transport systems and needs and to continue working toward a low carbon future. The value of oil is at an all-time low and the promise of renewable energy and just transition may not be such a distant thought. Just imagine a continued drop in emissions, an abundance of clean air and a reduction in respiratory diseases associated with air pollution. 

Wildlife and tourism

There have been increased sightings of wild animals on our roads, in our oceans and all around us. I imagine that they may be confused about the planet being on ‘holiday’, and probably welcome the refreshing environment that we have left to them. There has never been a better time to breathe in the fresh air, enjoy the abundance of our biodiversity and rest in nature. Wildlife reserves, on the other hand, have not enjoyed tourists as they usually do and the tourism industry has seen a downward spiral. This includes impacting people from the surrounding environments who are supported by these businesses. The environmental, recreation and eco-tourism industry is inextricably linked with job creation, economic growth and social structures and the knock-on effects have been devastating.

Climate Change, the next big thing

We are in a position where our healthcare systems are easily overwhelmed, our immunity may be compromised, food and water security are critical issues, and air pollution threatens our planet’s ability to cope, as well as our own.  These are pre-existing conditions that prevent us as a nation and a planet, from being immune to what is yet to come. Whilst we hide out safely in our homes waiting for the pandemic to end, we may not realise that something more inescapable is looming. Climate change- intensified weather conditions, extreme weather events, natural disasters, inabilities of natural systems to cope with change, wildlife and habitat loss, etc.-will likely find us facing a similar social, economic and environmental tragedy. 

Our resistance to rapid change and the inability to make tough decisions now may cost us our lives Covid-19 has been one test that determines our readiness, our value systems and how we will face the future. It is indeed a period of a paradigm shift, a new normal and certainly not business as usual. It is up to us to decide how we value nature, what price we are willing to pay, and whether we are able to adapt and future-proof ourselves, our nation and our planet, for the next big thing.