The Lockdown and Its Lessons About the Environment

By Melissa Menny

Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, creeks were clear enough to observe aquatic wildlife, and air pollution declined for the first time since 1995.

In the wake of the lockdown early last year, it seemed nature had a much-needed break from humans. A year later and around 7,200 tons of waste attributed to medical masks can be found daily. The tools we have adopted to fight the virus — sanitizer bottles and gloves — have also become hazardous to the environment.

I sat down to talk with Dr. Neelu Tummala, an ENT Surgeon and Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and an advocate for climate change. She weighed in on the health crisis and how it coincides with the importance of environmental awareness concerns.

“Some of the changes during the pandemic showed us that to some degree we can change,” she said. “That our lifestyles can change, that we can rapidly evolve in response to a global public health threat. That being said, it also showed that we can just as quickly go back to our way of living despite there being a global public health threat. So, we have kind of demonstrated both ways.”

Dr. Tummala continued, analyzing the many concerns for the constant pushback against common sense protocols that could mitigate our public health crisis.

“Initially, there was a good number of people who completely changed their lifestyles,” she said. “There still are people who are being very conscientious of their actions and the implications of their actions to others, but there are many more who have really gone back to a way of life that threatens the health of other individuals. Whether that is refusing to wear masks, refusing to get the COVID vaccine, or…not holding large gatherings in their households [without safety protocols in place].

“All of those things demonstrate that despite very clear scientific knowledge showing us that limiting exposure to other individuals, wearing masks, that all of those things help protect not just your own health, but the health of others…We know what can help the health of our neighbors. Why can’t we get more people on board with this?”

The outdoors has been considered “opened” for quite some time now despite an increase in the Delta variant, COVID-19 cases, and, more recently, the ongoing studies of the Mu variant. The CDC recently reported that 53.7 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. Further incentives and initiatives have been taken to increase those numbers, but there is still hesitancy towards receiving the vaccination.

“I think that every individual who has chosen not to get the vaccine has a specific set of reasons and it’s pretty diverse,” said Dr. Tummala. “I think there’s definitely an element for some people of a general mistrust of science. For some, that’s rooted in historic racism within the field of medicine. So, I understand the hesitancy and reluctance and what makes me really sad is that what we in the public health field should have done is really try to address these specific concerns for the population that felt this general mistrust towards medicine…It was up to us to really reach out to this group and try to help push the conversation along in terms of making them understand why this vaccine is so important for their health.”

The same skepticism has been an an ongoing issue regarding climate change for years — scientific facts versus beliefs. It has all become a political punchline rather than drawing attention to the real impacts on our world. Dr. Tummala noted in our discussion that the actions of many during a health crisis echo the response to climate change, and that this often negatively impacts communities of color and of lower socioeconomic status. She described how communities with lesser means do not have the same adaptation strategies as others, especially during natural disasters.

“Certain communities don’t have the ability to adapt to the environmental concerns of global warming,” she said. “Whether it is heat extremes or exposure to wildfire smoke or worsening, more intensified natural disasters, such as seen right now with hurricane Ida in New Orleans. That is an issue here in the U.S. and it’s a huge issue globally.”

The initial lockdown has given environmentalists and scientists data to study which could potentially lead to conjuring real solutions. It has provided more answers to ongoing concerns about our world in multiple facets. There is no doubt that people’s decisions contribute to this ongoing battle to improve the environment, whether it is climate change or a health crisis.

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Melissa Menny is an author with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. She is a poet and a writer in all aspects. When she is not working, she enjoys painting, music, and spending time with her husband and son.

COVID-19 Observer

Telling the story of COVID-19 in America