OPINION: LOCAL AND GREEN (#12). THE SILVER LINING OF LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE PANDEMIC

Editor’s Note:  This column appeared earlier this week in The Amherst Bulletin.

Darcy Dumont

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown not only that we are vulnerable in unexpected ways but that we are amazingly resilient. The new paradigm has forced us to slow down and examine how we function on personal, local and global levels. This column will look at some of the lessons learned so far from the pandemic, how they might also relate to the climate crisis and how these silver lining lessons might help us rethink life after COVID-19. 

First, let’s look at the silver linings.

We learned that we are locally resilient in this pandemic.

Who would have imagined that we could change our lifestyles to “shelter in place” instantaneously? As a community, we conformed our actions very quickly for the benefit of those at higher risk.

We have witnessed the resilience of our local food systems — our grocery stores, farms and many of our restaurants adapting to add pickup and delivery services. The town quickly provided nutritious lunches for school children at 13 locations in town to ensure they are getting adequate nutrition and continued to provide meals on wheels to elders in need.

Teachers and students are adapting to remote learning. The town manager and assistant manager and the directors of the public health, fire, police and public works departments started meeting daily to ensure ongoing public health and safety in this unprecedented event. And very importantly, both official town and informal mutual aid networks have formed to check in with and help folks that are high risk or isolated.

We discovered that working and meeting remotely is advantageous.Meeting remotely means less travel and a lighter carbon footprint. Those who fly around the country and world for meetings have found that meeting virtually is a great alternative. Meeting remotely is not only good for the climate but for inclusion. People who otherwise can’t attend meetings due to disability, age or lack of transportation are able to attend virtually.

We learned that we are smart and creative.We are thinking positively, thinking of creative ways to help local businesses, making protective masks, creating art and otherwise spending our time constructively. A good example is Amherst Cinema figuring out a way to stay in business by providing movies online.These qualities would help in any type of crisis we encounter locally.

We discovered that access to nature is a basic human need and that in Amherst, we have plenty of access. Being inside for extended periods has accentuated our need to get outside and commune with nature. Walking, hiking and biking can all be done while social distancing. In Amherst, we assume our reverence and respect for nature and our willingness to protect it. As Chief Seattle said, “Whatever befalls the Earth — befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life — he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

We rediscovered some simple truths. As humans, we need connection with family and/or friends. Slowing down allows more time for fun, creativity and engagement. “Small is beautiful” made sense in 1973 and makes even more sense now. We can do without some things, can repair some things and can make some things by hand. Life doesn’t have to be so complicated. Life doesn’t have to be a rat race.

We pinpointed where our pandemic vulnerabilities lie.

We have found that we are at the mercy of federal and state governments in the public health arena. How many beds we have, how many ventilators, how many testing facilities is not up to the towns. How we protect our most vulnerable populations who are in nursing homes, rest homes, group homes, and homeless shelters has been a challenge without adequate testing and isolation facilities for those testing positive.Those of us at risk are also vulnerable in that we are not sure we will have access to a hospital bed and a ventilator if we need one during the peak of this pandemic.

We also discovered our economic vulnerability. In the pandemic, only essential businesses are allowed to be open. Others have either adapted, or closed, either temporarily or maybe permanently. How that will play out in the long run is yet to be determined, though residents are trying hard to support those local businesses.

Also, Amherst has a significant number of people who are newly unemployed and many who are worried about losing their retirement funds that are invested in the stock market.

Knowing these vulnerabilities will help immeasurably in preparing for any subsequent crisis.

We learned that our basic local infrastructure of sewer, water, fire and police is intact. Most of us still have access to food and all of our necessities and can still get around by car or bus. We still have electricity and access to Wi-Fi. We still have our garbage picked up and streets plowed and cleaned. Most, though not all residents, have housing and heat. Many, though not nearly enough, still have a job and/or a secure income. Our children are still provided with educational activities by their stellar teachers. Many of us, though not nearly all, are still enjoying most of our creature comforts even though “sheltering in place.”

We can imagine and prepare for vulnerabilities in our basic infrastructure that might happen in the future.This pandemic has prepared us to imagine future crises that may affect our basic infrastructure. 

Next month, I will discuss the town’s climate related and infrastructure vulnerability. How are we prepared to deal with the public health, societal and environment/climate related impacts that could be coming our way?

Darcy DuMont is on the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now, Western MA, a founding member of Western MA Community Choice Energy, and an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.

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