COVID-19: What opportunities will emerge in the aftermath of this global crisis?

3 April 2020

I went out for my rationed exercise cycle as usual today. It is eerily serene - no cars on the roads; the birds are singing; the rabbits are nibbling the grass; the spring blossom is starting to emerge – as if they have reclaimed the space.

At the same time, it feels threatening and unnerving. A silent enemy is stalking the streets. And so, we have to do the thing which feels most alien to social creatures like ourselves - shun contact with passers-by, stay away from friends, colleagues and family. I sense people I cycle past eyeing me up as some kind of threat.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, most of us were living in a cocoon of comfort in the UK. Where we took social contact, safety and abundance, for granted. Where we expected a fully equipped health service on stand-by; a social welfare safety net to catch and rescue us from financial difficulty, and supermarkets replete with food.

Now, the fragility of that system has been exposed. And for the first time for many of us, we are afraid of the unknown, worried about whether there is enough food in the system to feed our families, worried about our financial futures.

Like most organisations, at WRAP, we have focused on putting the welfare of our staff at the centre of our response to the COVID-19 crisis. Our offices are closed, and we have bolstered our IT capacity to enable remote working. My preoccupation has been on offering stability and reassurance, and ensuring we are doing everything we can to maintain emotional wellbeing (and mental health). I do not underestimate that these are anxious and uncertain times.

My immediate reaction, as the reality of the impact of the pandemic unfolded, was that WRAP’s busy environmental agenda would be put on hold whilst the nation rightly focused on dealing with the unfolding health crisis and threat to the population.

In fact, we quickly learnt that our experience, and strong network of partners in food supply and local government, meant we had a lot to offer.

I’m enormously proud of colleagues for the way they have risen to this new challenge.

Just a few examples of how we have supported the national effort:

  • We have been working across our existing networks, particularly in the hospitality sector, to facilitate the redistribution of surplus food. We will also be administering the COVID-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant from Defra to enable surplus food redistributors to get more food to those in need. 
  • Through our Love Food Hate Waste campaign, we have been supporting the public to help them be ‘food wise’ during the crisis – providing advice and information on how to plan their shopping, how to store items and use up the food they buy. Through our Recycle Now campaign, we have produced resources and provided advice so that citizens can play their part in supporting collection crews and they can continue to work safely. 
  • We have been working with local authorities to support them to ensure consistent collections where possible, On behalf of the industry, we joined a collective message, reassuring them of the industry’s determination to maintain collection services as much as possible and guarding against the crisis causing a rupture in our great recycling habit.
  • In Wales, colleagues were able to act as a conduit between our existing business partners and organisations appealing for help. This led to us, for example, helping to source plastic bottles for distilleries who are producing hand sanitiser, and to the supply of protection covers for baby incubators in the Covid-19 isolation rooms at a Cardiff hospital. 

As a nation, we are in the eye of the storm now, and the focus has of course to be on curtailing the spread of this disease. But once we have passed through this, our societies will emerge into a new reality. We cannot imagine that we can reboot and begin again as normal. It will feel as if time has cleaved into two, the before and after.

We will face choices. Retreat into isolationism and self-preservation to cushion us against the economic after-shocks. Or understand how the interdependence which accelerated the spread of the disease could also be galvanized to collaborate on shared learning and new solutions.

We can choose to renew our belief in science and evidence-based solutions. We can recalibrate our relationship with the natural world and reflect on the make-use-dispose consumerism which has put such a strain on our planet’s precious resources.

We can reinvigorate global commitments to tackle climate change. We can pledge not to ignore the lonely and vulnerable in our communities again. We have seen what humankind is capable of in this crisis. We have seen how we can work together to take action to tackle a global threat to our world.

As individuals, we can realign our priorities and value the importance of human relationships., We can respect the often invisible army of street cleaners, waste collectors, shelf stackers, till operators, delivery drivers and farm workers, who along with health professionals have been on the frontline of this crisis. We can value the goods we buy and the food which we put on our tables.

The inevitable economic fall-out from the crisis will bring the risk of the environmental agenda slipping off the radar. I certainly remember this challenge in previous times of financial difficulties.

This would be a mistake. I’m afraid this shocking crisis is a portent for what is to come if we do not come together to halt the impact of climate change, tackle biodiversity loss and the destruction of habitats. Which, as the head of UN Environment pointed out this week, brings with it the risk of further transmission of infectious diseases.

We must revive and place the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the centre of every Government’s agenda. We must fix the global food system, including bringing to end the shocking scale of food waste. The strains on food supply chains, now and in the aftermath of the crisis, will expose the dysfunctionality of the current system and give a taste of the enormous challenge to come to feed a growing population.

What kind of society which emerges from this will be down to us. We have a unique opportunity to take stock, reflect and decide what kind of future we want. We can all play our part in shaping it. It cannot be hostage to political and economic expediency.

If this crisis has taught us anything it has to be that we must learn to live in harmony with the natural world which sustains us.