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No Free Lunch

Will the birds stay?

I recently brought our granddaughters for a ride around the UP Los Baños campus — the first time they had gone out in over three months — and something struck me. The sprawling campus athletic grounds, devoid of the usual people who in normal times would be playing, running, or promenading in the wide expanse of grass, was overrun with low-flying birds, as if they had taken it over from humans. The sight evoked mixed feelings, and something in me was wishing that the birds would stay, even when things would have gotten back to “normal,” whatever that might look like. I’d like to think all of us welcomed how nature seemed to have been given a chance to regenerate since the lockdowns started in mid-March. Much has been said about how the air in Metro Manila and other urban centers cleared as the skies turned blue, water bodies became cleaner and life in them rejuvenated, and yes, birds ventured into our lawns and gardens, bringing music to our ears. In short, Mother Earth got a much-needed reprieve, even if only temporarily.

Everyone talks about the “new normal” and how we should all make sure it will be a “better normal.” But there’s a real tension between the urgent need to revive the economy and people’s livelihoods as quickly as possible, versus making sure we “build back better.” Some actually believe that the way to bring economies back on their feet is to set aside, at least temporarily, environmental and social standards that are seen to raise the cost of doing business, hence get in the way of restarting them as quickly as possible.

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The threat, then, is not just the prospect of returning to our old and “dirty” ways, which my friend Dr. Ben Malayang, in a recent article for the Dumaguete MetroPost, aptly described as an economy that was pollutive (inflicts costs on air and water quality, soil fertility, and biodiversity); extractive (runs down the earth’s resources beyond their capacity to renew and replenish), culturally disruptive (overwhelms indigenous assets and traditions in the quest for material growth and development), and morally erosive (puts profit over people, and material gains over ethics and aesthetics) — all of which COVID-19 showed to be standing on fragile ground. But now there is actually a temptation, and a real threat, that decision-makers would choose a path that will put us even worse than where we were before!

Yet there are additional environmental challenges that have come about. The constant hand-washing admonished on everyone must have raised water consumption a great deal; I imagine that many likely don’t even bother to shut off the water through the prescribed 20-second hand-scrubbing (while singing the birthday song). Luckily, the rainy season is upon us, which makes the water shortages we suffered last year unlikely. There is also the matter of safe and proper disposal of thousands of used personal protective equipment, face masks, and other materials used in treating COVID-19 patients.

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Beyond environmental concerns, there are long-term social and cultural implications of the crisis also affecting the new normal that is shaping up. In education, everyone expects greater reliance on distance learning, especially via digital and other telecommunications media. As we reconfigure education for the post-COVID future, we need to ensure that education truly becomes the great equalizer it is meant to be. We cannot allow access to quality education to be conditioned by the digital divide — the wide gap between rich and poor in their access to the internet and the devices that deliver it—and thus reinforce the former’s inherent advantage in society.

Culture has also taken a backseat through the pandemic, with public cultural activities canceled, creative energies in the various arts stifled, and workers therein neglected. These are the people Dr. Malayang describes as the principal nurturers, celebrants, and sustainers of the heart and soul of our national identity. Yet they may have been overlooked in the government’s COVID-19 response.

All that said, how our post-COVID-19 world would look like remains hazy to us all. My fond hope is that the birds will still be there when things fall into place.

[email protected]

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, UPLB birds
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