The COVID-19 Pandemic and Lasting Challenges to Sustainability

The pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, also commonly known as Covid-19, has affected every corner of the of the world. After two years, humanity is still dealing with its effects. The first cases were first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019, and until now, it has claimed the lives of 5.36 million people in the entire planet1. To stop the spread of the virus, sanitary measures have been put into place (like the use of face masks, constant washing of hands, social distancing), restrictions to mobility, temporary closing of businesses and the implementation of capacity limits in closed spaces. However, such regulations have left noticeable consequences in the economic, social and environmental spheres2.

At the beginning of 2020, strict lockdowns, restrictions to tourism, remote working among other measures, allowed significant reductions of CO2 levels given the lack of use of fossil-fueled transport. This event lead to marine life return to places like the Vinice Canals, which have not seen fish in its waterways since decades ago. Or wild life reclaiming cities in the absence of humans. Skies were also becoming clearer and cleaner in many cities3. Nevertheless, were these changes long-lasting?

As Covid-19 proved to be highly contagious, it became mandatory to wear face masks (preferably surgical ones as well as disposable), surgical gloves (in the first weeks of the pandemic), and medical and hospital supplies multiplied. Water usage along with soap and antibacterial gels skyrocketed to prevent further Covid infections. The use of plastics has greatly expanded during this period, be it to buy packed food through delivery or pick-up services, purchase products online that normally come in plastic and carton packaging and plastics used to deliver goods in the international trade. These changes in hygiene and consumption habits of the vast majority of the world population have reversed many initiatives towards the reduction of the use of plastic, the same as the responsible and sustainable use of energy, water and other resources4.

The agreement is unanimous: progress in the environmental sphere reached in the first months of the pandemic, such as lowering CO2 emissions levels from 36.64 gigatons (GtCO2) in 2019 followed by a sudden fall of 1.98 GtCO2 in 20205 or “the reduction in the use of non-metallic minerals, including construction materials, reached double digits6”, were temporary achievements. The emissions levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) did not dropped significantly when placing them in an extended period of time. Furthermore, the amount of single-use plastic waste produced by the health, commercial and domestic sectors has only mounted to further GHG emissions due to their production, transport, use and disposal/treatment7.

How do we handle this situation? The lessons for the current time and the future are manifold. On the science front, materials for medical supplies and protection wear against Covid-19 can be redesigned more efficiently. Technologies could be developed to properly disinfect busy spaces and reusable materials. In the political and social aspects, changes in consumption habits should be promoted to stop the further spread of single-use plastics and other materials, in addition to implement stricter requirements to favor the reuse of residues and waste treatment in municipalities. Businesses can also contribute with a shift of paradigm towards business models based on bioeconomy and circular economy. It has become necessary to rethink product design from an early stage, that a life cycle assessment should be carried out and the product’s life should be prolonged to their maximum extent8.

We hope that the year 2022 brings more answers and certainties in regard to the coronavirus pandemic, and it is our expectation that as humankind, we can provide greener and more sustainable solutions to this and the challenges that lie ahead.

1 Our World in Data. 2021. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Deaths. Access on 12/03/2021
2 H. Begum, A. S. A. Ferdous Alam, W. Leal Filho, et al. 2021. The COVID-19 Pandemic: Are There Any Impacts on Sustainability? Sustainability2021,13, 11956. p.2. Access on 12/04/2021
3 Id.
4 European Environment Agency. 2021. Impacts of COVID-19 on single-use plastic in Europe’s environment.  p.6-10. Access on 12/01/2021
5 Programa de la ONU para el Medio Ambiente (UNEP). 2021. La COVID‑19 causó solo una reducción temporal de las emisiones de carbono — nuevo informe de agencias de la ONU. Access on 12/02/2021
6 OECD. 2021. The long-term environmental implications of COVID-19. p.2. Access on 12/01/2021
7 Ibid. Programa de la ONU para el Medio Ambiente (UNEP). 2021
8 Ibid. European Environment Agency. 2021.