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Amid the fear and devastation, COVID-19 may be helping the environment


Everyone knows the physical, emotional and economic impact of COVID-19. It may also be having some unforeseen benefits for the environment.

Southwest Environmental Center Executive Director Kevin Bixby said there have been “pretty dramatic reductions” in air pollution in countries like China, Italy and the United Kingdom since the onset of the virus in late 2019. There may a similar reduction in parts of the United States, he said.

While acknowledging that the reductions in global-warming gasses and fossil fuel production in some countries are “likely to be very temporary” and return to normal levels when the crisis ends, Bixby said he is “encouraged by a few signs” that a dramatic shift in behavior is possible. For example, he said, one version of a U.S. House of Representatives bill to address the economic impact of the virus included a provision that mandated airlines substantially reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in exchange for a bailout of the industry.

 “Maybe this is a wakeup call,” Bixby said. “Maybe it’s a lesson that people can take to heart that we can change our economic system incredibly fast if we have the will to do so,” he said, and “do it in a way that doesn’t hurt our economy or hurt people.”

The best way to accomplish the change is through “a planned transition,” he said, that will “take care of people that lose their jobs in the fossil-fuel industry.”

Bixby said the COVID-19 is “really dangerous; I think it’s very wise that we’re told to stay home.” But, he said, the disease is affecting only one species on earth – humans – while climate change and the effects of mass extinctions happening now are “the equivalent of a pandemic in terms of the costs they will impose on humans and the planet itself,” he said.

“It would be nice when we come out of this that all nations and especially the U.S. are prepared to address the prospect of another pandemic and plan for that,” Bixby said, “and do the same for climate change and mass extinction.”

The world will likely see more infectious diseases in part because humans continue to destroy the habitats of some wild animals and force them into closer contact with other species and with humans. That destruction, along with wildlife trade and wildlife farming, make it easier for the pathogens that cause the diseases to jump from animals to humans, he said.

While COVID-19 may not be particularly lethal, it is very contagious, Bixby said. A worldwide outbreak of a disease like Ebola or measles with a very high mortality rate could be much more devastating.

“That’s something that we should be thinking about,” he said. “These pandemics aren’t going to stop. These are going to keep happening. The rate has been increasing in recent decades. You really have to start addressing these bigger issues,” Bixby said.

Construction of the Wall continues

COVID-19 has not slowed the Trump administration’s construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Bixby said, and that could spread the virus.

Hundreds of workers are gathering in New Mexico and other U.S. southern border states to build the wall, working in close proximity without practicing recommended social distancing recommendations, sharing tools and shopping in Las Cruces and other U.S. cities along the U.S.-Mexican border.

If the workers contract COVID-19, Bixby said, they will be visiting doctors and other healthcare providers in those cities, “spreading the virus and helping to overwhelm our medical response,” Bixby said. “That’s a problem. The Wall is continuing to be built as we speak.”

Bixby has a B.A. in biology from Dartmouth College and a master’s degree in natural resources policy from the University of Michigan. He moved to New Mexico in 1988 and started the Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC) in 1991. SWEC works “to protect and restore native wildlife and their habitats through grassroots advocacy, systemic change and on-the-ground restoration projects,” according to www.wildmesquite.org.