Stop telling people that COVID-19 is a punishment for our climate sins (or that this is some sort of gift)

We’ve all seen the beautiful, almost unbelievable, images: smog-free skies in Los Angeles, canals running clear in Venice, NASA images of the dramatic drop in pollution over Wuhan. Wild animals are reclaiming areas that humans have vacated. It’s amazing that nature is so resilient as to flourish so quickly in our absence. 

And in the midst of this, from good, thoughtful, well-meaning people, we’re hearing versions of a disturbing message: that this is somehow a gift. Or that this is nature’s way of punishing us from the way we’ve ravaged Earth (and yes, we certainly have ravaged Earth). That we should savor and prolong this pause (I totally understand that the pause needs to last until we get a real virus safety plan together–the message I take issue with is characterizing the pause as inherently a good thing). 

A popular meme is going around: 

I get the sentiment: that when we understand the urgency of a situation, we can take drastic action quickly. And that’s encouraging! But beneath the statement is an implication that our current situation, with all its devastation and fear, is what it would feel like in a world where we treat climate change with the urgency it deserves. 

Pope Francis (whom I like and respect, just as I like and respect most of the people sharing the messages that concern me), said that coronavirus is one of nature’s responses to people ignoring the climate crisis. Professor Leah Schade wrote a progressive Christian blog post that the pandemic is Earth’s way of demanding a Sabbath. Her article is actually very thoughtful and nuanced, but it’s hard to swallow her opening with the use of the word “Sabbath” in the context of the acute suffering happening now. The author of a much-shared (and again, for the most part thoughtful and nuanced) article “Prepare for the ultimate gaslighting” says that aside from the virus and the deaths (a pretty big aside!), “The Great Pause” is “the greatest gift ever unwrapped.” He then goes on to warn us that Best Buy, H&M, and Walmart are going to try to comfort us as the government and businesses try to get back to normal, and that what we really need to do instead of seeking comfort in material things and hurrying back to normal is endure the “bright light” of our current situation. I’m confused. If I really wanted products from those companies, I could order them online now. The comfort that I (and many others) are missing is not from things, it’s from seeing our friends and family (although many people are obviously, understandably, missing economic stability too).

The virus spreads through close/physical human contact, so human contact is what we’ve cut off in a (very necessary) attempt to slow the virus’s spread. The economic slowdown, with its extreme pain for many, and its temporary benefits for the Earth, is just a byproduct of the cutoff of in-person human connection. As necessary and for-the-greater-good as our current shelter-in-place scenario is, it’s traumatic for most of us. Social isolation increases our mortality risk on the order of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can cause PTSD. China’s divorce rate has spiked as the nation has slowly emerged from lock down. Again, I am not in any way arguing against the shelter-in-place orders. We absolutely need them, we needed them sooner than we got them, and we need to continue them until we have a true safety plan in place for moving forward. And of course there are ways all of us can try to make the best of our individual situations and spread some hope and joy within the grand horrible situation.

But let’s not further traumatize (or gaslight, to borrow a term from the above-mentioned author) people by saying that if, somehow, we could have all of the realities of our current social-distancing situation without the virus and deaths, that that would be a good thing. Let’s not tell people that the pain they are feeling right now in this unprecedented situation is somehow a ripping of the band-aid off our addiction to an unsustainable economy and a revealing of a deeper, better, truer reality. No. We’re feeling pain now knowing that hugging a friend or family member could kill them. We’re feeling pain knowing that if we were to lose a loved one outside of our immediate household to this terrible disease, then most likely we’ve already hugged them or held their hand for the last time ever (and many have already experienced this reality). I’m feeling pain that my almost-5-year-old son’s wish that the germs will be gone by his birthday will not come true and that we won’t be able to invite friends and family into our home to celebrate.

I know I have it easier than most people in this situation. I have a wonderful husband and kids I get to see everyday, friends and family I communicate with regularly (none of whom have gotten sick at this point), and a (fairly low risk) job, and I know so many people don’t have those comforts right now. So if I’m having a hard enough time with this whole situation to be offended by the notion that our current reality is somehow more noble or worthwhile than the “norm,” I can imagine that people who have it much harder would also find that notion distasteful. And if I, as someone who’s acutely aware of how urgent the climate crisis is and who spends most of my free time on climate advocacy, don’t want anything to do with a climate solution that feels as painful as what we’re going through now, I can imagine that people who already had their heads in the sand about the climate crisis would want to bury them deeper at the suggestion that this, right now, is what a climate solution feels like.

 Drawdown (one of my favorite books that I’ve mentioned in previous posts) analyzes dozens of effective, ambitious but achievable solutions to climate change, and–guess what?–social distancing isn’t one of them. In preindustrial times (granted, there were plenty of difficulties then!), people managed to congregate without burning dangerous levels of fossil fuels. If we conflate our current reality with the changes needed to mitigate climate change, we give the idea that taking bold climate action feels like deprivation and despair. Climate change is an emergency that we need to take seriously. And we are lucky that we still have time (albeit a shrinking amount) to take corrective action that doesn’t feel acutely painful like what we’re going through right now. Carbon Fee and Dividend has been called “the biggest piece of silver buckshot” we have for a problem that doesn’t have one silver bullet, and it gives everyone a seat at the table for a smooth, economically favorable transition to a clean energy society. Drawdown’s analysis of its many solutions reveals that most are “no regrets” in that they provide side benefits (clean air, new jobs, more equity, etc.) and/or provide cost savings over time. Yes, there is hard work to put in, there is opposition to win over, and there will be some bumps, inconveniences, lifestyle changes, and sacrifices along the way. But I really think we in the climate movement are doing ourselves and the planet a disservice by putting out messages that what’s going on right now is what the Earth needs.

When someone comes into the ER bleeding, you don’t declare that their emergency is a gift and see how long you can keep them bleeding because it’s an “opportunity” for them to turn their life around and kick their smoking and soda habits. Sure, once they’re stabilized and their pain is relieved, send them to my office a week or two later and we can make a plan for their long-term health. But don’t lecture them or tell them that their pain is a gift right at the worst part of it. We absolutely can learn lessons from the pandemic. My last post was about the importance of listening to scientists, and there are a lot of other lessons for us to learn too: the importance of competent and honest leadership (I hope we remember that in November and have a safe way to hold our election!), appreciation for grocery workers and farmworkers among many others putting themselves at risk these days to keep us all alive, appreciating our health, loved ones, and nature. There are good conversations going on about policies we need in place like paid sick leave and universal health coverage, and those conversations need to continue. And I hope that employers continue with telework options in the future and limit work-related travel, to help the climate and people’s family lives.

But let’s not kid ourselves that, as Julio Gambuto says, this is “a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity…to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all,” and that this is the biggest chance we’ve ever gotten and ever will get to define our country’s future. That’s actually not what this is. This is a devastation. And yes, we can do our best out of the ashes to bring forth as much good as we can, but we have actually lost a ton of ground on very important causes. Millions of kids are missing their measles vaccines. Important HIV and malaria projects have come to a halt. And in terms of climate, even climate champions in Congress have advised members of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (the advocacy organization I volunteer for and love) that it’s insensitive to push for climate concerns in the stimulus bills and that now’s not the right time. CCL has, wisely and graciously, advised us as volunteers that, first and foremost, we take care of our families and ourselves during this time, and that when we do communicate with our representatives, we lead by being sensitive to what they’re experiencing and dealing with during this crisis, and that we follow their lead on whether they have any capacity to discuss climate action right now. Congresswoman Katie Porter said that Congress spent most of their recent virtual meeting telling people to unmute their phones to talk, and that they still haven’t figured out virtual voting.

The pandemic is not a gift. Apart from the devastation it wreaks in causing illness and death, it has dealt blows to progress in so many areas. I don’t say this from a position of hopelessness; there are many reasons to hope and many ways we can take action in the midst of this. But please stop calling it a gift. And don’t call it some sort of cosmic karma for the harm we’ve done to the earth either. We absolutely need to figure out ways to prevent future pandemics, and being more careful and thoughtful in how we use land and how we interact with wildlife is certainly one of them. But telling people that they’ve earned this suffering and brought this upon themselves sounds an awful lot like people saying AIDS was God’s wrath against homosexuality. Just don’t even go there. 

Right now we need empathy, relief, and honest, competent leaders sharing the truth with us and guiding us forward in this unprecedented time. There is room for reflection, for lessons learned, for looking on the bright side, and for speaking truth to power about what in our society has been flawed for a long time and needs to change. But please, don’t tell people that this is a gift, or a punishment. 

3 thoughts on “Stop telling people that COVID-19 is a punishment for our climate sins (or that this is some sort of gift)

  1. Excellent post. If we don’t treat the devastation and pain caused by this virus with empathy and caring and understanding we will set the climate movement back rather than move it forward.


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