We were listening to NPR the other morning when, following two hours of its flagship news program, which seemed to be almost entirely devoted to COVID-19, it aired a special, weekly one-hour COVID-19 program that was something like the Oops! All Berries version of Cap’n Crunch or the cookie dough meant to be eaten raw from a tub, but spoiled. Never before has there been such an onslaught of news about just one subject – proudly brought to you by people who have not gone outside.
At the same time, around the world and partly unseen, air pollution has fallen so precipitously it’s as though someone ran a Shop-Vac from the moon. Already, in the third week of March, measures to ward off the coronavirus had shut down industrial activity so much that satellite images from the European Space Agency showed dramatic reductions in nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted by the same processes as greenhouse gases, such as from transportation and manufacturing.
“We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” Paul Monks, a professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, in England, told The Guardian. “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”
No one ever wants to be in the position of saying, “Not to denigrate the loss of life, but ...” The only other problem here is, clearly we are not running an experiment to see what could be achieved if humans were to cease nearly all economic activity on their own say-so and, furthermore, were self-quarantined. At the same time, trying to keep people from dying of the virus by self-inflicting unheard-of economic pain does have offsets.
Globally, for example, about 1.25 million people die in roadway crashes each year. We can expect a fall-off in 2020 resulting in a savings of perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives. In the U.S., that could mean tens of thousands of drivers, passengers and pedestrians who will be spared more prosaic deaths because we stayed home.
There is another odd side effect: We stay in and they come out. This week, coyote sightings spiked in the heart of San Francisco, where the creatures normally do not venture for fear of the seemingly irrational and dangerous humans who built this city.
Coyotes were a common sight around San Francisco in the mid-20th century, but they were driven out with poison. The first to return was thought to have been spotted in 2002. He or she (surely it was a young male) was assumed to have traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County. Last week, a Twitter user posted a photo of a coyote lying quite relaxed in the middle of the bridge with the explanation “The arrival of savage animals in deserted cities is a fact.”
It must be interesting to be a coyote with the run of San Francisco now, free access to all the amenities people pay serious money to experience. It is clearly more interesting than the lives of many San Franciscans who are quarantined and forced to rely on virtual reality. It is the kind of inversion – what would it look like if we could reverse gentrification? – only a crisis like this coronavirus could have produced; where city dwellers might, for a change, envy the freedom of nominally savage animals. We hope they get to see the Hearst Building and make it out to Alcatraz.