How to Stay Positive During the Pandemic—and to Help Save the Planet
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
On Sunday evening, I decided to do something different.
With gyms being closed due to COVID-19, I’ve found it to be more of a challenge to avoid people when running outside on nice days near a park.
So I abandoned my normal route that goes around the very popular Delaware Park and ran toward a brisk southerly breeze off of Lake Erie.
Usually, if I do head south, I turn around before reaching busier streets such as Chippewa in downtown Buffalo where there are many bars and restaurants. However, with these and other businesses closed, I felt like downtown Buffalo was a deserted solo runner’s paradise.
Some may say it was eerily quiet, like a ghost town, but somehow I felt like the lack of people allowed the city’s incredible infrastructure to shine. The low-hanging evening sun glinted off of iconic sights like the pearl-white electric tower and M&T Bank’s dazzling golden dome.
My favorite blues/rock alternative music blaring in my ears—including many songs by the Black Keys—I felt like the city was my own private playground. It was incredibly freeing. It was just what I needed after finding out that I was furloughed by my job...a life event that made me feel powerless and took a blow to my confidence.
Easily bounding across streets that normally have frequent traffic (but still following traffic rules), I made it my goal to chase the wind, no matter how forcefully it blew against me, through the empty city sidewalks to its source: majestic Lake Erie.
When I made it to the inner harbor, I took some time to feel the wind on my face and to appreciate the sparkling water before me. I wondered why I’d never run here before. I also realized a small lighthouse in the distance and the water meeting the horizon made me feel like I was in Florida—not just a few miles from my apartment!
This also made me think that while there are many negatives about the pandemic, there are also positives if we are willing to chase them down.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and negativity right now, this post is for you. I hope these tips to get through these lonely days of the pandemic can not only help us survive this crisis, but also find the strength to save the world from another looming threat: climate change.
Learn to Honor Your Home
As I’ve written about, before the pandemic, my husband and I were almost constantly traveling. As someone who cares deeply about the environment, honestly, this did make me feel like I wasn’t doing my part to help curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Air travel can be considered its own fossil fuel industry, consuming around 5 billion gallons of oil—per day! (TheConversation). This means air travel makes up about 2.5 percent of the world’s total fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change, and by 2050, could make up a quarter of the "carbon budget" experts recommend to keep the global temperature from raising above 1.5 degrees Celsius (New York Times). And although electric planes are in the works, they are still a long way from being feasible for transporting the approximate 8 million people taking planes every day.
Well, that’s every day before the pandemic, of course.
The U.S. State Department issued its highest level of travel advisory on March 19: A Level 4 Do Not Travel Health Advisory. This is not only due to the risk of getting and spreading the pandemic but also of countries quickly implementing travel restrictions and closing borders (so don’t be tempted by those cheap international flights--just ask !) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also advises avoiding all unnecessary domestic flying to prevent spreading the disease (CDC).
So there’s two ways we can see this situation: a bummer that trips have to be canceled or plans for a spring getaway unmade, or a chance to really appreciate our own hometowns and cities.
And not just the chance to spend money on fancy dinners and drinks, which let’s face it, can be done anywhere. I mean to appreciate the geography and scenes that can only be found where we live.
My run yesterday in Buffalo, for example, made me realize if I’m craving the view of a sunset over a seemingly endless body of water, I don’t need to book a plane ticket all the way to Florida, or drive to some faraway southernly place--it’s literally just down the road!
Now, as someone with just as much wanderlust as the next person, I’m not saying we should all avoid traveling from now on. But I think hopefully having to stay grounded can help us not get caught up in feeling like we have to constantly be traveling—“staycations” can be just as relaxing (and maybe even more so since you don’t have to worry about packing, traffic in an unusual area, or airport security).
A Chance to Appreciate Our Communication Tech
Visiting family and friends can be a major reason we burn fossil fuels to travel. And believe me, I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all! I am a firm believer that human interaction is a true source of happiness, far above anything to do with money or possessions, as many psychological studies will back up (New York Times).
However, I do think it is important to remember the environmental impact well-meaning traveling can have. Every gallon of gas that a vehicle burns adds up to about 24 pounds of carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in 2014.
A 2020 article by the World Resources Institute reveals that driving is the main reason worldwide transportation greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise.
2017 marked the year that the U.S. transportation sector surpassed the electric power sector as the top for producing greenhouse gases. That year, U.S. cars, trucks, planes, trains, and boats produced 1.9 billion tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) and the electric power sector—which literally powers just about everything!—produced 1.8 billion tons of CO2 (YaleEnvironment360).
In this age of social distancing, I think we are all also starting to realize the power of the devices we’ve had all along.
Although technology, particularly social media, has been villainized for doing the opposite, there are studies that show it can actually do a lot of good for people’s mental health, when not overused.
One study collected information from 180 people over two years in the UK. Overall it showed people found their mental health improved when they were given technology that allowed them to feel more connected to the world, including tablets, televisions, and radios (WaveLength).
Social media may be targeted for causing mental health issues, but as with most things in life, moderation may be key.
A 2018 study of 143 undergraduate students by the University of Pennsylvania found that those who limited their social media interactions to 30 minutes a day had major decreases in feelings of loneliness and isolation (Harvard).
However, this study stressed “less is more” when it comes to social media, and self-monitoring is key. It also found that not all social media is created equal—Facebook posts, for example, can be negative to mental wellness because they can be highly comparative (Harvard).
Honestly, I think from personal experience that probably calling a friend or family member via a video chat is going to be much better for your mental health than scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media application (although there can be a positive benefit of scrolling through the good aspects of your life you documented on your own curated social media feed according to Mindful).
I’ve been missing my family in the Finger Lakes, who I’m trying to avoid visiting to prevent the spread of COVID-19 since I’d be coming from an area with far more cases. However, I’m the only member of my family not at my childhood home right now, and honestly, that stings since I’ve always tried to be a family-first kind of person.
However, when I Facetimed my family the other evening for a dinner chat, I literally felt like I was right back in my family kitchen with them.
My sister was cooking pesto from my aunt’s garden and I could almost smell it bubbling on the stove as my other two siblings playfully picked on her for taking too long.
And my father’s notoriously goofy humor shined through—he’s not the kind of person who enjoys seeing himself on a screen, so he put his glasses on a yellow daffodil and told us to pretend it was him. This makes me chuckle as I write this because it seemed like this delicate flower came out of nowhere and was the funniest representation of my sturdy, tractor-driving and boat-building father I could think of.
It brought me right back to evenings spent clutching my side, my abs literally sore later from laughing—something I could always count on at family dinners.
I live about 2 hours and 20 minutes by car from my home in the Finger Lakes. But that’s still 135 miles (217.3 km) of traveling and a lot of gas to burn. Usually I just make the drive to see my family, but that Facetime dinner made me realize that I don’t always have to for that connection to them.
Learn The Wonders of Wandering
Something else my Sunday run made me realize is how close I actually live to Lake Erie—literally, just about 3 miles (5 km). Somehow, with traffic, it always seems farther when driving there.
So here’s another positive I think we can all take from the pandemic, if we are fortunate enough to stay healthy: walking and jogging to a place we enjoy visiting near our homes can not only provide us with a deeper connection to our wonderful outdoor surroundings, but also a way to avoid driving and emitting fossil fuels.
I’ve never seen more people walking around my apartment than I have recently. And I think it’s because most people recognize that this is one of the simplest and most beneficial physical activities we can give our bodies.
Walking can help people avoid many life-threatening conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart-disease (MayoClinic). It can also help you maintain a healthy weight, improve balance and coordination, strengthen bones and muscles, and of course dissolve a bad mood.
Walking instead of driving even short distances can also provide many environmental benefits. Vehicles could cause around 80 percent of carbon monoxide emissions in the U.S. (HealthiestStateInitiative). Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas that prevents hemoglobin, a protein molecule in red blood cells, from carrying oxygen. This can lead to health impacts from headaches to slower reaction times, chest pains, and even comas (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine).
Nitrogen oxide is another poisonous gas formed from vehicle emissions and research shows it causes asthma and other respiratory issues such as coughing and wheezing that require hospitalization and even heart attacks and heart disease (EPA, The Intercept).
In fact, since COVID-19 has such an impact on the respiratory system, experts believe the disease is more deadly to city-dwellers who have been breathing polluted air that’s already caused respiratory harm than to those who breathe cleaner air (TheGuardian). Polluted air kills an estimated 8 million people per year, a 2019 study by the European Society of Cardiology found in 2019—before COVID-19’s rise.
However, COVID-19 could also be causing a glimmer of hope on this front: since institutions have been stressing the importance of avoiding traveling to prevent the disease’s spread, unhealthy air pollution has decreased in many areas. In fact, in China, a study found tens of thousands of premature deaths may be avoided due to the decrease in air pollution (TheGuardian). Air pollution has also gone down in Italy where cases got so bad, people were told not to leave their homes (TheIntercept).
Perhaps these are all criteria future city planners can keep in mind so urban areas can become more walkable and less car-centric.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not in the slightest trying to say that the deadly COVID-19 virus, which has sickened 186,101 and killed 3,603 as of April 1, is a good thing (CDC).
However, I do hope on a positive note, this can be seen as a massive social experiment for the feasibility of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a huge scale—as the hundreds of scientists part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommend to reduce the greatest risks of climate change.
I feel like right now following the social distancing guidelines recommended by organizations like the CDC feels like running into the wind since so many of our social gatherings—going to the movies, seeing concerts, meeting friends at a restaurant—are based on public outings.
However, while it’s more difficult, I feel like it can also be more rewarding and it can push you to find those little glints of hope in even the most seemingly desperate situations. This is a skill that can be applied to nearly every situation in life, I believe. Even an empty city holds promise and just gives those lucky enough to catch a view of it a true look at the potential of the human mind.
And maybe after all of this is over, there will be more of a focus on making cities not only more walkable to allow us to continue appreciating the wondrous outdoors, but also designed in ways to help us protect it.
I think we just need to throw away a fear of change and run into the wind.