With unimagined speed, COVID-19 has disrupted commerce and economies at a global scale. In so doing, a longstanding threat identified by infectious disease experts suddenly became reality. Still, despite the tragedy, many of us believe in ultimate recovery ─ albeit in a form altered from status quo ante contagium.

Keeping an eye towards the future, we may even recognize an opportunity within the disturbance. Specifically, in the interest of human wellbeing, nations can rebuild even while investing in long-term measures designed to reduce future threats.

Acute vs. Chronic Threats

Of course, wellbeing and health are intimately linked. Regarding individual health, professionals commonly speak of ailments within two broad categories: acute and chronic. Typically, they view acute illnesses as distinct, intense events of shorter duration whereas they see chronic disorders as recurring, longer-lasting, and more difficult to eradicate over time. By way of example, we think of viral and bacterial infections as acute while labeling asthma, diabetes, and arthritis as chronic. Naturally, in the moment, acute illnesses dominate our immediate attention. 

However, most of us recognize that underlying chronic conditions may worsen acute effects. For instance, we note the added risk posed by COVID-19 to people with lung or heart issues. In this vein, in the absence of an acute malady, we serve our long-term interests best by maintaining general health through strategies such as diet, exercise, and wellness visits to our doctors. In so doing, we reduce chronic risk, decrease the effect of extreme sicknesses, and increase overall resiliency. 

Such logic as applied to individuals also extends to populations. Therefore, to speak of today’s global crisis in terms only of COVID-19 misses a larger point. To wit, we entered 2020 with growing recognition of the chronic threat to our economic wellbeing presented by severe weather events including drought, wildfires, and floods. Similarly, we noted looming concerns over food webs due to poor land-use practices as well as pollution in our air and water. 

COVID-19 has done nothing to change these realities. In fact, with economies reeling and resources stretched, we are likely at even greater risk. Speaking in terms of our health categories, climate change embodies a chronic threat to wellbeing and renders subsequent acute disasters even more harmful. Might we, even while recovering from the pandemic, somehow "flatten the curve" on climate change?

Recovery and Rebuilding

Historically, and regardless of the challenge, we humans have proven stubbornly adaptable. This perspective assures us in the face of the present crisis. Simply put, we will make it through. But not without significant collateral damage. And pandemic survivors will surely face an altered landscape. Large numbers will have lost livelihoods, many businesses will have failed, and entire sectors may even defy recognition. 

Respective of this disruption, we accept that rebuilding will require substantial and prolonged effort. Further, we expect that the scale and duration of that effort will demand government involvement. However, in Western democracies, this recognition puts “we the people” in position to mandate replacement structures that better prepare our economy for future crises. We therefore would best serve our wellbeing by seeking public investment that shields against both acute and chronic threats. 

Along these lines, we should treat the warnings of climatologists in the same way we have learned to heed infectious disease experts. Whereas disease experts advocate preparedness against the acute, climatologists point to the chronic. Making this connection allows us to use the lessons of COVID-19 to inform decisions for rebuilding our economies. 

Learning from the Pandemic

As one lesson, we now value protecting supply chains and agile manufacturing capabilities at the national, if not even the local level. Such a strategy speaks to decentralization and robust networking ─ tenets with great sway in increasing the resiliency of power grids. Of interest, renewables, storage, and decarbonization play well in deploying such “distributed energy resources.” 

In another striking lesson of COVID-19, we clearly see the benefits of decreased combustion on air quality. Across the globe, people have marveled at daily clear skies over entire regions as on outcome of curtailed manufacturing and travel. And doubtless, this clean air improves human health. (Would that such low pollution levels were possible even during strong economic activity!) Fortuitously, clean power and electric vehicles offer just that promise. 

Of importance, people have noticed better water quality as well. Yes, boat traffic will surely kick up canal sediment once again in Venice. However, as with electric power, we nonetheless can rely on dispersed strategies to achieve other gains in clean water. Specifically, where large central treatment plants are unaffordable, systems filtering domestic wastewater through soil and bacteria offer advantages over septage tanks, ponds, or direct discharge. Likewise, healthy wetlands can treat overland flow from farms, rooftops, and cities ─ all to the benefit of our rivers, lakes, oceans, and the life they nourish. (And now, even some buildings employ water reuse such that no waste flow is produced!)

But looking back to the life supported by clean water, we note a natural connection to our food. Beyond even energy and water, what we eat links us intimately to health and survival. Here too, emerging decentralized approaches can be used to protect against potentially fragile supply chains. For example, emphasis on seasonal production supports a growing “local-vore” movement while vertical farming produces vegetables harvested throughout the year, independent of weather or season. And finally, moving up the production scale, innovative agricultural practices now look to improve soil quality or even to produce protein by removing carbon from our air. 

Investing in the Future

Such developments in the water-food-energy nexus dovetail with new frontiers in the investment community.  Specifically, businesses and investor groups increasingly seek long-term, stable returns by backing models and technologies ranking highly on the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scale. In so doing, dollars are re-allocated towards companies whose practices align with favorable climate practices, wider stakeholder concern, and deliberately transparent ethics. Consequently, these companies achieve heightened stability through loyalty from employees, communities, and consumers.

In a post-pandemic world, this spirit of stakeholder commitment could integrate well with the investment required to rebuild global economies. Along these lines, we may now find ourselves at an ideal moment to apply the concepts of ESG investing at a previously unimaginable scale.  Think of it: national investment in robust, decentralized infrastructure with the aim of decreasing chronic risk and building engagement from citizens, taxpayers, and voters. Of significance, many of these same stakeholders would also benefit through high-skilled jobs providing the labor to build and operate that infrastructure. 

In closing, we must again acknowledge the tragedy at hand. However, as we endure the hardships of COVID-19, we should consider what may be accomplished upon emerging from seclusion. Most important, we should view the impending effort as a chance to invest in an economy more adept at protecting our chronic wellbeing, more capable of reducing future risk. Learning from experience, we can assure a healthier future by viewing this pandemic of 2020 as a battle rather than a war. For, given the current trend of global severe weather events, we are sure to see future combat. Let’s fight together – and win with pride!

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn and is reprinted with the author's permission.

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