This Plague Is Different — And That's Good News And Bad

Nature has its ways, and in the end, the pandemic will pass. But will humankind be able to return the favor and save that planet that still nurtures us?

'All we can really count on is nature.'
"All we can really count on is nature."
William Ospina


BOGOTÁ — The big difference between today's pandemic and history's previous great plagues — Justinian's plague, the Black Death or the Spanish flu — is that before, we had not yet so drastically altered the balance of nature. We were not living through a heightened process of climate change with its proliferation of extinct species, destruction of the vast biosphere, our insane dietary changes and the genetic alterations we are forcing onto the world, and with unforeseeable consequences.

There's lots of talk about how we've survived pandemics in the past by eventually developing immunity. This one, they say, will be no different, and normality will return. Because after all, we wouldn't have survived as a species if not for our extraordinary ability to fight off viral and bacterial attacks. Without antibodies we wouldn't be here.

And that's true. Right now we're not really placing our hopes on medicine, which doesn't do much against COVID-19, or on science, which could take ages to come up with an effective vaccine. We can't expect our overwhelmed governments to save us either. No, all we can really count on is nature, and our organism's ability to resist the assault and emerge strengthened at the other end.

We know, obviously, that species go extinct. And we understand that a million-year experiment does not assure us eternal life. We know species can be as mortal as an individual. But if we expect so much of nature and effectively depend on it, we should not consider ourselves so distinct from it, nor meddle with nature so recklessly.

All we can really count on is nature, and our organism's ability to emerge strengthened at the other end.

A species that needs to breathe 13 times a minute, as one song says, should not poison the air this way, nor fell the jungles, nor desiccate marshlands to feed its greed. In our crass ignorance, we should not be degrading the state of a planet so amenable to our happy existence.

What if our present experience were to become a permanent situation, and we became a continuous danger to one another? I myself am convinced this will not happen, and believe we shall overcome this crisis and current moment of alarm. But we would do well to ask what would happen if this planet — the source of all our joyfulness, the thing that made possible Renoir's paintings and Walt Whitman poetry — were to become, once and for all, a toxic hole.

What if its climate were to become unbearable, and itself a cradle of increasingly mutating viruses, eaten away by our greed, buried under trash, defiled by plastic and poisoned by pesticides? Imagine if the sun burned and blinded us, and water were no longer a blessing, with our bodies and its fibers barely able to react or willing to live on.

Pre-COVID-19: Renoir's "Bal du moulin de la Galette" (1876) — Source: Musée d'Orsay/CC

I sincerely believe and hope that we shall quietly return to our streets, to our familiar embraces, celebrations, loves and cordial dinner parties. We shall talk again to strangers on the street, learn to trust again, and be carefree and joyous. The litany of deaths and infections will stop, and we shall stop disinfecting everything we touch. We'll dare once again to lie on grass again to look at the sky. Indeed, we shall learn the forgotten art of appreciating the most elementary things: the body's wisdom; and the only real wealth, which is a simple life, real affection and a civilization for which it is fit to live and die.

We needed something to remind us that the body is a miracle, that trust is a treasure, and that we all deserve the same. And we needed reminding of the real danger of the powers we have aroused, the changes we have wrought on the world and the destruction our time is causing with our eager, collective participation. Let us remember that the harm we do may become irreparable.

We needed something to remind us that the body is a miracle.

This is much more than a four-month health crisis. The virus we initially deemed to be a low-level threat has managed to have a most disconcerting, and meticulous effect on our lives, and we have yet to see all its results. It has revealed the web of contradictions, injustices and paradoxes we used to call normality.

It is showing us, for better or worse, that anything can change overnight. The states and firms that could never find a way of paying people well to work must now pay them to stay at home. Airplanes are suddenly banned from the air. The oil prices that ruled our lives and controlled our mobility have plummeted to nonsensical depths. The vainest, most legalistic democracies, like the United States, are now seeing their campaigning president signing checks to be paid to the people. Venice is deserted suddenly, as are Times Square and the Champs Elysées. One is uncomfortably reminded of imperial Rome, whose universal pax collapsed to usher in the Dark and Middle ages, with their isolated lives and village ghouls.

The world that saw the pandemic arrive was not the safe and untouched world of history. "Raining birds' and the death of bees were its ominous signs. I do not think anyone is punishing us. Even so, we must consider the universal unease that pervades the planet like an omen.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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