The Coronaviris Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and subsequent lock-downs are unprecedented. It is a tragedy that so many people will fall ill and many will die. It is important that we learn from this emergency and not just so that we can avoid it happening again.

During the time of lock-downs, and after, we will likely ponder what is most important in our lives – the vital things – and what is not important – the trivial things. I assume that for most people the vital things include the health and well-being of themselves, their loved ones and their wider communities. When the virus is eliminated from our communities we must look to maximise those vital things and minimise the trivial things.

Consider nature as a vital source of human well-being. It mustn’t be forgotten that humans are part of nature and COVID-19 is a tragic reminder of this fact. Many places in lock-down are reporting an increase in wildlife sightings. Air pollution in cities like Beijing has plummeted. The water in the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in living memory. These and many other effects are all reminders of the significant impacts that human activity has on the natural environment.

Sustainability promotes the health and general well-being of people and the environment. Here are some of the factors of sustainability that the COVID-19 outbreak makes us think about:

Precaution and prevention

‘Prevention is better than cure’ is a central tenet of sustainabilism. By taking care and using the precautionary principle we practise the cardinal virtue of prudence. Prudence is another word for wisdom, especially in knowing what is the right thing to do in a given situation or circumstance taking into consideration all potential outcomes. Live animal wet-markets are not prudent. In the case of epidemics self-isolation and social distancing is the most prudent way to stop the spread.

Self-sufficiency

During lockdown people will have to be more self-sufficient. Sustainabilism promotes the maximisation of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency curbs over-production and provides the benefits of resilience, self-confidence and security.

Self-sufficiency is not about isolation. It is the practice of being responsible for oneself and for one’s family, friends and neighbours. This practice means reducing consumption to a sufficient level for well-being and then to produce as much as possible yourself. This would include things like growing fruit and vegetables, foraging, walking or biking, making and mending clothes, preserving and preparing your own food, DIY, solar panels, collecting rainwater, recycling greywater, waterless toilets, and so on.

Consumption

In lock-down, there will be less consumption generally and less money-go-round which will create an economic shock. At this stage, it is yet to be seen what the impact will be but it does show how fragile our economic systems are. Again, if people on average were more self-sufficient the shock wouldn’t be as great.

Resilience

In modern economies, there is a drive for the centralisation and industrialisation of production and trade. This means there are massive markets, factories, campuses and transport hubs where thousands of people mingle in close proximity. Small entities would be more resilient, and not just to hinder the spread of disease. Small entities would be more resilient in sustainability terms because they are less wasteful, and more self-sufficient.

Community

With national borders closed, transport limited and people in isolation, local communities will need to become more self-sufficient too. Being confined to home will mean that people will have to make do with what they have. However, families, friends and neighbours will still support each other as best they can from a distance of at least 2 metres! This type of ‘mutual’ self-sufficiency is the cornerstone of a sustainable economy.