What does COVID-19 teach us about the way we have been living?
The way we have been living with travel, food and entertainment and anything else that our hearts desire available to the vast majority of us at will has now come to an abrupt halt in almost every developed country in the world. The freedoms and privileges that we take for granted, simple freedoms like leaving the house, are gone, overnight.
The response to this unknown and unquantifiable risk has forced all social interaction to stop including work. The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures governments are implementing to address it will throw the world economy into recession. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have both invoked a wartime spirit and it seems a fitting analogy, except if this were a war we would fight, we wouldn’t stock up on toilet rolls and settle in for three months of Netflix.
The blame game is already hugely underway with governments being accused of not being ready but the obvious truth is that nobody was ready.
Why weren’t we ready?
You might argue that no-one knew about Coronavirus. Except people did know about Coronaviruses and a cursory Google search will yield results of Patent Applications going back to 2005 and documentation going back to 1994. In fact Coronaviruses were discovered in the 1960’s and Coronaviruses are so well known that many household cleaners identify the strand and they have their own Wikipedia page.
But you didn’t know and I didn’t know, because we can’t be expected to know about pandemics and epidemics.
Except this isn’t the first pandemic that humanity has suffered, we have experienced many pandemics and epidemics in our lifetimes AIDS, SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola, Swine Flu, Avarian Flu, Foot and Mouth, Dutch Elm and Mad Cow Disease.
So it isn’t that we are unfamiliar with diseases.
So maybe we weren’t ready because we aren’t familiar with disasters? Except, only a month ago parts of the UK suffered some of the most disastrous flooding they have ever experienced.
Experts are continually stressing the need to plan for and eliminate disasters, but we don’t.
The shock wave of the Coronavirus arriving with the National Health Service already operating at close to full capacity before the virus even hit demonstrates that we are not prepared for disasters. Being prepared means having the capacity to cope with something extra, something unexpected and in this case something that is hugely demanding. The truth is that we don’t have anything spare for disasters not as a society, not as countries, not as businesses and not as individuals.
This disaster highlights one thing for me – our disconnect from our environment. It strikes me that at one point in our development as a society we were all environmentalists. The first priority would be to protect ourselves against our environment, the winds, the rains, the floods, the availability of food, our predators and illnesses. Now being an environmentalist is a life choice, its something you choose to be in and comes neatly packaged with a whole raft of group identities so you know exactly what you are supposed to believe.
What this terrible situation demonstrates is that we are only as strong as the weakest member of our society, not only in our homes, not only in our countries – in the world. What this situation demonstrates is that we all exist in our environment and that our wellbeing and our health is entirely reliant on our environment. Being an environmentalist shouldn’t be a political thing, it should be a practical thing.
It seems to me that we are all too busy with our Playstations, and our TV’s and our businesses to take a real interest in what is happening in our environment. Even when disasters happen, like the epidemics that didn’t effect us too much or the disasters that for the vast majority of us are happening somewhere else, they appear as news items for a day or two and then we move on. Now we are having to contend with something that is affecting all of us deeply, everything we thought we valued, everything that we had worked so hard for is in the balance. Even with the numbers of deaths in the tens of thousands some people seem to be completely unable or unwilling to follow the guidance. Maybe these are just the sort of people that struggle to conform to the needs of society at the best of times or maybe they are just people who don’t feel connected to the environment or that what goes on in the environment really has anything to do with them.
What does this have to do with our business, water pollution prevention?
When we work with clients to address their water pollution challenges and the impact a spill, fire or flood can have on the environment the same logic applies. We are essentially in the business of risk identification and mitigation. Understanding the risk allows for the creation of an emergency plan that can be quickly and efficiently actioned. Responding to an emergency without a clear understanding and plan leads to confusion, wasted time and resources. Failure to plan leads to a loss of financial control and that is a disaster for any business and even a country, exactly as we are seeing now.
This is how we position our products and services. The proposition is simply that if you work with us we will save you time, and energy in implementing the most cost effective and least disruptive pollution prevention systems and processes and, if the worst were to happen and you were to suffer a pollution event and find yourself defending your processes in court, save you large sums of money in clean up costs and fines.
Now, we are a business and we understand that businesses exist to make money and so the proposals that we make have to represent value and that value is represented in our society by money.
There is no doubt that the current situation represents a reset. The world has changed. My hope is that it will change for the better, where people reconnect with our environment and make investments based on the fact that we are totally dependent on the environment for our wellbeing. That maybe, just maybe people will start to make investments in our environment based on the immediate value of it rather than
Especially our water.
Do we need to be concerned about our drinking water?
In a technical brief from the World Health Organisation (WHO) released in early March for water and sanitation practitioners and providers it was stated that there was no evidence that COVID 19 could survive in drinking water. It is understood that the coronavirus is “not-robust” and the filtration, disinfection and chlorination used in most water treatment should “inactivate” the virus. Indeed some work was done following the SARS outbreak to ensure that Coronaviruses couldn’t be transmitted through drinking water. So if you benefit from having access to treated drinking water it seems like you don’t need to worry.
When it comes to sewage systems the picture is less clear. The World Health Organisation advise that there “is no evidence to date that the COVID-19 virus has been transmitted via sewerage systems with or without wastewater treatment.” The virus has been detected in patient faeces with some patients infected with COVID-19 virus experiencing diarrhoea in the early stages instead of a fever which is much more common. The CDC state that “the risk of transmission of COVID-19 from the faeces of an infected person is also unknown.” So it isn’t clear when we look at wastewater or other drainage if it could be at the start of any risk cycle. There have been several reports from water companies concerned that the recent panic buying of toilet tissue may lead to the public using other paper that will block the sewers. It is really important at this time to reduce as much stress as possible on the water and sewage networks.
If the Coronavirus is present in sewage we need to be aware of the potential impact a blocked sewer can have. Often the first we know of a sewage blockage is a pollution incident in the street which can lead to the contamination of homes and potentially the clean water network. Its not unimaginable that local pollution could contribute to labour resources and equipment being taken away from delivering clean water. We should also remember that people employed in delivering water and sewage services are at risk of becoming infected with Coronavirus. Most of the water companies have released statements stating that they are well prepared for these kinds of eventualities with many pumping stations and treatment plants operated automatically and remotely. What we all need to be mindful of is that water is an extraordinarily precious resource and taking better care of it means we are taking better care of ourselves and our environment.
What precautions should we be taking as businesses to protect our water supplies?
During this pandemic we urge all business to continue to think about preventative maintenance. Many of those business that are still operating are under a great deal of pressure and struggling with non-essential staff not available and other staff self isolating. If you have a reduced maintenance team and you are operating under pressure it is all too easy to focus just on the front line activity. Just because we are suffering this one catastrophe it doesn’t mean that all other catastrophes are put on hold, spills, fires and floods leading to pollution events are still happening. A pollution event now that impairs a water source or prevents a sewage treatment plant from operating will be even more damaging and costly now than at any other time.
What can businesses be doing to guard against spreading the virus?
At Sandfield those that can work from home are. For those that are attending the factory social distancing has been strictly implemented and everyone is really focused on hygiene in their own work areas.
All deliveries pose a potential contamination risk as parcels are moved from one location to another. It’s essential to make sure the handling is done with caution and all PPE is used. Don’t forget wearing gloves is great but touching your face with a gloved hand is just as risky as no gloves at all.
What impact is our behaviour having on the situation?
With many businesses now closing for what we hope is a short period of time we are all hoping to see a slowing in the rate of contamination. People still need to go shopping and this is probably represents the most likely way to pick up the virus. Most of us now understand the need to contain the virus and are behaving responsibly to do that.
The isolation and social distancing isn’t going to stop coronavirus, the aim now is to slow the number of cases and hopefully reduce the stress on the NHS. Planning for any disaster is essential and this pandemic has probably taught us one thing – we can never stop supporting the NHS and their Staff.
David Cole MSEE
David is a pioneer of the spill containment and water pollution prevention industry with 30 years experience. He was instrumental in the development of CIRIA736 with The Environment Agency and is passionate about preventing water pollution.