This past year has felt debilitating for most. As Professor Richard Friedman said: “The monotony of lockdown life has starved us of spontaneity and serendipity, which enhance learning and memory”, and: “If you’re ecstatic after a trip to the shops, it’s your brain thanking you for the novelty”.
Being an introvert, I’ve had no issues with this past year of lockdown. In fact, after an incredibly short adjustment period, I actually began enjoying it. There was a certain pride in the fact that what was once called anti-social behaviour was now deemed socially responsible, and ‘the right thing to do’. Through my interactions with friends and family this past year, I’ve constantly felt the need to justify this feeling of contentment.
I’m sure my point of view will seem myopic to those who’ve actually suffered this past year. While I’m not blind to the inherent issues and anxieties that 2020 brought, I just see little reason in looking back in anger as opposed to focusing on the few, important benefits that this past year gave us. The pandemic has undoubtedly affected our personal and professional lives, our societal outlook, and our environment, I feel, for the better.
The Environmental Impact
Pollution can come in many forms. Air and water are the typical culprits, and while looking at these, the others seem to fall through the cracks. Air and water pollution are easily identifiable and there have been significant calls to action to reduce both over the past few decades.
One equally harmful form of pollution that I’d honestly never considered until I’d heard about its decline throughout lockdown, was noise pollution.
Noise pollution is considered the third most hazardous pollution, after air and water, by the World Health Organization (WHO). Prolonged exposure to noise pollution has adverse effects on humans such as; psychiatric disorders, anxiety and depression, hypertension, hormonal dysfunction, and rising blood pressure. One of the sources which accounts for 40% of Europe’s noise pollution is road traffic.
A study in my home, Dublin, Ireland, measured hourly data from 12 noise monitoring stations between January and May of 2020. More than 80% of these monitors recorded high sound levels for more than 60% of that time before lockdown. Naturally, a severe reduction in average hourly sound was found across all stations during lockdown. Results which lie in direct correlation to the reduction of road and air traffic.
Dublin is a relatively small city when compared to the likes of New York or LA, but it would be ridiculous to assume that these effects are exclusive to Dublin. In New York, on the corner of Lafayette and East Fourth Street, microphones were placed which recorded the audio of two Thursday afternoons, one year apart.
The typical incessant honking of car horns and the chatter of New Yorkers led to a reading of 73 decibels on the 16th of April, 2019. On April 18th, 2020, however, the concomitant noise of the city had fallen away and, in its stead, left the low hum of the wind and the sounds of birds. This was measured at around 69 decibels.
For some of the people in New York, the noise was so expected that its absence became unnerving: “To me, it’s the sound of the city aching,” said Juan Pablo Bello, leader of the N.Y.U. project studying the sounds of the city.
Similar noise pollution experiments were conducted in Florida, California, and Texas. The average reduction across all 4 states was 2.6 decibels. This doesn’t seem like much until we remember that, given the way sound is measured, a reading of 3 decibels would account for HALF of the sound’s energy.
Similar experiments were also run outside of the US, in London and Venice. Unfortunately, this difference is difficult to articulate without the audible data, and the only place where this compiled data can be found is in this New York Times article . I’m afraid, if you aren’t subscribed you won’t be able to listen to the results.
Noise Pollution in the Ocean
One place where noise pollution was long thought to have little to no effect, is the ocean. Noise pollution, mainly from ship traffic, can be severely disruptive to marine life. Especially for animals which orient themselves through sound, like whales.
Whales are tremendously social creatures, they locate and communicate with one another through sonar. These sounds, as well as their echo, are so that whales are able to orient themselves in the dark depths of the ocean. These sounds can be heard for miles, but not with the cacophony of ship noise bleaching their cries or greetings out of the ocean.
Ship traffic and ship sonar are the main culprits. Whether sending out signals to seek oil deposits under the seafloor, or transporting supplies across the ocean, these noises serve to disrupt marine life. “Imagine that every 10 seconds there is an explosion that is rattling grandma’s china out of the cupboard, and it’s falling on the floor,” says Chris Clark, research professor at Cornell University.
Thankfully, as a result of lockdown and the sequestering of every nation, the amount of ship activity in the world has fallen dramatically.
Researchers examining real-time underwater sound signals from seabed observatories run by Ocean Networks Canada near the port of Vancouver, found an average weekly drop of 1.5 decibels (a 15% decrease).
Michelle Fournet, a marine acoustician at Cornell university has said: “We have an opportunity to listen – and the opportunity to listen will not appear again in our lifetime.
There was a similar instance where, after 9/11, researchers were able to use the decrease in US ship and air traffic to study marine life in a near silent ocean. This produced a groundbreaking study which found ship noise to be responsible for chronic stress in baleen whales.
During lockdown we’ve seen the Venice canals become clean due to a lack of disruptive motorboat traffic. We’ve seen animals taking to the streets in urban areas, re-claiming a part of the world for themselves, however temporarily.
There’s a large part of me that wishes for these to be permanent changes, but, as we attempt to return to normalcy, I suspect things will go back to how they were before.
The goal of these next two sections, in addition to hopefully being less pessimistic than that last one, is to shed light on the more everyday benefits of lockdown.
The Possible Death of the Office
Last year, many of us lived out what could be considered the universal dream: to wake up 5 minutes before work, button up a shirt you likely slept in, swat around for that slip on tie you keep by the bed, and log into work for a 9am meeting where no one can see that you still haven’t left your bed.
There are certain sectors of the working world where I’m sure this was an inevitability. The expected result of doing most of your rather important and intensive work on a laptop. For all of us other slackers who, every day, wondered why we trekked 30 minutes to get to a job we are apathetic about, in order to do 20 minutes of work over the span of 8 hours, it was a revelation.
In spite of all of this, I, and many others, actually found myself to be far more productive when working from home. The more relaxed environment and blurred line between work and home life didn’t lead me to think of my home as an office, but rather my home as some amalgam of the two that allowed me to forego the stress and hustle of dragging myself to work every day.
This is by no means a ‘catch-all’ solution. In the United States, for example, 70% of jobs can’t be done off-site. The lockdown undoubtedly, adversely affected an incalculable number of businesses. From that mom-and-pop book shop, to a local cafe you used to visit after work, every company that wasn’t ‘too big to fail’ was on the chopping block this past year.
Those of us who were lucky enough to hold onto a job throughout the pandemic can hopefully expect a mass acceptance of remote work as a viable, everyday alternative to the anachronism of the typical office.
All in This Together
At times, it can feel as though the human race is a very disparate thing. Beyond the novelty of having been born in the same town as someone, there’s very little that ties one another together. In spite of the panic buying and the fear-mongering, there seems to be nothing that appeals more to our sense of altruism than a universal health scare.
Funnily enough, altruism’s very existence has been an intellectual controversy for some time. Many intellectuals believe that the often deified word ‘altruism’ is little more than an earnest show of natural empathy and compassion. What may seem like benevolent acts, performed by veritable saints, are actually just normal displays of very human tendencies.
On the day that lockdown was announced in Wales, 56 year old Beverly Jones was out placing notes in the postboxes of all the doors in her village of Raglan. They said: “If, in this time of isolation, you need anything from the shop, we will be popping up each morning. Don’t hesitate to call at any point.”.
From this, I had initially assumed that Beverly Jones either worked at, or owned, a shop. No, she’s just a concerned citizen who wants to ensure that the less-mobile and more immune-compromised people in her village get what they need. Since that morning, she’s been shopping for 9 households every week.
During lockdown, I’m sure you could give an example of someone from your town or village who has performed an equally kind act.
A Ware That Will Not Keep
In 2019, the average national commute time in Ireland was 28 minutes. In the United States, it was 27 minutes, and in the UK, it was 59 minutes. The elimination of the dreaded commute, coupled with the more flexible work hours that many people have been enjoying since lockdown, has left us with an unexpected surplus of time.
Great, so we have more time, but what to do with it?
A survey by Nielsen Book showed a 41% increase in the number of people in the UK reading books. And, according to YouGov, 550,000 people in the UK have tried to quit smoking, with #QuitForCOVID making the rounds on Twitter.
The abundance of time we’ve all been given has been a gift. No longer were we forced to remain active and busy all the time. With the pressure of constant motion and activity removed from the equation, most, including myself, have felt quite content with doing absolutely nothing, guilt free.
While a fair few unfortunate people have suffered a familial loss this past year, the rest of us have re-learned the importance of spending time with loved ones. Being away from my dad for months at a time was difficult, but, given the miracle of modern technology, I was on the phone with him almost every day. Quite a bit more often than I would have been had everything been normal. This re-evaluation of what’s important in life seems to have been a natural revelation for everyone during lockdown.
Lockdown has been an undoubtedly stressful time for many. It can be difficult to enjoy, or even recognize, the benefits when you feel beset on all sides by something you can’t control. This is especially difficult when dealing with seemingly injurious abstractions such as, ‘how the entire ocean benefitted from you not being there’.
I’ve had my ups and downs, and I’m one of the people that was bred for this scenario, so I can only imagine what the experiences of other, more extroverted people were. My only hope is that, in reading this, you come across some tid-bit or reflect on some experience that makes you feel as though there was something which, even partially, justified this past year.
Looking for more anthropology or current events articles?
Why not check out these two?:
Understanding Urban Ecosystems
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Hobbies Help to get us through our lockdown.