Irish Examiner view: Easing restrictions shouldn't mean a return to ‘normal’

Criminal to throw away our best opportunity to reset our traffic-choked, stress-inducing, carbon-emitting world
Irish Examiner view: Easing restrictions shouldn't mean a return to ‘normal’

We don't want a return to the bad old days of heavy traffic. Picture: Larry Cummins

The further easing of restrictions yesterday was an important milestone as we continue to negotiate a path through a global pandemic that has claimed more than 7,400 lives on the island of Ireland. 

If all goes according to plan, the phased reopening of society should be complete by the end of October.

That is a positive prospect on a still uncertain horizon and it is one that has been made possible by Ireland’s effective vaccination programme. Even allowing for the vaccine-hesitant, Ireland is among the world’s most vaccinated countries.

There is a continued need for caution as we learn to adapt to a ‘new’ normal. While it’s too early to say what that will mean going forward, it is a good time to recall those lockdown dreams of shaping a new post-virus world, one in which work-life balance is restored, cities are human-focused, and transport is sustainable.

How disheartening, then, to see that the latest data from smartphones reveals a new normal that looks disappointing like the old.

Elevated levels of traffic

Traffic has returned to its pre-pandemic level in Dublin and in some counties — Kerry, Donegal, Mayo, and Clare — it has almost doubled.

The elevated traffic outside Dublin may be due to an increase in home holidays, yet it would be criminal to throw away the best opportunity we might ever have to reset our traffic-choked, always-on, stress-inducing, carbon-emitting world.

The movement-tracking data from Google and Apple is not all discouraging. It shows that many people are still working from home and city centres are not as busy as before. 

Time will tell if we have the willingness to fashion a truly new normal, although the one thing we do not have is time.

On Sunday, more than 200 health journals took the unusual step of coming together to publish an editorial urging leaders to take action on climate change. Human health is already being harmed by global temperature increases and further increases would be catastrophic, they said.

“Despite the world’s necessary preoccupation with Covid-19, we cannot wait for the pandemic to pass to rapidly reduce emissions,” the joint editorial read.

Days before that, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature warned that one in three of 138,000 species surveyed was at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, illegal trade, and climate breakdown.

Make changes now

The warnings are as urgent as they can be but are not yet apocalyptic. When we take action and do the right thing, change can happen, and sometimes very quickly. 

Sustainable fishing practices, for example, reversed a threat to four species of tuna. In one case, the Atlantic bluefin tuna went from being “endangered” to a species “of least concern”.

Speaking of taking the right action, soft plastics have now been added to the household recycling bin list. We still recycle less than a third of all our plastic packaging waste and while the priority should be drastically reducing plastic use, recycling more of it is a start.

It’s tempting to baulk at the idea of a new normal but if we do, we are facing an even deadlier crisis than the one we are slowly leaving behind.

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