Essay | How COVID-19 changed my practice of environmental ethics

Planet Forward Senior Correspondent Cate Twining-Ward has been working as a COVID-19 tester during the pandemic. Her experience has made her rethink consumables. (Photos courtesy Cate Twining-Ward/George Washington University)

As we transition into a brand-new year once again, I imagine myself at this point exactly a year ago. I was—as I tend to be—optimistic for the coming months, envisioning both the subtle and substantial intentions I held for the future. That being said, I can tell you, without a shred of uncertainty, that where I am today is just about the farthest from where I had expected myself to be a year ago.

While my passion for the environment and for sustainability haven’t wavered, it would be naïve to neglect the fact that my philosophical understanding of environmental ethics has taken a new form. Comprehending the pandemic and the actions necessary to mitigate it has forced me to reevaluate my ethical priorities. And along the way, I have had to adjust my own principles of living for the betterment of society.

Let me explain.

After almost four months in strict lockdown in the heart of New York City, I decided to take advantage of my Danish citizenship and spend my fall semester in Denmark. The COVID situation and restrictions there were very different over the summer months, having much to do with earlier shutdowns and the rapid testing that occurred faster than what we experienced in the United States. But unfortunately, Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, experienced a harsh second wave of the virus as it approached the winter months.

The months in lockdown in New York, as well as living through a steady rise in Danish cases shortly after, once again made me feel helpless. It’s difficult to appreciate all that is being done to tackle the virus when you simultaneously feel so removed from the progress.

But then, somehow, I managed to get involved.

Through a few coincidental mutual friends and a fervent urge to do my part, I landed a job with a private company that provides rapid COVID testing for patients. And suddenly, there I was, on “the front lines.” Every positive test that I gave meant a complete change of gear: gown, gloves, mask, hairnet, wipe this, wipe that, spray disinfectant everywhere, crack the window, attempt to avoid inhaling all the fumes, wipe that again, and repeat.

The quick tests we give come individually wrapped and require the use of a single-use test tube, a single-use swab, and a single-use test kit—all parts sealed in a plastic sheath for protection. Each patient is asked to fill out a paper form before we administer the test, requiring them to allow us to record their data if they do test positive, for governmental records. To get an idea, at the end of an 11-hour shift, I have sometimes filed away over 300 pieces of paper—and that’s just from my one room. We have 17 more rooms just in the mobile clinic that I work at.

If it wasn’t already clear, the amount of waste that accumulates after just a day’s worth of work is nauseating. I’m convinced it would be appalling even to those who aren’t acutely aware of the environmental impacts of single-use plastic. The guilt that hits me as I carry, sometimes up to five, stuffed black trash bags that I’ve filled behind “Clinic No. 6” after my shift ends, hasn’t yet subsided.

But—I just cannot feel angry about it in the same way as I normally could. Because this waste is a necessity to saving lives.

Clearly, I desperately needed to adjust my priorities. It is ridiculous to feel the same level of guilt over the waste that is required for preventing disease transmission as I feel about avoidable day-to-day waste. Perhaps if people were more conscious about avoiding waste in other areas of their lives, whether that be in product packaging, disposal items that have reusable alternatives, food waste, single-use plastic, etc., then it would be easier to dissipate the guilt of waste that will help halt the spread of COVID.

It is once again extremely difficult to urge people to care about the environment at a time when there are more tangibly terrifying threats to our own species. So many of us have felt the personal ramifications of this pandemic and helping to stop its spread should no doubt be the priority. It would furthermore be impossible to focus on the many environmental challenges if you are burdened with illness yourself.

So, what I am asking for instead, is for us to collectively compromise. In order to test as many people as we can, these rapid test kits are necessary. The inconceivable portion waste that will continue to accumulate to prevent disease transmission therefore must proceed. That calls for everyone else, to once again, do their part. For the waste that can be avoided, twice the effort should be made so that twice as much waste is reduced and recycled. Millions of people do have the means to dramatically reduce their footprint, and in this moment in history, they should be doing everything they possibly can. There is simply no excuse.

With everything that has divided us this past year, let us step into 2021 with a collective intention to work together to achieve a world that will benefit us all. If you can do your part to save the planet without any life-threatening risks, then you should do so, it’s a privilege. Because people who cannot, are risking their lives in order to save lives.

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