A Brave New World: Building Back Better from COVID-19

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The disruption caused by COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief the impact societal activities have on the environment.”


COVID-19 is a human tragedy that has irrevocably impacted on the day-to-day lives of vast swathes of humanity. By early July 2020, almost 13 million cases of the disease had been reported globally and around 550,000 deaths attributed directly to the pandemic.

Governments around the world have responded to the pandemic by imposing restrictions on day-to-day lives, impacting on mobility, commerce, and social gatherings. The disruption caused by COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief the impact societal activities have on the environment. Reports abound of nature reclaiming our cities, of fish being seen in Venetian canals, of Mount Kenya being visible from Nairobi for the first time in decades as visibility improves and of the sky over many cities seeming a deeper shade of blue. Noise pollution and traffic accidents have also fallen substantially.

One direct impact of COVID-19 response measures has been the significant reduction in levels of air pollution across many cities including Kampala (Uganda), Delhi (India) and Birmingham (England) following enforcement of lockdown measures. In Kampala, a study conducted by AirQo, an air quality research initiative at Makerere University, estimated that levels of particulate matter fell by up to 40% at the height of the national lock down. Whilst each city is unique, a number of factors have contributed to these declines including restrictions on our mobility and ability to travel, and changes to how and where we work. While more research is required to fully understand the nature of air pollution reduction, the temporary improvement of air quality in a number of settings is both a beacon of hope that things can be better, and a humbling reminder of the choices society must make as we emerge from this crisis.

In early July, the A System Approach to Air Pollution (ASAP) and Digital Air Quality – East Africa research teams organised a webinar to discuss COVID-19, Urban Mobility and Air Pollution. The event involved presentations from Prarthana Borah (Clean Air Asia), Engineer Bainomugisha ( AirQo, Makerere University) and Jake Thrush ( Transport for West Midlands) on the multi-faceted impact of the crisis. The event involved academics from across the Global South and North (University of Nairobi, Makerere University, Columbia University), policy makers at regional and local levels (Oxfordshire County Council and Kampala Capital City Authority), Civil Society Organisations (Clean Air Fund and Health Effects Institute), international actors (UN Environment Programme, International Organisation of Migration, Department for International Development) and representatives from the private sector (Peddle Me).

The wide-ranging discussion that ensued inevitably touched upon how, as society cautiously plans for reopening, we can ‘build back better’. Reflections on how to enforce social distancing in schools, on public transport and in workplaces and the corresponding drastic rethink of how societies and economies function were common. Speakers also highlighted that COVID-19 has rendered apparent systemic inequalities within our society with regards to mortality, morbidity and resilience to the multifaceted impacts of the pandemic.

Many politicians, international organisations and commentators have argued that now is the time to implement a Green New Deal that facilitates economic recovery whilst simultaneously addressing issues of inclusivity, equity and sustainability. Whilst such declarations are often associated with hyperbole, rhetoric and political posturing, it is clear that the time for action is now. Bold action and bravery are needed by policy makers, along with a shift from traditional predict-and-plan approaches to one that develops a vision of the world we want and plans for this. Alongside this, the wider public must be engaged in the decision making process, understand the trade-offs involved and how decisions made now will contribute to a better future. Such an approach must be based on:

  • Capturing learning from both the causes and consequences of the current crisis to understand why the pandemic emerged (encroachment of human systems on the natural world) and how the crisis intersected with many of the systemic inequalities in our society (increased levels of mortality amongst certain groups or the absence of social safety nets for those working in the informal economy).
  • Fostering multi-stakeholder, cross sectoral forums to assess future plans and agree areas for collective action. Such spaces are best placed to highlight how interventions may impact on vulnerable groups, whether they can support efforts to address inequality and sustainability, what the unintended consequences maybe and what trade-offs are involved.
  • Building now for the future – the wave of investments that governments around the world are making can be part of an ambitious global green new deal that prioritises sustainability and inclusivity. This requires co-ordination and a deeper understanding of the trade-offs involved and how change happens.
  • Providing additional support for those areas and groups that may be most impacted by COVID-19 and responses to the pandemic. Public transport is one such area where additional support may be required over short to medium time frames and a service that is central to efficient, effective and inclusive cities.
  • Embedding citizen voices must be at the heart of planning for future cities. This should involve the development of creative mechanisms that engage citizens from across society. Citizens assemblies provide one example of a mechanism that can be used to develop cross-societal support for interventions.
  • Supporting local responses to endemic challenges – the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted innovative responses at local levels including pedestrianisation of roads, development of community response networks and fostering of collective action. Such responses should be supported as a key element of adaptation at local levels, drawing on and distilling global best practice.
  • Communicating and sensitising people to change – as society emerges from the pandemic in fits and starts, it is imperative that government communicates openly and honestly about the choices it is making, who may be impacted and how this feeds into a collectively-agreed vision for a greener, fairer more inclusive future.

Bold action is required to deliver on the vision of a fairer more inclusive and sustainable world. The DAQ-East Africa webinar highlighted that there is much that can bring us together, areas of common agreement as well as areas where consensus may be harder to reach. It is clear that the time for action is now, and whilst this crisis has highlighted a range of issues that require addressing, bold action can support the development of a better world.