You came into my life – all our lives – uninvited, unwarranted and unannounced. It’s not like the world needed you – we’d had enough to deal with before you came along. Going through 2019, we were just beginning to understand the extent of our waste problem, and were grappling with immense fires, both of an Amazonian and Australian nature. We had been struggling with climate change for a while, with brewing social disenfranchisement and unrest in many parts of the world. We couldn’t wait to flip the calendar to 2020, in the hope that the world would revert to its erstwhile glory, whatever that might be.
And then you arrived.
It has been six months now since you plundered the world and stole people away from their livelihoods, their joys… and their loved ones. We will no longer be the same, because of you. Yet, we couldn’t be the same.
As with every uninvited guest, we’ve tried to close our borders to you, lock ourselves in, and create boundaries – and space – between ourselves. And as with every unwelcome visitor, you have disrupted our lives, our health and our entire society. Yet, with every disruption, you have taught us how to adapt.
As an architect, sustainability professional and developer, my work has been to create, to adapt and to sustain, and you have put this agility to test. You have taught us to motivate ourselves further, brought us closer to our families, and redefined our work-life balance. Rather, you have eliminated those boundaries. You have broken our supply chains, but that has led us to pursue alternatives. You have killed entire industries, but we have largely adapted by pivoting. You have revealed cracks in our society – and in so doing, shown us that we need to re-evaluate what our society stands for.
The silver lining, if there exists one, is that you have allowed us to consider our habits of consumption and plundering of the planet. It simply wasn’t sustainable, and perhaps you were Nature’s response, a defence mechanism for a planet that cannot sustain our activity.
We should have known better. We have been given many previous dry runs – smallpox, HIV, SARS, H1N1, Ebola, MERS – to get our act together. Yet, our world leaders continue to exploit, and our world’s best and brightest minds for capital gains – the same minds that could have been channelled to solve the planet’s problems. Post-SARS and MERS, we could have invested more in research on your coronavirus cousins, but we let that slide – you’d die out eventually, they said.
I suspect we will soon forget about you, as we return to our indulgent behaviours of overconsumerism and instant gratification. Our frail virtual and transient economies, and reliance on transnational supply chains for our very basic needs, simply wasn’t robust enough in times of a global crisis. You have cast the spotlight our world leaders, revealing how poorly prepared some of them are, and how uncooperative they can be in times of a global crisis. You have been our dress rehearsal for a larger, looming crisis – climate change being but one example. I fear we aren’t ready for that either.
Yes, I am fearful, but cautiously optimistic. The need for social distancing will loosen our social fabric, both figuratively AND literally. How we used to plan our cities, and how we planned to use them – spaces for people, plazas for congregation – has, in recent months, become a weapon against our very existence.
We label our migrant workers as "foreign", and even in the COVID-19 infection tally, they occupy their own statistical column, segregated from the community they helped build – just like in real life. The capitalist models that we have adopted as our measure of success must now bow to new models of balance, circularity, equitability and sustainability. If you haven’t taught us that, I’m not sure anything else will.
Yet, you did not create the above fractures in our planetary and societal health; on the contrary, you have revealed them. And once the dust settles, we have much reflection to do as a society and as a global population.
I am hopeful that we will come out of this better, and will become even more focused on the sustainable development of our buildings, cities and our planet. We will create healthy, daylight-filled and naturally ventilated buildings, well-integrated with greenery and nature. As a nation, we will develop our resilience and self-sufficiency, for food and other basic supplies. After all, why return to the erstwhile “normal”, when the new normal gives us an opportunity to be better?
So, COVID-19, you can take away our freedom, our livelihoods and even our lives. But you can’t take away our hope.
We will overcome you.
Ar. Tan Szue Hann
Chairman of Sustainability, Singapore Institute of Architects
Council Member, Singapore Green Building Council
World Cities Summit Young Leader