Lessons from COVID-19 Through the Eyes of a Legal Intern

Taraneh Ashrafi, CELA’s incoming fellowship student, is a law student at Dalhousie University.

As the COVID-19 lockdown edges into its third month, the phrase “will life ever go back to normal?” has spiked dramatically in Google Taraneh_Ashrafisearches (O’Neill, 2020). However, things cannot just go back to “how they were”. There is no back. There never can be. We must move forward.

COVID-19 is teaching us many things; most striking to me is the fragility of our way of life. In February, I had extensive plans for how the summer of my first year of law school would pan out. However, by March, in a matter of weeks everything had changed in ways I could not have imagined. Classes were cancelled, businesses shut down, airlines grounded, and borders closed. I went from telling my classmates “see you on Monday!” to see “see you in the fall, hopefully”. Dalhousie University, along with all schools across the country, switched to remote learning. The class discussions and debates that I eagerly looked forward to became online PowerPoints that I attempted to follow from my empty apartment. I heard that my much-anticipated internship with CELA located in Toronto was forced to be remote. Next, my summer travel plans to Italy were cancelled. The summer that I had carefully planned came crashing down around me. COVID-19 showed me how it only takes one event to jeopardize the delicate balance of life on Earth.

In the weeks following the pandemic, images surfaced of clearer skies and cleaner waters due to lockdown measures. The Venetian canals are reportedly the clearest they have been in 60 years. These usually murky channels have since cleared, with jellyfish visible swimming in the waters. In India, reduced air pollution means residents can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades. In Australia, a kangaroo was seen hopping down a deserted street in the city of Adelaide. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, images show lions lounging peacefully in the middle of a road, unbothered by tourists. “Nature is healing, we are the virus” the internet joked. Memes quickly popped up showing dinosaurs roaming empty New York streets, and rubber ducks swimming in canals. While the memes spurred on by the images of clearer skies and roaming wildlife may be sardonic, they offer a glimmer of hope. Perhaps COVID-19 has forced us into taking the first steps into a cleaner future, acting as a much-needed wake-up call.

The foreseeable climate crisis has the potential to be more devastating than COVID-19, its impacts far reaching, moving beyond borders and nations. There is no doubt that rebuilding the economy is important. But what if we rebuild and transform our economy in a way that is stronger, greener, and more resilient to future crisis? COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity: to invest in a cleaner society for a brighter and more sustainable future.

Another important lesson that COVID-19 has taught me is that when push comes to shove, change can happen. As it turns out, COVID-19 has been a great motivator. When the economy and businesses were forced to make structural changes, such as moving to remote working, companies made these changes happen quickly and efficiently. It is clear that a crisis can urge companies to act; it was never a matter of ability, but a matter of motivation. But why must we wait for the next crisis to act in a transformative way? The same haste must be used for the looming climate crisis.

When talking about preventing climate change with friends and family, I often hear exasperation in their voices – the feeling of helplessness. Individual action does not seem like it is enough. I believe we need large and systemic restructuring of our economy and society to achieve our climate goals. What better time to do this than when COVID-19 has caused our “normal” way of life to fall into pieces. Now is the perfect opportunity to build something new.

It is no secret that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted those who are already vulnerable. According to National Geographic, in the United States, while black Americans make up only 13% of the population, they comprise almost one-third of COVID-19 infections. Additionally, nearly one-third of those who have died due to COVID-19 in the U.S. have been black (Brooks, 2020). Low-income communities are also differentially impacted as they are more likely to be uninsured, and less likely to be able to financially afford stocking up on food and supplies during a pandemic. With a recession on the horizon, these marginalized communities are going to be among those hit hardest by financial difficulties. Being part of the CELA team, which focuses on low-income, and disadvantaged communities, I believe that with this transformative restructure the needs of vulnerable populations needs to be brought to the forefront. During this pandemic, new heroes have arisen: cleaners, grocery workers, cashiers, and delivery drivers. In early May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a wage increase for these essential workers, citing it as a pay raise that they “deserve”. It is high time that we recognize these vulnerable groups as key to keep society moving and provide them the protection they need and deserve in the restructuring of our society in a post COVID-19 world.

I believe that COVID-19 has shown us what is valuable in life: quality time with family, breathing fresh air on our daily walks, and supporting our local economies. I learned that the things I value most are not my favorite article of clothing or jewelry, but simple things such as seeing my classmates in lecture, or my coworkers at CELA. It is the lost personal connections that I miss most, not trips to the mall. So, when I hear “when can we go back to normal”, I think: do we need to go back to normal, if our normal was full of congestion and unsustainable levels of operation? Or we can move towards a new normal: one less focused on GDP and more focused on creating a sustainable future. We can use this opportunity to move from a destructive lifestyle to one that is more grounded; living simpler, shopping less, creating more. When the pandemic ends, that does not mean that the lessons it has taught us should also end with it.

Works Cited:
Brooks, R. A. (2020, April 24). African Americans struggle with disproportionate COVID death toll. Retrieved from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/04/coronavirus-disproportionately-impacts-african-americans/

O’Neill, N. (2020, April 16). Everyone is Googling ‘will life ever go back to normal?’. Retrieved from New York Post: https://nypost.com/2020/04/16/everyone-is-googling-will-life-ever-go-back-to-normal/