Portlock’s Viewpoint: Responding to COVID-19, now and later
The word sustainability — building communities, organizations and systems for the long term — has a new immediacy in the COVID-19 era. We are a region, a state, a nation, a world in crisis. All indications are that the pandemic will get much worse before it gets better, and the overall uncertainty of this time is perhaps even more troubling than any individual challenge.
Critical, immediate needs have been identified and are the focus of intense effort. As we work to stay within the capacity of the health care system and race for new treatments, we must also grapple with immense economic repercussions, supply problems for medical equipment and basic household products, the upending of child care and education systems, and hunger.
We are at the beginning of a journey, from reaction to recovery to renewal. As many sage quotes remind us, a crisis does not build character; a crisis reveals character. Ours is a region built by the resilience of our communities. The outpouring of help from all corners and the heroism of our front lines in the pandemic reveal the intrinsic character of this place and restore the certainty that we will get through this, together. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it in innumerable ways. What lessons are we already learning to help us adapt and course correct for the long-term?
This crisis is illustrating how to build our resilience into the future, for the people and communities on which our economy depends. As a record 16.8 million people have joined the ranks of the unemployed in just the last three weeks, now is the time to relearn lessons about why social equity matters. As is always the case, communities with the fewest resources are at the biggest risk. Likewise, pre-existing conditions and health care access are not distributed equally. Protections like paid sick leave, so essential in times of extreme widespread need, are just as important during normal times when the crisis is on an individual or family scale. Social equity is a core tenet of a sustainable community — an active commitment to fairness and justice.
Pittsburgh’s more diversified economy is offering some protection now from unexpected shocks. In addition, it will take a truly sustainable economic development strategy during our recovery and beyond to ensure we gain ground on global challenges — including the ones not caused by a novel infectious disease. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration. As we wrap our minds around a national COVID-19 death toll that could surpass 200,000, it perhaps puts into context that the World Health Organization estimates 250,000 deaths per year from climate change between 2030 and 2050.
We must meet the COVID-19 crisis with the energy and resources the immediate need requires. We must go through the uncertain middle space of these next months with as much strategy, dignity, collaboration and empathy as we can, and we must simultaneously plan for the long-term outcomes we hope to see when we can reopen our doors and venture into spaces now closed to us: spaces for communion, commerce and social nourishment.
Organizations of all kinds are now retooling their work. At Sustainable Pittsburgh, everyone on our team is rising to the occasion. Having switched to virtual operations, we are focused on providing resources, connecting stakeholders and, through virtual events and communications, helping our members and constituents navigate this crisis with security and confidence.
Sustainability, in this moment in history, means both immediate sustaining, and also renewing our commitment to making sure that our region and communities are built to last.
Joylette Portlock is executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh.
FULL ARTICLE originally published April 16, 2020 on the Pittsburgh Business Times