In 2020, when coronavirus lockdowns emptied public spaces and birdsong replaced the drone of cars and airplanes, some saw an opportunity to embrace a slower, more mindful way of life and prioritize the health of the planet over boundless consumption. It hasn’t turned out that way. A surge in e-commerce and online meal deliveries means humanity is spewing out trash like never before. And an avalanche of discarded face masks, gloves, syringes and test kits that saved countless lives has left a deadly legacy to the natural world.
As lockdowns went into effect in the spring of 2020 to slow the spread of the coronavirus, reports emerged of a global gardening boom, with plants, flowers, vegetables and herbs sprouting in backyards and on balconies around the world.
The data backs up the narrative: An analysis of Google Trends and infection statistics found that during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, country-by-country interest in gardening, from Italy to India, tended to peak just as infections peaked.
Why did so many people find themselves being pulled toward the earth in a time of crisis? And what sort of effect did gardening have on them?
In a new study conducted with a team of environmental and public health scholars, we highlight the extent to which gardening became a coping mechanism during the early days of the pandemic.
Even as restrictions related to COVID-19 have eased, we see some real lessons for the way gardening can continue to play a role in people’s lives.
Dirt, sweat, tranquility
To conduct our study, we used an online questionnaire to survey more than 3,700 respondents who primarily lived in the U.S., Germany and Australia. The group included experienced gardeners and those who were new to the pursuit.
More than half of those we surveyed said they felt isolated, anxious and depressed during the early days of the pandemic. Yet more than 75% also found immense value in gardening during that same period. Whether done in cities or out in the country, gardening was almost universally described as a way to either relax, socialize, connect with nature or stay active.
More than half of the respondents reported a significant increase in the amount of time they were able to spend gardening. Other respondents found some value in growing their own food, but few felt financially compelled to do so.
Instead, most respondents saw gardening as a way to connect with their community and get some exercise.
People with more personal difficulties due to COVID-19, like the inability to work or struggling with child care, were more likely to spend more time gardening in their spare time than they had in the past.
The garden as a refuge
In our analysis of written responses to the survey, most gardeners seemed to either experience a heightened sense of joy and reassurance or feel more attuned to the natural world. This seemed to have positive therapeutic and psychological benefits, regardless of age or location.
“Gardening has been my salvation,” a respondent from the U.S. noted. “I’m very grateful I can surround myself with beauty as a buffer to the depressing news COVID brings each day.”
Another German gardener wrote that their garden became their “little safe universe in a very uncertain and somewhat dangerous time. … We have learned to appreciate the so far very high value of ‘own land, own refuge’ even more.”
A green prescription
As life returns to normal, work ramps up and obligations mount, I wonder how many pandemic gardens are already being neglected.
Will a hobby born out of unique circumstances recede into the background?
I hope not. Gardening shouldn’t be something that’s only taken up in times of crises. If anything, the pandemic showed how gardens serve a public health need – that they’re not only places of beauty or sources of food, but also conduits for healing.
In fact, several countries like New Zealand, Canada and some in Europe now allow “green prescriptions” to be issued as alternatives to medication. These are directives from doctors to spend a certain amount of time outdoors each day or month – an acknowledgment of the very real health benefits, from lowered stress to better sleep and improved memory, that venturing into nature can offer.
I also think of the people who never had a chance to garden in the first place during the pandemic. Not everyone has a backyard or can afford gardening tools. Improving access to home gardens, urban green spaces and community gardens could be an important way to boost well-being and health.
Making seeding, planting, pruning and harvesting part of your daily routine seems to open up more opportunities, too.
“I never previously had the time to commit to a garden,” one first-time gardener told us, “but [I’ve] found such satisfaction and happiness in watching things grow. It has been a catalyst for making other positive changes in my life.”
CSIRO principal research scientist Brenda Lin, Swinburne University of Technology Health Promotion Lecturer Jonathan Kingsley, UCCE Santa Clara County Urban Agriculture and Food Systems Advisor Lucy Diekmann, Technical University of Munich Urban Productive Ecosystems Professor Monika Egerer, University of Tasmania Rural Health Geographer Pauline Marsh, and University of California, Davis Urban and Regional Planning graduate student Summer Cortez contributed to this research
This Policy Brief provides the key findings and policy insights from the April 2022 update of OECD Green Recovery Database, which tracks recovery measures with a clear environmental impact adopted by OECD member countries, the European Union and selected large economies. Since the previous update in September 2021, the budget allocated to environmentally positive measures increased from USD 677 billion to USD 1 090 billion, while recovery spending with ‘mixed’ impacts increased from USD 163 billion to USD 290 billion. The Brief also explores how well-designed green recovery plans can generate the double dividend of enhanced energy security and better environmental outcomes, in the face of energy security concerns triggered by the war in Ukraine.
Research has shown that being unvaccinated raises a person’s risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus, while being older, overweight or immunocompromised can increase the severity of covid-19. Now scientists think there is another risk factor that may increase the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus and the possibility that it will lead to a poor outcome: exposure to air pollution.
A growing body of evidencesuggests links between breathing polluted air and the chances of being infected by the coronavirus, developing a severe illness or dying of covid-19. Although many of these studies focused on long-term exposure to air pollution, experts say there is also building evidence that even short-term exposures may have negative effects.
A recent study of 425 younger adults in Sweden found that brief exposures were “associated with increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection despite relatively low levels of air pollution exposure,” according to the paper published in April. Unlike many other studies that analyzed vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or young children, and tracked the effects of long-term exposures on hospitalizations and deaths, the median age of participants, who largely reported mild to moderate symptoms, was about 25 years old.
A recent survey of 3,000 people in North America by Ambius, which provides products and services that support healthy commercial spaces, revealed that nearly three-quarters of us (74%) experience anxiety when entering buildings with poor indoor air quality, including workplaces. In fact, about the same number said they would consider quitting their jobs if wellness factors like air quality, hygiene and cleanliness, and access to green space or plants were not provided by employers. (On the subject of plants, one in three respondents said having greenery in their indoor spaces, including workspaces, has become more important since the onset of the pandemic.)
Seven in 10 of those surveyed by Ambius said their companies needed to make a greater investment in health, hygiene and safety.
In the past two years, scientists have developed systems that can detect COVID-19 in our wastewater. This is a great early warning system, since the virus can show up in people’s waste days before they begin to experience symptoms or are able to get tested. It’s also less biased than case data: Not everyone can find a COVID-19 test and not every positive result will get reported … but everybody poops.
As with so many other COVID-19 metrics, however, interpreting wastewater data is not as simple as it seems. Before COVID-19, this type of data hadn’t been used to track respiratory viruses. This means the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has little established infrastructure to build upon. The agency is attempting to standardize reporting from researchers across the country, many of whom have different water sampling methods. Plus, the state and local health officials who cite wastewater as a potential replacement for underreported case numbers aren’t used to interpreting data from the environment, which has unique caveats and requires a learning curve for those used to looking at numbers from hospitals and health clinics.
The Documenting COVID-19 project surveyed 19 state and local health agencies, as well as scientists who work on wastewater sampling, to learn about the challenges they’re facing. We found that many states are months away, if not longer, from being able to use wastewater data to guide public health decisions, even as the rise of an omicron subvariant, BA.2, looms. Meanwhile, the CDC’s highly shared wastewater surveillance dashboard is a work in progress, and is difficult to interpret for users who might hope to follow the trends in their areas.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers have known that white-tailed deer could be infected with COVID-19. According to research from the US Department of Agriculture, 40% of deer across parts of the Midwest and Northeast are testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies. The deer dwell in both urban backyards and rural homesteads, they travel quickly, and they’re essentially everywhere in the country. As a species, they’re pretty far from being contained or containable. Though there is no evidence for it yet, it’s possible that the virus, using deer as a reservoir, could be transmitted from deer back to humans.
To talk about the research and the potential future implications, we were joined by an associate professor of epidemiology and Illinois’ state biologist.
With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, humans have become reliant on personal protection equipment, or PPE, more and more with each wave of infection. While single-use face masks make up a large portion of PPE around the world, not much thought has been given to the proper disposal of these products.
While these products are crucial in our fight against COVID-19, they undoubtedly take a toll on the environment, ending up in landfills and oceans, giving off toxic gases. In only 2020, 52 billion face masks were made and 1.56 billion of them ended up in our oceans.
Recycling used face masks into road material and sanitizing face masks with electric cookers are just some of the ways we’ve previously tried to deal with the worrying issue. Now, a team of scientists from the National University of Science and Technology “MISIS” along with colleagues from the U.S. and Mexico has come up with a novel method of turning used masks into low-cost, flexible, disposable, and efficient batteries. The study is published in the Journal of Energy Storage.