The COVID 19, Corona virus pandemic has caused global disruption to the life we have become accustomed to. Global infection trends showed an exponential incline as more and more people became infected. This led to governments reacting with lockdown procedures at various levels of intensity in countries across the globe. Humanity was forced off the streets and into their homes for an initial period of 21 days. Industry and commerce ended abruptly as only emergency workers could move about. The lockdown procedure is akin to pressing the world reset button.

The immediate response by the environment was that the air became clear as pollutants were no longer being spewed into the atmosphere. Wildlife became more visible around the fringes of cities in the absence of human movement, activities, and noise. In many instances’ wildlife ventured into the cities and walked peacefully down streets that usually bustle with traffic. Sea birds were seen foraging for food in the shallows where bathers normally frolic in the waves.

As the lockdown period has been prolonged and the economy is suffering significant losses, tensions are rising. It becomes difficult to motivate people to abide by the regulations as people’s resources become depleted and the need for subsistence grows. Governments must dig deeper into state coffers to provide social relief to masses of people in need. In South Africa, the number of people in need of support outweighs the people contributing to the state coffers. The situation is not sustainable and serious consideration is required by government to restart the national economy safely as quickly as possible.

Human health and limiting the spread of the Corona virus is the primary focus of the government at present. That is necessary because the absence of proper controls will see such an increase in people being infected with the disease that the medical system in South Africa will not be able to cope with the numbers and people will die unnecessarily. Other aspects government is struggling with is the social situation where majority of the citizens are dependent on governmental support.

During the COVID 19 lockdown the government need to take a long view in response to the outbreak. Without constant cash being deposited into state coffers in the form of tax from companies, able to operate, and citizens earning salaries, the government will run out of funds. The downgrading to junk status as the lockdown began does not help the situation.

The response by the natural environment must also be considered. The longer the country remains in lockdown the greater the environmental impact. With the exclusion of the human element natural processes can thrive without human interference. Grass lawns are growing unabated and public spaces begin to appear unkempt. Weed plants that were frequently mowed or trimmed can grow to its full potential and flower or set seed, causing them to proliferate. In developed spaces where landscaped gardens received regular garden maintenance the environments become unkempt and unmanageable. Management bodies are irked as maintenance teams are disabled by lockdown regulations. Garden maintenance is not currently regarded as essential services in the State of Emergency Act.

With gardens becoming over-grown new habitats are becoming available to various forms of wildlife, including snakes. Although the number of venomous snakes along the KwaZulu-Natal Coast is low, the presence of snakes in a garden is traumatic for individuals or families. People that would normally be available to extract snakes from gardens are now unavailable due to the lockdown restrictions. By the time, a permitted and able person is found, the cause of the panic is no longer where it was observed. People live in fear as they are aware of the threat being in the garden and are too scared to venture into the garden.

Invasive alien plants are not being controlled during the lockdown period. These pest plants grow to maturity and set seed. This ensures the seedbank is replenished which extends the time it will take control teams to clear the invasives. Invasive alien plants are draining the budgets of property maintenance and because the clearing process has been disrupted it will take much longer to extirpate and will cost more. The months of May, June and July is the flowering season for Chromolaena odorata, the Triffid Weed. This plant is the most aggressive invasive alien plant along the KwaZulu-Natal Coast and there are no maintenance personnel available to identify the plant and effect its removal before seed-set.

Development sites that had earth works exposed to the elements prior to the lockdown remain vulnerable to erosion by the elements. In the absence of maintenance personnel at erosion sites, the sites of erosion are left to erode further. This exacerbates downstream water quality as sediment ends in wetlands and water causes. River health in south Africa is already stressed. Adding eroded material to the water further reduces water quality.

Management teams that would monitor storm water flow during and after events of precipitation are in lockdown. During this period of isolation heavy rainfall has occurred adding to the sub-soil water to exert strain on structures. Storm water has pushed retaining structures over leaving unmonitored properties inaccessible.

Maintenance teams who ensures the state of the environment is maintained at a stable state are sitting inactive at home. Maintenance companies have been excluded from the economy. Not only are they not able to conduct business but they are also not able to remunerate staff. This incapacitates people in society who must rely on government interventions for sustenance. Government need to realise that environment health is also an essential service. The global environment conservation movement reminds us of the need of human intervention required to sustain the environment that all forms of life is dependent on.

Government has introduced measures to restart the economy whilst social distancing is maintained, and personal health consciousness is made the responsibility of the company management. Regulations has been relaxed in response to the South African Landscaping Institute’s (SALI) extensive engagement with the Ministry of Agriculture, in allowing critical landscaping maintenance to resume within residential estates under Alert Level 4. A third of maintenance teams can return to work amidst strict bio-controls. This directive does not include the use of private, domestic landscaping and gardening services. These should be allowed to resume under Alert Level 3.

Government and management associations must review the value the environment has in their business plans. Current approaches ignore the environment whilst they focus on security and property values. They need to realise the need for critical environmental maintenance. During this time of Covid 19 lockdown is not the time for business-as usual. That much is clear, but critical maintenance is required to ensure quality of life.

Only essential services must be allowed to sustain the environment. Alien plant control, pruning for safety, mowing of lawn, and composting beds must be regarded as essential services. This will ensure the post-Covid 19 lockdown restoration will be rapid. Steven Covey said that we should begin with the end in mind. How will the end of Covid 19 environment look if there is no activity in the meantime? It can be done safely without risking lives.

Johan Bodenstein