Answers to Your Current Coronavirus Questions
By The New York Times Updated March 15, 2021
When the coronavirus pandemic began, we were figuring out how to stay safe, how to stay home and how this was going to affect our lives in the long run. Now that we have better answers to many of these questions, new ones have surfaced. How can I stay healthy while interacting with others? How can I prevent the spread of this disease? What can I do if I’ve lost a job? How can I explain this to my kids? Simply, how can I live in this new normal?
What do you want to know about the coronavirus?
Do you have a question about the coronavirus or life during this pandemic try this experimental feature that uses machine learning to help answer your questions. if we don’t have an answer available, we will do our best to address it in the future., six big questions, where are we in developing a vaccine.
The Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization of two vaccines — one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and the other by Moderna has set in motion the most ambitious vaccination campaign in the nation’s history. Vaccines are rolling out to health workers now and will reach the rest of us by spring, with the timelines varying a bit by state.
We know you have more questions about the vaccines. So, we have added some basic answers below, and you can find a more comprehensive list here .
Read More Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins found in the blood made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University.
The real problem is that your antibody test may be inaccurate, according to guidelines issued in September by a major medical society. Some tests look for the wrong antibodies and even the right antibodies may fade away.
Because current tests cannot determine if someone is immune, the Infectious Diseases Society of America said, antibody tests “cannot inform decisions to discontinue physical distancing or lessen the use of personal protective equipment."
Read More You May Have Antibodies After Coronavirus Infection. But Not for Long.
How is the winter weather affecting the virus?
Cases have increased rather steadily since November, which saw four million new cases in that month alone, climaxing on Jan. 8 with almost 300,600 new cases that day. Even with dips in new cases later this winter, the numbers are still far above those from before November.
Across the country, the overall Covid-19 risk level is far worse now than ever before, according to coronavirus cases and testing data analyzed by The Times and public health experts. Right now, residents of most U.S. counties are at an extremely high risk for contracting the virus. (A county is considered to be at an extremely high risk level if it either reports more than 640 cases per 100,000 people during the past two weeks or has more than 10 percent of test results reported as positive.) And while cases have fallen from their record highs in January, an average of more than 3,000 daily deaths from the virus were reported that month. Go to this search bar to look up your county's risk level and to get suggestions about what to do to stay safe.
And those numbers don’t lie. Winter is a double-edged sword: We are more indoors, increasing our risk among those around us, and the colder, less humid weather can increase the viral load of the air we’re breathing in. Covid-19’s fatty outer membrane becomes rubbery in cold weather — easing its transmission between people whose dry and winter-damaged nasal passages are more susceptible anyway. (Makes you want to throw on a mask, huh?)
“The nose and mouth are the virus’s portal of entry,” said Rossi A. Hassad, an epidemiologist and statistician at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. “How can a mask not be a barrier against an organism coming toward me?”
And just because this is the year of Covid-19, doesn’t mean that winter’s stuffy friend, the flu, got the memo to stay away. As in other years, tens of thousands of people are expected to die from the flu this year. (A point of comparison: Covid-19 has a fatality rate at least 10 times that of the flu.)
What we know about the flu, which has that same rubbery membrane coat, can inform us about the dangers and precautions we should take against Covid-19.
Comparing the two, Dr. Hassad wrote in MedPage Today: “This Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to parallel the 1918 flu pandemic if we fail to comply with the protective measures recommended by public health authorities.”
So far, more than 400,000 people have died in the U.S., with the country recording its first 100,000 deaths from the virus in late spring .
In addition to prime winter conditions for the virus, people across the country are also experiencing pandemic fatigue. Or as Dr. Stanley M. Perlman, a microbiologist at the University of Iowa who has studied coronaviruses for more than 40 years, puts it, “People are losing respect for the virus and letting their guard down.”
Striking a balance between restrictions and mental health, while also keeping yourself and others out of harm’s way, is important.
So what to do? If you are indoors, wear a mask, keep the recommended six feet distance from people outside your immediate household whenever possible, try to limit your time inside to only places with good ventilation, open windows when you can and crank the heat, if necessary. Humidifiers are also strongly recommended .
But if you are socializing with others, it’s better to stay outside whenever possible. One suggestion from the British journalist Oliver Burkeman: Embrace your inner Brit and suck it up. An umbrella over the barbecue? (Not a problem, Mr. Burkeman said.) Eating ice cream in your fleeces? (Still yum.) And, remember, just because you’re socializing in the cold, doesn’t mean you can’t complain about the weather. (The Brits always do.)
Read More Keep Your Loved Ones Safe Over the Holidays
Will there be another stimulus payment?
Another dose of relief was approved for the millions of Americans facing financial distress because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After months of back and forth, congressional leaders in both parties came to an agreement in December, providing a round of $600 stimulus payments to most Americans and partly restoring the enhanced federal unemployment benefit, offering $300 for 11 weeks.
The legislative package provides welcome, albeit temporary, assistance to many , some of whom have already received stimulus checks and heartier and lengthened unemployment payments, but the package has also been criticized for being too little too late. President Biden promised additional aid, urging a third relief package.
We’ve answered many of your questions about the current relief package , and will provide updates as the new presidential administration moves forward.
Read More The Stimulus Deal: What’s in It for You
What’s the deal with schools?
The answer really depends on where you live: how bad the outbreak is in your geographic area and how strict local officials are being to keep the number of cases down. Some school districts have remained virtual, while others have fully reopened classrooms or have remained on a hybrid schedule. But across the country, the colder weather is starting to make it harder to keep students safe, as cases tick up and schools that have reopened shut back down.
In October, New York City, which had previously implemented a hybrid schedule, was the first big city to reopen all of its public schools — then quickly announced an immediate and indefinite shutdown in November. A few days later, however, the city announced a return to in-person education, and the tapering off of hybrid learning. (Do you have whiplash yet?) And the start to 2021 has caused only more uncertainty .
Currently, only younger students and those with complex disabilities — making up about 190,000 of the some 1.1 million of the city's public school students — are learning in the classroom, with a vast majority opting for remote learning. Middle and high school students, who were welcomed to the classroom for just a few weeks this fall, have no set date to return . It’s been hardly a promising effort for the nation’s largest school system, which has been criticized for lackluster remote learning , creating an ever-greater racial disparity within the school system — and one that school administrators across the country have turned to for an example of how to reopen safely.
This winter, more large cities have forged ahead, while others have remained remote. In Miami-Dade County and Houston all students through high school returned to the classroom in October.
But after Covid-19 rates surged across California this fall, schools in several counties hit the brakes. The first students in Los Angeles began returning to the classroom in November, as schools serving kindergartners through second graders applied for county-approved health waivers to teach in areas with high infection rates. By the end of January, all students in San Diego are slated to return at least a few days a week. But San Francisco schools remain shuttered, with hopes of reopening in January dashed amidst high rates across the state. "Right now we are in a surge that requires us to stay home and stop the spread," Mayor London Breed said in a statement in December. In an open letter published in January, 30 medical professionals from the University of California, San Francisco, urged the reopening of schools across the state by Feb. 1, writing: “Long term school closures have a detrimental, measurable impact on children and adolescents.”
As of mid-January, the vast majority of states — including New York — had handed off the decision-making for school openings to local districts, according to data pulled by Education Week, a news organization covering K-12. Only Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. (with some exceptions ) have full closures in effect, while a handful of states — Delaware, North Carolina, West Virginia, New Mexico, California and Hawaii have partial closures, with hybrid instruction sometimes allowed. In contrast, four states — Texas, Florida, Arkansas and Iowa — require schools to offer at least some in-person instruction. (See Education Week's up-to-date map showing school openings by state.) For more information about schools, keep scrolling to our section on Schools.
Read More The Latest on School Openings and Closings
What about work?
Essential workers were never able to stay home and many of the rest of us might already be back in the office — in August, a survey by LinkedIn and Censuswide found that more than two-thirds of offices in the U.S. had either reopened or never closed in the first place.
Another survey of workers (this one by Wakefield Research and commissioned by Envoy, a workplace technology company) shows widespread hesitancy to return to the office. As an employee, you have some (limited) rights (at the federal, state and local level), but you won’t always be able to decide.
Even as cases rise, some workplaces are adamant about an in-person return — complete with contactless entries, limited elevator usage, plexiglass dividers, alternating schedules, frequent temperature readings and requirements to wear masks and social distance.
No matter what, be sure you know what to expect — and what’s expected of you before you head in. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA, calls for employers to develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan, among other suggestions, but employers aren’t mandated to do so.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also posted guidelines for promoting the use of facemasks, taking daily health surveys, disclosing symptoms and determining how employees may have been exposed at work. (And the C.D.C. says that a full shutdown isn’t always needed if cases pop up in the office.)
For others, this all still seems pretty far out. Some larger corporations, including Google, Uber, Target and Ford Motor (and, while we’re on the topic, The New York Times) have decided to keep workers largely remote until next summer.
And on the extreme side of the argument, some companies, including Facebook , Twitter and Microsoft, have said that their employees won’t ever have to return to the office and that they will continue to have a permanent remote working option.
For more, head to our “Money and Work” section.
Read More Returning to the Office: How to Do it Safely and Your Rights if You Don't Want To
When can I get the vaccine?
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most have put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first, with older people and those with certain health problems ahead of younger, healthier populations. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Read More Who Will Get the Coronavirus Vaccine First?
When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated?
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once a country authorizes a vaccine, it’ll be able to vaccinate only a few percent of its citizens at most in the first couple of months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected.
A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus.
So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds and so on.
Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect — this is known as herd immunity . In a candid press conference in January Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said that if the United States can vaccinate 70 percent to 85 percent of the population by the middle or end of the summer, “by the time we get to the fall, we will be approaching a degree of normality.”
Read More U.K. Coronavirus Vaccine: Side Effects, Safety, and Who Gets It First
If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask?
Yes, but not forever. The vaccines clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility: We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms.
Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
Will it hurt? What are the side effects?
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines.
While serious allergic reactions are rare, they have been documented . For instance, 10 minutes after receiving the Pfizer vaccine, a healthcare worker in Alaska had an anaphylactic reaction, and a rash crossed her face and torso. She also had shortness of breath and an elevated heart rate. And 10 minutes after the same vaccine, another healthcare worker in Alaska experienced eye puffiness, lightheadedness and a scratchy throat, but after medical treatment he was back to normal within an hour. Both workers, who were expected to recover, said they hoped their experiences did not negatively impact the vaccination process, according to the hospital. (The Pfizer vaccine was shown to be safe and about 95 percent effective in a clinical trial involving 44,000 participants.) In some places, people driving through for a shot in the arm have been asked to wait in the parking lot for 15 minutes to monitor for any immediate effects.
More often, some people have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that last less than a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off of work or school after the second injection.
While minor aches and pains aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: They are the result of your immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
Will mRNA vaccines change my genes?
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body.
The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which are produced to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes: The mRNA molecules our cells make can survive only a matter of minutes.
Meanwhile, the mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so cells can make extra virus proteins, prompting a stronger immune response. Even so, the mRNA can last for only a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Read More How the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Works
We have things to celebrate. What should we do?
Even with a pandemic raging, there are things some have been lucky enough to celebrate. And you should: Life is short — you just don’t want to make it unnecessarily shorter. So how do you celebrate safely?
Infection rates have been on the rise as people began cozying up together indoors. In November, the month of Thanksgiving, the virus set new daily infection records: a million new cases reported in 10 days, another million in under seven days — a total of four million new cases over that month. And we similarly saw increases after the winter holidays — with a record 300,600 new cases Jan. 8 alone, just a week after New Year’s.
Some celebrations are worth delaying indefinitely. (Have you really turned a year older if it hasn’t been celebrated?) Others can be hosted over video chat . Or you can whittle down the party — masked up and distanced — to the people who matter the most.
And if you’re determined to gather, be sure to keep your guest list small. Experts advise limiting the number of households attending. (It’s best not to mix households at all.)
The recommended 10-day quarantine ahead of gathering — or even a shorter restriction of your contacts is better than nothing. Experts also suggest driving to the destination while limiting contact along the way, keeping your mask on and doing your best to keep some distance from those not in your household. You could throw a test on top for extra precaution — even for local gatherings. (See below for information about testing to determine the best test for you and when you should get it. And get more information from the C.D.C. about testing here. )
No matter the location or style of the event, everyone should wear masks as much as possible when not eating and people from different households should do their best to keep their distance. The recommendation is keeping six feet apart at all times.
The best safe-hosting option? Move the gathering outside. Outdoor gatherings are lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, according to Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester. (Go here for some tips on safe picnicking .)
If you must host indoors: The C.D.C. has prepared separate guidelines about how to properly clean your house before guests arrive, as well as how to be a pandemic-savvy host.
Before guests arrive, open the windows. That can increase the air exchange rate to as much as three times an hour — just half the rate recommended for buildings by the World Health Organization.
If it gets cold, you can crank the heater — in fact, the C.D.C. suggests putting your central air and heating on “continuous circulation.” Exhaust fans (like those over your stove or in the bathroom) can also help, but don’t turn on a regular fan — because that will simply recirculate the same, potentially contaminated air and increase everyone’s risk.
Other ways to lower the risk to you and your guests is to limit the length of your celebrations, keeping shouting and singing to a minimum, and limiting the sharing of serving bowls and utensils. And don’t bother getting out the nice guest towels. This year, paper towels are the way to go. The C.D.C. also reminds us to drink responsibly: “Use of alcohol or drugs may alter judgment and make it more difficult to practice Covid-19 safety measures.”
During the pandemic, being a good host means letting your guests know the expectations and safety standards up front — so no one is uncomfortable by unexpected rules or the lack there of — and have extra masks on hand in case a guest forgets.
But if you’re truly worried about getting Uncle Harold sick, stay home. It is the surest way to keep him safe.
And remember, no matter how far you traveled to gather: If you develop Covid-19 related symptoms (fever, shortness of breath, etc.) within 14 days of celebrating or later test positive, make sure to let your host know and follow these guidelines to keep others safe.
Read More How to Celebrate a Birthday Now
What should we do about birthdays?
For those of us who enjoy getting older — or at least all the attention that comes with it, you can still observe the day while making sure you live to see another year. For those in milder climates, park birthdays (everyone masked and distanced) may still be an option. (For those in colder climates, a park party is a good way to see who will scarf-and-glove up for you — you know, the people who really love you.)
Otherwise, that virtual party over Zoom can actually be a lot of fun (I’m speaking from experience) — so long as you limit the time and plan simple, interactive ways to get everyone on the call to take part. Don’t pick a time too close to mealtimes — or you’ll lose people to their microwaves. Be respectful of not monopolizing people’s days. And if you’re inviting people from different time zones (after all, this is the year you can have anyone and everyone you’ve ever loved in one — albiet virtual — place), be sure you pick an hour that isn’t too late or too early for the guests.
If you’re like my mother and think eating birthday cake in front of everyone (without a slice) is rude, you can suggest they bring along their own favorite treats, so it feels like you’re all together. (Or just plough in, it is your birthday, after all.)
Think carefully about that invite list: Who knows who, what personalities work well together and what do folks who haven’t met have in common? The simple answer to that last question is: you. So, your next step is figuring out how this group of people can pass the time together, and, again, that should probably be centered on what they have in common — again, you. So ask folks to introduce themselves and (if you’re brave enough) share a funny or embarassing story about yourself. It’s a nice way to get people laughing, talking about someone they all know and (I assume) love, without it starting to sound like a eulogy. You can also end with a short game as a sign off — like a round-robin story where everyone contributes one sentence with their goodbye.
Just be sure to keep your guests’ tendencies in mind: If you’re inviting a bunch of talkers, you can let people speak up on their own (so long as they don’t scream over each other). If they’re a quieter bunch, you might want to call names – and regardless, that’s a nice way to get the party started. (You can even let a close friend or two know you’re going to start with them, so you can get rolling on a high note.)
If everyone enjoys singing or another particular activity, you can incorporate that – but just be sure if you’re an opera star and inviting someone who is (um, well, not), you don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. (You’ll know when people’s faces start blinking to darkened squares.) And speaking of appearances, just because you don’t have to clean the house, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make an effort with a nice, festive background – via real decorations or your own Zoom creation.
For kids (and more festive adults, too), you can also go for a multi-tiered birthday celebration: in-person activities at home with the members of your household, as well as online or drive-by activities with friends. At home, endow your birthday celebrant with “magic powers” for the day – the chance to pick each meal and all the family activities. (Get ready for a few more sweets and even more noise than usual.)
Not sure how to fill time online with your kid’s friends? You could hire virtual entertainment. There are still music classes and magicians and clowns, and they offer virtual shows. (The website Mommy Poppins has a good list. ) Or, if you don’t have the budget to hire a clown, you could always consider putting the red nose on yourself – and practice your juggling beforehand. (Unless you want the kids laughing at you.) Just be sure to keep any virtual party short and sweet – say one hour, with a start and end time. And to keep on schedule, signal that the call is wrapping up by introducing one final activity – phrases like “before we say goodbye,” or “we have just a few more minutes to do X” will cue that the party is coming to a close. (Both you and the other parents on the call will appreciate it.)
Or, if your kid feels like he’s at school every time he looks at his friends through a computer screen, consider taking the party to the street. Put a festive birthday sign replete with his favorite color balloons in the front yard and host a drive-by caravan, with celebrants waving, honking and throwing a requested candy from the window.
Read More Go Ahead, Blow Out the Candles on Zoom
What do we do about our wedding?
Are you dreading the impending date of the day you have always dreamed about? The pandemic has ruined a lot — and has really taken a toll on weddings. Depending on cancellation fees, you may choose to postpone . (Lots of people are.) And if you want to be sure that you can celebrate in person with everyone you love, be flexible about choosing a new date — you wouldn’t want to have to re-cancel. For those who can’t afford to postpone, you can create a virtual component to the wedding, so that everyone can “be” there without actually being there. (But keep reading for the right way to do that — because while manners are changing with the pandemic, they aren’t null and void.)
For the newly engaged: Enjoy the moment — if you do it right, you’ll be engaged only once. In the interim, start talking with your partner about what you’d like for the big day, and plan slowly. With people getting vaccinated, we will soon be able to start making plans like normal. But the process could be slow. No need to rush the wedding, just to postpone later. Besides, if you plan it too soon, you might lose out on your bachelor/ bachelorette party — and those will be far more fun in the near but undated future. (And remember, if you're in a holding pattern for the big day, data suggests that you're doing it right: the later you get married, the more likely you are to stay married; adding years of courtship ahead of the big day incrementally decreases your risk of filing for divorce later.)
As for changing plans, long-held wedding decorum may no longer be applicable, especially when it comes to uninviting guests. To avoid having to retract invitations, Steve Moore, an owner of Sinclair and Moore Events in Seattle , says couples should either skip the save-the-date cards or include a disclaimer noting they plan to adhere to state and federal guidelines for gatherings. “We’ll ask in advance for your flexibility, understanding and grace,” he offered as a suggestion on what to write. Just don’t send a plethora of fake invitations, complete with parking information, just to recant later in a Facebook post with a link to your registry.
And in some places, like New York, the one-time epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, large marriage ceremonies will be allowed starting March 15 — with strict measures in place, of course. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo plans to release guidance about how such events can go forward, and any such weddings will additionally need to be approved by local health departments. Up to 150 guests could attend — with proof of negative test results, and venues would be capped at 50 percent (or, again, up to 150 people).
No matter what, be sure you are clear when communicating with your guests about any changes. A simple online blast, while effective, may not be sufficient. (You don’t want a guest showing up just because she has the good sense to detox from social media.) Depending on the size of the guest list, you can call, or send a text or an email — or depending on the timing and nature of the changed plans, you can send a “you are cordially uninvited to my wedding” card. (A disappointed selfie of the couple could at least bring a few laughs along with the dis-invite.) But soon-to-be-married couples: make sure to emphasize that the change in plans is not because you don’t love the person but because you do. And you can always tack on the promise of a second “to be determined” invitation. After all, with the stress you’ve been under, your first or second wedding anniversary might just call for a big party — when you can host without all of the pressure. (Paper and cotton gifts may not cut it in a post-pandemic world.)
And if you really don’t want to cancel, you could try to host a wedding over Zoom at the planned location or somewhere else — or switch it up to a drive-in theater ). Or, just invite the people closest to you (that’s often both immediate families and best friends, not all of your sorority sisters — unless you really are that person) to celebrate face-to-face, making sure they all get tested before you gather. (“Please bring a gift and proof of Covid test.”) #Covidwedding has 336,000 Instagram posts and counting.
Read More What Will Happen With Weddings?
What about a funeral?
There are steps you can take to treat the dead with dignity .
If someone you love is in hospice or nearing the end, start planning. Death is always logistical. Now, it’s even more so. Call a few funeral homes to ask about their pricing and procedure, and check your state laws on gathering size restrictions.
If your religion mandates you bury someone within a specific period of time, turn to a religious leader for help. They will have worked with other people in your situation, and should have suggestions about how to cope.
As much as you would like to honor your loved one in your traditional ways, the changed world has also, of course, affected funeral services. Consider the risk of a funeral gathering, and the comfort levels and health concerns of those who would like to attend. You may choose to host a memorial over Zoom or organize a smaller one in-person, or schedule a service at a later date. You could even pick a later date that has a special meaning to that person (their birthday, for example).
As for grieving? It’s going to be hard . You cannot hug your friends , and you cannot have them over. But with technology, you can virtually lean on your community . Maybe that’s just regular phone calls to your support network over the first few weeks. Or maybe that’s a Zoom shiva or wake. If you decide on the videoconferencing route, ask everyone to show up with a memory or a poem to share. Call on people one by one.
If your friend lost someone they loved, send flowers or a condolence note or sympathy card . It means a lot, even over email .
Read More How Do You Maintain Dignity for the Dead in a Pandemic?
Science and Health
What is the difference between the coronavirus and covid-19.
A coronavirus is a type of virus. There are lots of common coronaviruses, which are basically just forms of a cold.
This coronavirus — the coronavirus — is novel. It causes Covid-19, a disease. The 19 signifies 2019, the year when it started. The two terms are used interchangeably in conversation, but actually mean slightly different things.
Read More From Flattening the Curve to Pandemic: A Coronavirus Glossary
I keep hearing about droplets, aerosol clouds and surface contamination. What does this thing attach to, how does it get around and how would I get it?
If you were to share saliva with someone — kiss, drink from the same cup — you could obviously get the disease. But it’s not just direct contact that can cause transmission. After pressure from researchers, the W.H.O. conceded that the virus can be transmitted through particles that can linger in the air for hours after an infected person has left.
The nastiest recent revelation is, perhaps, that flushing a toilet can also spread the virus throughout a bathroom.
There is some good news, though. After months of sanitizing our groceries, packages and mail, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the risk of catching the coronavirus from a surface is low.
Read More Airborne Coronavirus: What You Should Do Now
What does the virus do to my body?
In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome — which caused their blood oxygen levels to plummet — and received supplemental oxygen. In severe cases, they were placed on ventilators to help them breathe.
By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. (And some people don’t show many symptoms at all.) In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal disturbances, such as diarrhea and nausea, have also been observed.
Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe" — but few other serious symptoms.
More serious cases can lead to inflammation and organ damage, even without difficulty breathing. There have been cases of dangerous blood clots, strokes and brain impairments.
Read More Six Months of Coronavirus: Here’s Some of What We’ve Learned
What are my chances of getting sick?
If you’ve recently been exposed to someone with a confirmed case of Covid-19, you should take the following precautions .
A known exposure means you’ve been in close contact (within six feet) of an infected person for 15 minutes or more. You should qaurantine if you’ve cared for a person with Covid-19, shared food or utensils with them, or you think they may have coughed or sneezed on you. (The only exception to this is if you’ve already had the virus during the past 90 days. Then you are probably protected and don’t need to quarantine.)
You have three options for quarantine, which means staying home and away from others until you know you haven’t contracted the virus.
14-day quarantine: This is the safest and most reliable way to ensure that you don’t spread the virus to others after a potential exposure to it. Stay home for 14 days and monitor your health. You can still be around members of your household, but you should try to minimize contact with them, wear a mask and avoid sharing food and utensils if possible. Isolation at home is typically recommended only if you are infected with the virus. But if you live with a vulnerable person at high risk for complications from Covid-19, you may want to take additional precautions at home as well.
10-day quarantine: Federal health officials have said 10 days is a reasonable amount of time to spend in quarantine after coming into contact with an infected person, if you do not experience symptoms. (Choose this option if your exposure was brief and 14-days of quarantine imposes a hardship.) You should still monitor your health for four days after quarantine and avoid contact with vulnerable people. As always, wear a mask following your 10-day quarantine.
7-day quarantine with testing: Combining quarantine with virus testing allows you to reduce the quarantine time and minimize your risk of venturing out into the world too soon after a potential exposure. The C.D.C. recommends that if you choose this option, you should get tested on day five or later after the potential exposure. Once you have a negative test, you can leave quarantine after 7 days. You can take a rapid test or a P.C.R. test on Day 5 or later. If you want to be extra careful, take a few more rapid tests after Day 7 to give yourself peace of mind that you aren’t spreading the virus to others.
In fact, you can combine any of the above options with testing for extra security. (Scroll to our questions: "How do I get tested? How long do tests take to come back?" and "I’m asymptomatic but was exposed to someone with the virus. Should I get tested?" for more on getting tested.)
Read More All 50 States Are Now Reopening. But at What Cost?
If I am sick, how will I know?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think that you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on how to get tested and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that if you’re sick or think you’re sick, but only mildly ill, you should isolate yourself , and you shouldn’t leave your house except to go to the doctor.
But a lot of people get the coronavirus without showing many, or any, symptoms. That’s why you should always wear a mask outside your home — the only surefire way to know you don’t have it is to get a test. And tests are not always reliable. Go to the next question for more information about testing.
Read More ‘What Are the Symptoms?’ ‘What Should I Do if I Feel Sick?’ and Other Coronavirus Questions and Could My Symptoms Be Covid-19?
How do I get tested? How long do tests take to come back?
You can find testing sites across the country — including at some hospitals, urgent care clinics, pharmacies and doctor’s offices. Even some churches, fire stations and airports provide testing. And some airlines including American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines also offer tests for passengers heading to certain destinations.
But while testing certainly helps limit spread, it’s not a catch-all defense against the virus. Tests are not always accurate.
A positive test means you need to isolate and cancel any plans, but even a negative test is not a free pass. It can give you some reassurance, but you still need to take all precautions, including wearing a mask and keeping your distance. Even the most reliable tests can have a high false negative rate, depending on the timing of the test — and you may also contract the virus between taking the test and getting the result.
Covid-19 takes up to 14 days to incubate, and, in that time, you may test negative and show no symptoms — even as you’re passing it to people around you. In fact, about half of transmissions occur before people notice their symptoms. And the accuracy of your test results depends greatly on when you get tested — because the virus needs time to replicate in your body before any test can detect it.
So if you got tested the day after you were infected, one study in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine showed your test results would yield a false negative every time. And while results show greatly diminishing false negatives in the early days after symptom onset, they tick back up on the backend of the illness.
The type of test you get, as well as the case count and backlog in your geographic location can affect the timing of your results — as well as the results themselves. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers molecular tests (PCR tests) that detect the virus’s genetic material to be “typically highly accurate" although it takes longer to get the results back (maybe a few days because samples must be sent to a lab), and you could be infected in the interim. Meanwhile, antigen tests (many of the rapid tests) are used to detect certain proteins on the surface of the virus. Although you can get results back in under an hour, a false negative is more likely and the F.D.A. suggests that those with “negative results may need to be confirmed with a molecular test."
Companies like CareCube and Pixel by LabCorp , don't even require you to leave your home. They will mail you a test and you mail your sample back. They promise results within 12 to 34 hours and 36 hours, respectively. (JetBlue also has a partnership with Vault Health for mail-in tests .)
And remember: The purpose of testing is to safely separate people who test positive from the rest of society to limit the number of infections ... not to go back to living like the the good old days of 2019.
Read More Getting Tested Before Traveling: What I Need to Know
I’m asymptomatic but was exposed to someone with the virus. Should I get tested?
Yes, get tested! If you have been exposed to the virus, you could also be contagious — even if you don't notice any symptoms.
The safest and most reliable way to ensure that you don’t spread the virus to others after a potential exposure is to quarantine at home for 14 days, while monitoring your health and getting tested. (There are also 10- and 7-day quarantine options for those who cannot follow the C.D.C.'s preference for a 14-day quarantine. For more information about those option scroll up to the question: "What are my chances of getting sick?")
As asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission is possible, testing helps identify people who might be unintentionally spreading the disease because they feel just fine. Therefore quick testing and identification is paramount to containing the spread. The C.D.C. reminds you: "Pending test results, you should self-quarantine/isolate at home and stay separated from household members to the extent possible and use a separate bedroom and bathroom, if available."
Even if you test negative, one negative test doesn't mean you're in the clear. The time between possible transmission and testing is important for detecting the disease.
See the question above for more information about getting tested and the types of tests you can get, as well as the accuracy of those tests. And skip down to the question "If I am exposed to the virus, do I need to quarantine?" for more information about what to do if you have come into contact with someone with Covid-19.
When should I go to the hospital?
In general, going to the hospital should not be your first interaction with a doctor.
If you’re feeling sick, speak with a medical professional over the phone and get a test. If you can, consult with a doctor before you go to a medical center or the hospital — they may have insights or suggestions.
As soon as symptoms start, mark the days. Although most patients recover in about a week, a significant minority of patients enter “a very nasty second wave" of illness, said Dr. Ilan Schwartz, assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta. “After the initial symptoms, things plateau and maybe even improve a little bit, and then there is a secondary worsening."
Read More Why Days 5 to 10 Are So Important When You Have Coronavirus
What precautions do pregnant people need to take?
If you or a loved one is pregnant right now, congratulations! This crazy world could use every bit of new joy it can get. We hope you’re having an easy ride.
This is, though, probably a stressful time to be pregnant, especially since there’s so much that’s still uncertain. Here’s what we know:
Pregnant people might be at increased risk from severe illness from Covid-19, according to the C.D.C. Pregnant people might also be at risk of interruptions to their pregnancies, such as a preterm birth. And a study of pregnant Black and Latino people in Philadelphia shows they have an increased chance of being exposed to the coronavirus, which bolsters other research showing that the coronavirus disproportionately affects Black and Latino people.
Experts are cautiously optimistic that the coronavirus won’t alter fetal development, although one study found strong evidence that a baby was infected with the virus in the womb. A more common concern is that the parent carrying the child is at increased risk of suffering complications if infected. Pregnancy is already a stressor on the lungs and cardiovascular system, and the immune system changes significantly during the course of carrying a baby.
So. Just as raising a child takes a village, though, it will be a community effort to keep this new baby safe before it’s born. As a family, take extra precautions to protect the pregnancy. Keep your mask on. Socially distance whenever possible.
Importantly, though, keep your appointments. Talk to your doctor about how to safely come in for vaccines and check-ups, or whether remote visits are an option. That’s more important now than ever.
If you want more information, the C.D.C. has a really comprehensive F.A.Q. that will be worth a look. Massachusetts General Hospital does, too.
Read More Why We Still Don’t Know Enough About Covid-19 and Pregnancy
Preventative Measures and Treatment
If i am exposed to the virus, do i need to quarantine what if i've done something high-risk for exposure like flying or participating in a protest.
Yes, if you think you've been exposed to the virus, you should start quarantining , meaning you don't leave home except for medical attention, other emergencies or perhaps to get tested. (Remember, quarantining is different than self-isolating , which is what people infected with the coronavirus must do, meaning that they have to stay away from others, even the people in their own homes.)
If you've done something that may have put you at a higher risk for contracting the virus (like attending a protest or traveling by plane), quarantining and getting tested are the most responsible options — even if you don't have any specific concerns about the people near you. (And in some places, like New York , travelers must quarantine for 10 days, or a shorter time period after two negative test results — one within 72 hours of travel and the other four days after arriving.) A negative test is not a guarantee that you're Covid-free, but it's a good precaution to lower the chance that you'll unknowingly infect others.
For those who worry about potential exposure, the C.D.C. has amended its quarantining recommendations. While the agency still says that quarantining for 14 days is the safest option, in December the C.D.C. proposed two easier alternatives .
If you don’t have symptoms, you can quarantine for 10 days — or cut that time down to seven, followed by a negative test for the virus. (Your P.C.R. or rapid test should be taken within 48 hours of the end of your quarantine.) You should also continue monitoring yourself for symptoms, and taking precautions like wearing a mask and social distancing.
The C.D.C. also reminds us that “you can be infected and spread the virus but feel totally well and have no symptoms." Remember, while studies have found that the median incubation period of the virus is five days, and a vast majority of people develop symptoms within 11.5 days of being exposed, some patients show symptoms as early as two days and some as late as two weeks after being infected — and still others never notice symptoms at all.
So, if you do exit quarantine early, you may feel fine and still accidentally pass along the virus to Uncle Harold. Additionally, depending on when along that timeline you get tested, you could come up with a false negative — because the virus may not have yet sufficiently replicated in order to be detected. (Your test is more likely to be accurate in the early days after symptom onset, but drop again on the backend of the illness.)
Read More C.D.C. Officials Shorten Recommended Quarantine Periods
Why do masks work?
The coronavirus clings to droplets and enters and exits the body through any wet tissue (your eyes, nostrils, mouth). That’s why people are wearing masks and eyeshields. They’re like an umbrella for your body — keeping your droplets in and other people’s droplets out.
But masks work only if you wear them properly. The mask should cover your face from the bridge of your nose to under your chin, and should stretch almost to your ears. Be sure there are no gaps — that sort of defeats the purpose, no?
Read More Tips for Making Your Mask Work
What should I consider when choosing a mask?
Masks are still necessary — and even more so with several variants of the virus emerging . (In fact, nowadays , you should consider a mask with an extra filter sandwiched between two pieces of cloth or at least doubling-up on masks.)
There's no one-mask fits all, however: the size of your head and other facial features, as well as your environment and what you plan to do while wearing your mask (walk down the street, work a full day in construction) is going to change what you're looking for. (And there are a lot of stylish options , as well as N-95s and other medical masks. You can even make them yourself — just be sure you consider the best material to use .)
But after extensive research, along with fit and comfort testing, we are recommending a few adjustable cloth masks that fit most people. And be sure to also check out our recommendations for children's masks — they're even kid-approved . (That's right they were tested by a panel of children ages 3 to 10.) Just remember, like with all clothing and accessories, it needs to be something you'll actually wear — and wear properly. After all, you should be wearing it whenever you leave the house — even if you have already been vaccinated . (We don't yet know if vaccinated people can still spread the virus.)
And, of course, no matter what mask you chose, be sure to:
-Wash your hands before and after wearing your mask, and pull it off by the loops or ties (don't pull from the cloth front).
-Be sure you're putting it on before you leave home (for those in apartments, that means wearing it in communal hallways, stairwells and elevators) and taking it off when you're back inside.
-Keep your reusable mask in a clean, dry place and clean it frequently. (Here's a guide for how to clean your mask .
-Remember, your mask is only one part of your safety plan. Again, wash your hands often and keep to social distancing measures. (That's six feet apart.)
By now, it should go without saying, but apparently — for Bill Clinton who has famously worn it tucked under his nose and a lot of other powerful men with similarly notorious wardrobe malfunctions — how to properly wear a mask still needs to be emphasized, so here are some simple drawings to guide you — and be sure your mask covers your face from nose to chin, doesn't gape at the edges and can be worn for an extended period of time without being pulled down. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said it best: no chin-guards, please.
Read More Why We Wear Masks
What about gloves? Should I wear them too?
Not really. Gloves become a second skin. They themselves could become contaminated (don’t touch your face!) and depending on how they’re made, they might have holes.
Gloves may be helpful if someone in your household becomes sick, so you can reduce the amount of times you have to wash your hands. But you will have to change the gloves every time you leave their room or interact with the sick person — and after removing the gloves, too (because chances are, you're touching the gloves to remove them, or do you know a trick we don't?).
The most effective intervention is still washing your hands thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds, every time you enter your home.
Read More Don’t Fall for These Myths About Coronavirus
Why is six feet away the right distance?
The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. Six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet.
But some scientists have looked at studies of air flow and are concerned about smaller particles called aerosols. They suggest that people consider a number of factors, including their own vulnerability and whether they are outdoors or in an enclosed room, when deciding whether six feet is enough distance.
Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study .
It's a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it's windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
Read More Stay 6 Feet Apart, We’re Told. But How Far Can Air Carry Coronavirus?
Should I get a regular flu shot?
Yes. Let's avoid a “twindemic," please. While we've largely managed so far , we're not yet in the clear .
Dr. Rossi A. Hassad wrote in MedPage Today that the Covid-19 pandemic could mirror the influenza pandemic of 1918 if we ignore public health measures.
As in other years, tens of thousands of people are expected to die from the flu this go-round. (The C.D.C. keeps this interactive map updated with reported flu infections across the country.)
What we know about the flu, which has a rubbery membrane coat similar to that of Covid-19, can inform us about the dangers and precautions we should take against the virus — because although there are differences between the flu and the coronavirus , both illnesses can produce similar symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath and fatigue that can be extreme.
Translation: while we should always get our annual flu shot, this year it's more important than ever. The worrisome flu strains change every year, and the influenza vaccine is safe and effective — so why not? And depending on where you live, it may be pretty easy to get a flu shot: Some places, like certain NYC Health + Hospitals locations in the city, provide free flu shots along with free coronavirus tests — no insurance necessary.
And for those sniffly doubters who claim to still get the flu after the shot anyway — while you're blowing your nose, keep in mind that the illness is likely to be significantly less severe than it would have been without the vaccine. (As for those who feel icky for just a day or two after injection, that's actually a good sign. Your antibodies are kicking in!)
Read More Your Flu Shot Has Never Been More Important
Does the virus live in clothes and hair?
Probably not. If you are practicing social distancing and making only occasional trips to the grocery store or pharmacy, experts say that it’s not necessary to change clothes or take a shower when you return home. You should, however, always wash your hands upon entering your home.
The same advice goes for head and facial hair : If you practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently, you probably don’t need to worry.
Read More Is the Virus on My Clothes? My Shoes? My Hair? My Newspaper?
I have the coronavirus. What should I expect my recovery to look like?
For starters, we're really sorry you're sick and hope you feel better soon. There's no one-recovery-for-all handbook, unfortunately. But if you are at home and looking for a few tips, take a look at this how to .
Some people show none or few symptoms, and find out they have been infected only when they test positive for antibodies. And there’s a range of experiences in between. We all recover at different rates, and some of us are still struggling to do so many months later. If you're still feeling ill — even long after you have technically recovered — you're not alone and you should be taken seriously. (You can quote us on that, if you'd like.)
And you can quote that guy Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, too: “This is a phenomenon that is really quite real and quite extensive,” he said in December at a conference dedicated to issues regarding long-term Covid-19 .
These longterm symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, breathing trouble, depression and brain fog , which can make it difficult to string a coherent sentence together — along with other cognitive and psychological problems. Some have also experienced exercise intolerance and are unable to catch their breath during aerobic activity. (By the way, if you're recovering from Covid-19, you should really take your time returning to exercise .)
We don't yet know how many people have prolonged symptoms in the postviral stage, but some estimates expect that one in three Covid-19 patients will experience lingering symptoms. Dr. John Brooks, the chief medical officer of the C.D.C.’s Covid response, estimated that it could be “on the order of tens of thousands in the United States and possibly hundreds of thousands.” And Dr. Ann Parker, who co-directs a post-Covid clinic at Johns Hopkins, notes that about three months after their acute illness, "more than half of our patients have at least a mild cognitive impairment.” She also noted "substantial mental health impairments.”
The good news? (And yes, we do have a bit here.) At Mount Sinai Hospital, which opened the country's first Center for Post-Covid Care in May, most patients have recovered — with time.
Which brings us to this: No matter where you are on your road to recovery, remember that as in life, there is no real timeline (and it's definitely not linear), so don't push yourself to meet hypothetical goals, and be patient with yourself and others who are recovering and/ or helping you to do so. Go at the pace that feels comfortable for you and don't push yourself beyond your limits. (Only you can set these.) You may have arduous physical rehabilitation ahead.
And again, you're not alone. You can join virtual support groups like Body Politic to share advice. Several of our staff have also shared their experiences with longterm recovery from Covid-19. In a personal narrative , Mara Gay , a member of The Times’s editorial board, wrote that weeks after technically recovering, she was still using inhalers and "can't walk more than a few blocks without stopping." And our reporter Laura M. Holson has also had a long and strenuous recovery, writing that her experience with prolonged symptoms has been like facing death — twice.
But they are surviving the pandemic, and so are you. Just don't forget, as you continue surviving, you're going to need what Ms. Gay calls her "small army of people who are helping me heal."
Read More What to Expect After Having Covid-19
How I Can Help
What can i do to stop the spread.
Wear a mask and stay far away from other people. Self-isolate and take a coronavirus test if you are potentially infected. Get vaccinated as soon as you can. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Read More How NOT to Wear a Mask
Can I give blood?
You can. Transfusions are still needed for cases like organ transplants or complications of childbirth.
The American Red Cross is collecting donations at blood banks, which have enacted new safety measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Those measures include checking the temperatures of staff members and donors before they enter a drive facility, providing hand sanitizer for use before and during the donation process, enhancing their disinfection of surfaces and equipment, and spacing beds — when possible — to enable social distancing between donors.
And even if you’re under a stay-at-home order, donating blood is an essential need, so public health officials have made an exception for your trip to the center.
To find a donation center, check the American Association of Blood Banks locator, visit the Red Cross website or call 1-800-RED-CROSS.
Read More How to Donate Blood During the Crisis
I’ve recovered from Covid-19. How do I donate plasma?
Plasma is, basically, the liquid part of your blood: it’s light yellow and about 92 percent water. Any antibodies that your body creates are contained in the plasma. Once you’ve recovered, or convalesced, from a given virus, those antibodies stick around in your plasma for a certain amount of time, ready to fight that virus if it comes back.
If you have antibodies, your convalescent plasma can be transfused into a patient still battling the disease.
To qualify, donors must pass normal blood-donation requirements and be symptom-free of Covid-19 for at least 14 days, and, in most cases, must have positive results from a test. (Other restrictions may apply, depending on the organization.)
Many health care institutions nationwide are involved in plasma donations, including the Red Cross, so to find a location near you go to the website for the National Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma Project or visit the Red Cross’s website .
Read More What Is Convalescent Plasma, and Why Do We Care About It?
Where should I donate money?
If you are looking to give money to those who need it most, you may want to consider an organization that provides food or helps with medical efforts.
Be sure to take care when choosing a charity. The watchdogs Charity Navigator or CharityWatch vet organizations.
You can also consider giving to local businesses and families in need directly. Or helping your neighbors in ways that are not necessarily monetary .
Read More How You Can Help Victims of the Coronavirus Pandemic
I want to help other families with school-age kids. How?
This is still a hard time for all of us — but some more than others. And if you're in a position to help, an increasing number of people are in need of it. You can offer a helping hand, either through donations or volunteering.
If you have children, involve them by asking their opinions on where they think you should focus your resources. They can also help raise money by hosting a socially distant bake sale or starting an online fund-raising campaign. And if you can afford it, a recurring monthly commitment — set up with an automatic withdrawal from your bank account or credit card — makes it easy for your family to commit for the long run. ( Charity Navigator has a list of vetted nonprofit organizations that are working in communities affected by the outbreak.)
One place of particular need could be at your local school. We could have a generation of children teaching themselves and falling further behind — because some students still don't have access to the basic materials they need (laptops, a stable internet connection) to learn remotely.
You may consider giving to EveryoneOn , which provides families with programs for low-cost internet or access to affordable devices, or National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit organization that urges the importance of internet access for all and has a list of local organizations working toward digital inclusion. Also, Comp-U-Dopt refurbishes used computers and gives them to children in cities across the country. For $215, the organization can obtain a computer, overhaul it, deliver it and provide two years of tech support and training. And for school supplies, you may donate to First Book , a national nonprofit that provides free or inexpensive books and learning materials to children who need them.
Finally, we could all use more positive people in our lives right now — from a distance, of course. One organization in New York, the New Neighbors Partnership, connects refugee families with those who have slightly older kids. You can mail your clothing donations directly to the family or hand-deliver them (accompanied by staff). You never know, a relationship starting with a few hand-me-downs could lead to a continuing connection with another family for years to come.
Read More How to Volunteer or Donate to Help Others This School Year
Is it safe to return to life as (kind of) normal?
Please practice caution no matter where you live. At this time, it is just not safe to jump back into the world with two feet, especially if you are in an area where cases are surging.
And in many states, that's the situation. Many re-openings have been followed by a surge of new cases. When you do visit businesses or are otherwise out and about, maintain your social distance and keep your mask on. Just because many Americans are bored of the pandemic, doesn’t mean it’s over.
Read More See How All 50 States Are Reopening (and Closing Again)
Which doctor visits should I be avoiding? When should I still go?
Taking care of your health is important and keeping up with vaccinations, screenings, dental care and other appointments shouldn’t be delayed. Things of course have changed: You’ll need to check with the medical office first and take some basic precautions, like wearing a mask and arriving early for fever checks and screening questions.
If you experience symptoms or an injury that would have required an emergency room visit before, you should still seek emergency care. (Remember, the E.R. is for life-threatening situations like chest pain, numbness or tingling that could signal stroke, breathing difficulties or serious injuries.)
If you have or believe you have Covid-19, you should call to check in with your doctor, especially if you are in a high-risk category. Most of the time, you’ll be advised to monitor your symptoms at home, including checking your oxygen levels with a home fingertip pulse oximeter . If your oxygen level goes to 93 percent or lower, seek medical care. If you have trouble breathing or experience other concerning symptoms, contact your doctor or go to the nearest E.R.
As for non-emergency medical needs, you have a few options. One of the best things we’ve learned during the pandemic is that doctors and patients can accomplish a lot with telehealth — online video medical visits. And if case counts are rising in your area and hospitals are overwhelmed, doctors may need to delay some care, particularly elective procedures.
But don’t make the decision to skip out on important medical care without talking to your doctor first. Medical offices are taking extensive precautions to keep everyone — the staff and the patients — safe from the virus, and chances are that you will be able to keep your appointment. Call ahead to learn how your medical providers are handling the inflow of patients. (Here are questions to be sure to ask, as well as a set of guidelines, courtesy of the Mayo Clinic.)
Many people have already delayed doctor visits — and in some cases that can be dangerous. In May almost half of American adults say they or someone they live with had put off medical visits, according to data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Hospitals have also rescheduled at different points of the pandemic.)
It shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently it needs to be said : don’t avoid the doctor or hospital if you truly need their services. In April emergency medical services in Newark made 239 on-scene death pronouncements — four times the number that time last year — and less than half directly tied to Covid-19, meaning the virus may be indirectly taking the lives of many more, who may not be going to the doctor either out of fear or because they suddenly find themselves uninsured.
On the other hand, while demand for face-lifts sky-rocketed this summer, now is probably not the best time for one. We’ve all seen you on Zoom. You’re not fooling anyone anyway.
Read More Headed to the Doctor? What You Need to Know Before You Go
How should I decide where and how to go to stores?
The increasing moves to reopen businesses reflect the immense political and societal pressures weighing on the nation’s governors, even as epidemiologists remain cautious.
Since the spring, a lot of businesses have learned how to welcome customers safely. Temperature checks at the door probably don’t do much , but mandatory masks and limits on the number of people who can enter at one time do.
In general, here are things to keep in mind:
-If you have a choice between outside and inside, choose outside. You’re less likely to contract the virus or give it to others when you're outdoors; the virus can hang in the still indoor air for hours. And if you have to go inside, wear a mask as much as you possibly can.
-To reduce your risk of exposure, consider what most people will be doing at various businesses. (Where are people going to feel most at ease, and where will they most want to get close to one another and remove their masks? At a store, can you do your best to get in and get out? How bad are the lines?)
-For maximum protection, avoid businesses that require some socializing, because it's harder to follow safety guidelines in those places. Gyms are inherently germy, working out in a mask is hard and people may take off their masks in locker rooms. Dining in restaurants is also tricky: Tables are close, and you’re eating so you have to take your mask off to take a bite. Meanwhile, people's inhibitions are lowered at bars, where the alcohol is flowing. (And we have more about each of these places in further questions.)
Read More A Quick Coronavirus Risk Assessment
Is it safe to go grocery shopping?
We’ve all learned how to safely grocery shop during the pandemic — wear a mask, avoid crowds, keep the trip short and wash your hands (when you get home and after you’ve unpacked groceries). While it may feel like a more hazardous time to shop compared with earlier months of the pandemic, the level of risk varies across the country. Your risk of crossing paths with an infected person is higher when an indicator called the test positivity rate is above 5 percent in your community.
Case counts and test positivity rates have risen across the country, which is why everyone needs to take precautions. But in some places, while precautions are needed and numbers have newly risen, it’s still not as bad as it once was. For instance, New York City’s test positivity rate now falls just below 9 percent, meaning your risk is lower compared with last April, when the rate was close to 70 percent.
To find out how your state is doing, use this chart from Johns Hopkins University. And to find the test positivity rate in your community, check your state or county health department's website or try the Covid Act Now website.
Read More How to Stay Safe While Shopping for Thanksgiving Staples
What about getting a haircut?
You could, if only for the story, do it yourself . A buzz cut is … possible, although perhaps ill-advised. And that beard you've been carefully cultivating? Chances are it’s time you rethink that unkempt look . (Doubtful? Just ask your partner, trusted friend, or that reflection in the mirror. They're not lying.)
Fixing our hair is a rich and beloved form of self-care. Even when you’re visible only on Zoom, split ends and straggly edges can crimp your confidence. When barbershops reopened in New York City, people came rushing back .
In fact, even before barbershops could reopen there, Herman James, a barber in Manhattan, set up his shop under a leaf-laced pergola in Central Park, offering free haircuts to anyone who passed by. (Tips are appreciated.) So for those not yet ready to enter a salon but very ready to have their hair cut, make an appointment with the Central Park Barber , who as of late January could still be spotted on warmer days cutting hair by the lake just north of Strawberry Fields. (Wintry weather may affect appointment times.) He wears a mask and has a chair waiting for you.
And if you opt for a salon , make sure that both you and the person doing your hair are wearing masks. They have to get close to you, so be extra careful . Also, unless you’re getting your hair done outside, make sure the windows are open and there is good ventilation, to keep air moving through the space.
To keep yourself safe, shampoo your hair at home, so your stylist doesn’t have to bend over you. Wait for the appointment outside and keep the appointment short. (Yep, skip the blowdry.) And if you're getting your hair colored, step outside while the chemicals are taking, and wash your own hair out. As for those going in for a shave — go for a not-so-close shave, or unloop one ear at a time, holding your mask to your face. Safety first. Vanity second.
Read More 5 Swipes for a Low-Risk Salon Visit
What about the dentist?
Taking care of your pearly whites is not just a good beauty habit; it’s also essential for your health. With all the baking and drinking we’ve been doing during lockdown, you’re going to need a visit sooner rather than later. In fact, that’s part of the reason economists are using dentists as a bellwether for comfort about reopening writ large.
Dentists have mobilized and are ready to accommodate visitors. Dentists and hygienists should wear head-to-toe personal protective equipment and change between appointments.
Getting the first appointment of the day may also limit risk, though many dentists said they are seeing fewer patients so they have more time to disinfect rooms between visits. But the risk might be more to the providers than it is to the patients; they keep their mask on while you take yours off.
Read More Is It Safe to Go Back to the Dentist?
What about laundromats?
In confined spaces, droplets spread. The C.D.C. suggests that , while doing the laundry of a sick person, you should wear gloves and try not to shake the clothing, to minimize the possibility of dispersing the virus through the air. If possible, wash items using the warmest water setting, and dry thoroughly. But you can wash their laundry with everyone else’s.
That being said, the C.D.C. also says that surfaces contaminated with droplets of the virus can infect people, it is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads." We know that’s contradictory information. Safe is always better than sorry, though, and if you’re living with someone sick, it’s always good to take precautions.
At the laundromat, if you leave your home to wash your clothes, don’t hang out in the room between cycles. Sit in your car or lounge outside as you wait, just for social distancing purposes.
Read More How Should I Do Laundry Now?
How about gyms?
You can apply the stereotypes of sweaty locker rooms to your local gym. (After all, why are the locker rooms so gross in the first place?) By their very nature, athletic facilities like gyms tend to be infested with germs, and gym equipment can be difficult to sanitize. In a study published last year , researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, flu virus and other pathogens on about a quarter of the surfaces they tested in four different athletic training facilities. (When cleaned the right way, germs in gyms can fall almost to nil — but that assumes everyone is following the rules and doesn't take into consideration other health risks beyond the equipment.)
When weighing whether to head back to your gym, remember it's a confined space, and exercising with a mask on is hard. If you think you can manage, be sure to check the health and safety policies in place at your gym before heading over. You can also take additional measures to keep both you and those around you even safer. Clean any grime or dust from surfaces, then disinfect anything you touch. When spraying a disinfectant, give it a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Once you've finished using a machine, disinfect it again for the next person. And be sure to wash your hands frequently, or use hand sanitizer.
After a five-month closure , gyms in New York reopened in August — to a long list of regulations , including a required health screening ahead of check-in, mandatory mask usage during workouts, and lots and lots of cleaning. (Occupancy is limited to one-third of total capacity.)
If all of this talk about pathogen-covered equipment is giving you the creepy crawlies, consider a safer alternative: exercising outside. Even in the dead of winter, many New Yorkers can still be spotted bundled, masked and jogging around Central Park. Your risk of infection is lessened and on sunny days, you get the added benefit of Vitamin D — an essential immune system-strengthener that helps combat the cold and flu.
But if you just can't brave the cold, you can also stream online exercise classes from home. (One gym in Long Island, N.Y. , created a new type of fitness community called Life Outside the Box, lending its equipment to members to use in their homes and offering virtual fitness coaching. And there are many other personalized workouts you can purchase, as well.) A cheaper option? Set up a corner of your home and lay out a yoga mat. Either way, you're making the world safer, and if you forgo the personal trainer, you're saving on gym fees, too.
Read More Is It Safe to Go Back to the Gym?
Socializing and Friends
Why is it safer to spend time together outside.
By now, we know that Covid-19 is an airborne illness , with tiny droplets of the virus staying in the stagnant air for hours after an infected person has been there. Moreover, Covid-19’s fatty outer membrane becomes rubbery in cold weather — easing its transmission between people whose dry and winter-damaged nasal passages are more susceptible anyway.
There are some risk factors you can't mitigate for (the weather, for instance), but others you can (like choosing to socialize indoors or outside). Your risk of contracting the virus increases when you're inside poorly ventilated and enclosed indoor spaces, where the contaminated air is recycled.
And outdoor gatherings lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.
And it's all about virus load — in fact even just a light wind will quickly scatter the virus , so that people nearby will be potentially exposed in far smaller, less harmful quantities. “A single virus will not make anyone sick," said Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at Lehman College at the Graduate Center the City University of New York. "It will be immediately destroyed by the immune system. The belief is that one needs a few hundred to a few thousand of SARS-CoV-2 viruses to overwhelm the immune response.”
So, when in doubt, go outside and stay outside as much as possible when interacting with people not in your immediate household. And no matter what, be sure you're wearing a mask.
We know it's cold, but if you layer-up and keep moving, your body will actually acclimate pretty quickly. Pro tip: wear three layers, something wickable underneath to limit sweat, followed by fleece and finally a wind- and rain-repellant coat. Also, heed your grandmother's nagging: Be sure to cover your hands (mittens are warmer than gloves), feet (double up on socks, if you can — just don't cut off circulation when squeezing into your shoes) and head (a hat will keep as much as 10 percent of your body heat from escaping). Also, don't blow into your hands if you're cold — the moisture will end up making you feel colder. (Again, you should be wearing a mask anyway.)
If you must be indoors with people outside of your pod, then at least open the windows. That can increase the air exchange rate to as much as three times an hour — just half the rate recommended for buildings by the World Health Organization. And if it gets cold, you can crank the heater — in fact, the C.D.C. suggests putting your central air and heating on “continuous circulation.” Exhaust fans (like those over your stove or in the bathroom) can also help, but don’t turn on a regular fan — because that will simply recirculate the same, potentially contaminated air and increase everyone’s risk.
Read More How to Keep Socializing Outdoors in the Winter
What are superspreaders?
A superspreader is someone who is incredibly infectious, passing the virus on to a disproportionate number of other people.
The good news is: They’re rare. The bad news is: they're hiding among us. And no one (even the superspreaders themselves) knows who they are. Sound like a horror movie? (Yeah, we've gotten that a lot lately.)
There was that Texas birthday party , where one man reportedly infected 17 members of his family. Plus those Biogen employees , who are believed to have infected as many as 300,000 people after a healthcare conference at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in February 2020. And who can forget that notorious Connecticut soirée , dubbed “Party Zero"?
Of course, superspreading isn't a new concept. Ever heard of Typhoid Mary ? Yep, the cook was asymptomatic but still spread the disease to more than 50 people. Superspreading has also caused outbreaks of tuberculosis, measles, Ebola, SARS and MERS .
And like other diseases, superspreading events have helped drive the coronavirus pandemic. Determining who the superspreaders are and when and where the superspreading takes place is an important part of trying to limit outbreaks. (On the other hand, there are people who don't spread the virus to anybody , and figuring out who they are and why they don't spread the disease is also important.)
While much about superspreaders remains unknown , evidence suggests that circumstances are likely to blame as opposed to biological differences between people.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tried to determine what's called the "dispersion parameter," or the measure of variation from person to person in transmitting Covid-19. He compared cases in different countries. You’d expect the outbreaks in different places to be mostly the same size if Covid-19 was like the flu. But it's not. Instead, Dr. Kucharski and his colleagues found a wide variation: 10 percent of infected people were responsible for 80 percent of new infections — meaning most people passed the virus on to few, if any, others. He published his findings in a preprint , which had not been reviewed by other scientists or published in a scientific journal, but other epidemiologists wound up with similar estimates.
Superspreaders provide a lesson in societal interconnectivity, said Dr. Jacob E. Lemieux, an infectious-disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a researcher at the Broad Institute, who looked at the superspreading case at the Boston conference. From there, the virus spread to at least 29 states, Australia, Sweden and Slovakia — as well as Boston homeless shelters, where it had a devastating effect. “Our intuition about how disconnected we can be is not reliable," Dr. Lemieux said. "We are so connected that we don’t appreciate the linkages and interactions we have.”
So what can we do? Since you don't know if you or someone else you know could be a superspreader, it's important to be socially responsible: avoid crowds, wear a mask and social distance. And, please, don't host a soirée anytime soon.
Read More Most People With Coronavirus Won’t Spread It. Why Do a Few Infect Many?
What if I have to be indoors in a small space, like an elevator?
Are there stairs? Can you climb them? If not, or if it’s too many flights, wait until the next car with no one in it.
If an empty elevator opens and others are waiting, you can always offer that they go ahead (if you have time), or politely ask that they take the next elevator. (Just be careful of tone, no need to offend anyone while staying safe.)
Even if you are alone in the elevator, since droplets can hang in the air long after you leave, wear your mask at all times.
And whether with others or alone: no talking (even on the phone or to yourself). Keeping your mouth shut lowers the risk of you spewing coronavirus droplets into the contained space.
Read More Going Up? Not So Fast: Strict New Rules to Govern Elevator Culture
Can I hug my friends?
If you miss hugging , you’re not alone: we’re social creatures, and we actually need physical touch . So, is there any safe way to do it?
The CDC does not suggest hugging anyone outside your household. (And if you're looking for an excuse *not* to hug Great Aunt Marge, then by all means: not hugging is the safer option.)
But for those more tactically-inclined, Tara Parker-Pope, founding editor of Well, asked Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s leading experts on airborne disease transmission, what to do. Dr. Marr calculated that the risk of transmission is surprisingly low if both people are wearing a mask — in part because the duration is so brief.
“If you don’t talk or cough while hugging, the risk should be very low,” Dr. Marr said.
A few tips for lowering the risk further: Wear a mask. Do it outside. Turn your heads away from one another. Don’t linger (you don’t want to breathe into each other’s faces), and wash your hands afterward.
And, if only for the 'gram, you can make a " hug glove " with a clear tarp and sleeves to hug that special somebody. (Click.)
Read More How to Hug During a Pandemic
How can I deal with the loneliness?
Being alone doesn’t have to be lonely — but it sure can feel that way. Rates of depression were already spiking this summer when the days were long and socially distanced outdoor activities were a given. Now, as we squirm against shorter days and tighter restrictions — both those imposed by local authorities as well as those reinforced by the weather — it is more important than ever to strike a balance between our physical and mental health. (Actually they go hand-in-hand: studies suggest that loneliness can adversely affect the immune system — making those people more likely to get sick.)
These days many of us feel caught between our closing walls and rabbit hole minds. So it’s especially important to take stock of your feelings, familiarize yourself with depression’s physical and mental markers and, if you’re uncertain, consider taking this self-diagnostic test.
Andrew Solomon, a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, explains that people’s responses to social isolation can be quartered into categories: 1. People who are generally unaffected, 2. Those with minor worry, 3. People now experiencing an anxiety disorder for the first time and 4. Those already suffering major depressive disorder but now falling into a “double depression.”
Ignoring depression can lead to substance abuse, broken relationships — and suicide. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
And remember: you’re not alone. Since the pandemic, one in three Americans have reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder — up from one in 12 shortly before. In June, Americans’ anxiety had tripled and depression had quadrupled between the first and second quarters of the year. Young adults and Black and Latino people (who have carried the brunt of the pandemic toll in loss of life and work) are experiencing upticks in anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 11 percent of respondents noted suicidal thoughts, with those thoughts being most acutely felt by Black and Latino people, as well as essential workers and unpaid caregivers for adults.
For those most greatly affected, professional help is suggested, but everyone can benefit from routine with time built-in for self-care. The things that brought you calm and joy in the months ahead of the pandemic may not make sense now, says Lucy Rimalower, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. So, be intentional in creating the schedule and self-care you need right now and let it change as your needs change.
Scott Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut who spent almost a year in space, has a few suggestions to stave off the boredom and develop a healthy routine — even alone. These ideas include keeping to a schedule, getting outside every day and keeping a journal — but you don't have to write about these dreary days. Happy memories are good writing material, too!
Read More Your Feelings … And What to Expect this Winter
I actually … like … not seeing people. Help?
That’s really normal. For many people, the coronavirus has offered a strange respite from the pace of the world. Many of us, also, are more introverted than we previously thought.
Instead of self-flagellating, use this as an opportunity to reset. Tell someone you’re wiped out from life right now. Real friends will understand. Politely decline Zoom calls if you’re tired of them. Don’t feel like you need to eat outside with someone until you’re ready. It is a good time to take stock: Who and what is important to me, and who and what do I want in my life after all of this?
Read More Gotten Used to Quarantine? Us Too
Eating and Drinking
I am not really eating normally. what should i do.
If you are eating differently, you might be able to manage the change on your own. If you are snacking a lot, that’s OK. But if it bothers you, try to assess whether you are actually hungry and, if so, try to add fruits and vegetables into your routine , if you can.
If you’re regularly not eating enough, find something you can tolerate. Schedule your mealtimes like any other essential appointment. You can also set alarms as reminders to drink some water, or to eat something.
But eating disorders can be serious , even life threatening. Roughly one in 10 Americans struggle with disordered eating, and the pandemic has created new hurdles for those managing difficult relationships with food .
“When the world feels out of control, people want to have control over something," said Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis who treats patients with eating and other mental health disorders. “Often, it’s what you put in your mouth."
So if you are struggling, speak with people you trust and consider seeking professional help.
Read More Disordered Eating in a Disordered Time
What should I do about restaurants?
Maybe a few of us have discovered our inner-callings as nightly chefs. But most of us miss going out to eat.
Restaurants have been especially hard hit: 87 percent of New York City’s restaurants and bars couldn’t pay their full rent in August, and the cold weather is keeping more and more diners away even from ellaborate outside dining contraptions .
In part an economic decision, New York City restaurants reopen to indoor diners in time for Valentine's Day , with indoor capacity capped at 25 percent , starting Feb. 12 . (Outside the five boroughs, indoor dining is easier — at 50 percent capacity.)
The restaurant industry has taken a hard hit across the country — even restaurants in states allowing limited inside dining. California has lost almost 40,000 restaurants since last year — recording more restaurant closures than anywhere else in the country, according to recent Yelp figures.
But remember, as much as we're ready to head back out to eat, while spending money at local businesses is a great way to help the economy, just because a restaurant is open doesn’t mean that that restaurant is safe either for you, or for other customers and staff. The rules with outdoor dining are fuzzy : many people take their masks off when they sit down to dinner and don’t put them back on until they’ve paid the bill. That could endanger you and those around you, as well as the staff who have to bend over guests to serve them. Let’s also consider that you may not only be going out to dinner with people in your household or pod — and tables aren’t usually large enough to keep six feet of distance between you and those you're dining with. (And, of course, those same concerns only mount if you're able to and considering eating inside the actual restaurant .)
Some open restaurants have also been linked to viral spread. The food itself is not the problem. Rather, it’s customers whose laughter and talking can spew viral droplets throughout the area and all over other diners and staff.
Of course, you can always order takeout. Or, if you're tired of delivered dishes that just aren't as good as they usually taste inside the restaurant, you could try a ghost kitchen — restaurant food specifically designed for takeout. That way you can support local businesses and avoid the kitchen — without so many ethical and safety concerns.
Read More I’m Not Ready to Go Back to Restaurants. Is Anyone?
Are those outdoor winter dining contraptions really safe?
In big cities such as New York and Chicago, tents, cabanas and wooden installations resembling large-scale dollhouses have been set up next to their mother restaurants lining the roads, taking up parking space. Diners, some bundled in parkas and shivering into their matzo ball soup, have continued eating outside even as the weather turns wintery — but not all these outdoor shelters are the same. Just because you’re cold doesn't mean you’re really eating outside — or, most importantly, that you’re gaining the benefits of that al fresco meal with a reduced Covid-19 risk.
Outdoor dining has exploded in New York City — with more than 10 times the number of restaurants joining the city’s outdoor dining program than before the pandemic. (Governor Andrew Cuomo re-shut down New York City’s indoor dining Dec. 14 — with only outdoor dining, takeout and delivery now available.) And while these restaurants are supposedly bound to winter dining rules, it’s unclear how strictly this will be enforced. If you do want to eat at a restaurant and reduce your risk of contracting Covid-19, here’s what to look for:
*An open, airy space. In New York, any contraption with more than 50 percent of its wall area covered is considered inside dining. That’s a good general guideline for all of us.
*Even outside, tables should still be six feet apart. And you should only be dining with members of your household.
*Remain careful when eating near one of those outdoor heaters, as they are considered a fire hazard.
Read More Are those Lavish Outdoor Dining Setups Actually Safe?
I am drinking a lot of alcohol. Should I be worried?
Thanks for checking in. Clicking on this question is an important first step. Now, more than ever, all of our tics and bad habits are coming out to play. And drinking is a particularly hard one — with the stressors of the pandemic, a relaxing glass of wine or two at the end of the day can so easily slip into a bottle or two.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man who struggled with his drink and also lived through the Flu Pandemic of 1918, wrote of drinking: "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."
It doesn't have to be January to start a dry month — if you're looking to make a change.
Of course, not all drinking is a problem. If you imbibe, it makes a lot of sense that you are drinking more now. The coronavirus can be both stressful and boring, and drinking can dull the stress of waiting without an end date. Although you might normally have enjoyed wine with friends, drinking alone — especially if you live alone — is not inherently frightening.
But we're dealing with a lot more now — working, schooling and parenting from home for many, and the drowning sense of loss of work and wages and the fear of losing even more stability for many others. It's enough to drive anyone to distraction — and to look for distraction, too.
Substance abuse experts have worried the pandemic may also trigger more serious drinking problems and even create new ones for people who have never struggled with dependency before — and data so far supports just that. Addiction — including addiction to alcohol — is at its core a disease of isolation. Feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of drug and alcohol abuse in people with substance-use disorders, according to a recent study published in Drug and Alcohol Review.
The United States was struggling with a communal drinking problem before the pandemic — the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2019 recorded more than 14 million American adults having alcohol-use disorder (A.U.D.) , the preferable medical term for alcoholism. Now, sadly, binge drinking has ticked up during the pandemic, according to several studies. And a study by the RAND Corporation in September shows Americans drinking far more — across the board, 14 percent more often in response to pandemic-related stress, with the increase particularly noticeable in women , whose heavy drinking days shot up by 41 percent in 2020.
If you're looking to cut back, you're not alone. One poll found that 15 percent of Americans planned to participate in Dry January. But with January behind us, you can pick any month to go dry — unless you have moderate to severe A.U.D., in which case first seek medical attention, as untreated severe alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. Get rid of any alcohol from your home, as well as your ever-more-frequented virtual space (both booze-related and booze-inducing content on all your devices). Research shows that this extended time away from the bottle is the best way to get a sense of your drinking behavior — plus, it gets you on the fast-track to cutting back.
And it's not just about the libations you're cutting out of your life. It's also about the joy you're putting back into it. After all, drinking has a few benefits: diminishing tensions and inhibitions, while adding a relaxing ritual to your day. (These days with most everything at home, it's hard to find when the workday ends and the rest of life, well, just continues on .) You don't want to replace one bad habit with another, but you can replace the bottle with other activities that bring joy and relaxation to your life — they may even be healthy. Instead of reaching for the bottle, call a friend to chat or if you can't get someone on the phone, write them a letter instead. Add daily exercise to your routine. Figure out how much you're spending on alcohol and start budgeting and planning a trip for after it's safe to travel again. Make a list of books you want to read and start ticking your way through them. Pick a new television series to watch virtually with friends and talk about it after. Or find something you're passionate about and start doing it (or doing more of it). Having a few go-to's is a nice way to keep from overusing one crutch while staying motivated to push on.
Also, try to quantify your drinking. If you can't keep track, you should consider what that means and maybe try keeping a drinking journal or a simple tally. Or, if you prefer an app to help you keep track, try Drink Control or Drinks Meter , which helps you track your drinks while also contextualizing your number compared with an anonymous database of over 6,000 other people's drinking habits across the world.
“Something very interesting happens when we put things on paper,” said Laura McKowen, who once started a journal of her own to confront her drinking problem. "Because we have a lot of cognitive dissonance around drinking.”
There is no right answer as to when it’s time for you to be worried. Some questions, though, might help you get a clearer sense of the problem. Among others, you can check out the free alcohol screener from CheckUp & Choices .
And here are a few questions to consider, which are drawn from ones developed by rehabilitation facilities and medical centers: How many days a week do you drink? When you drink, how many drinks do you have? Is there a time of day that you most want to drink? Can you sleep without a drink?
What about your attitude toward drinking: Do you get angry or irritable when someone tries to take your drink away, or suggests that you may have a problem? Are you secretive about drinking?
And, primarily, have your drinking patterns changed drastically since the pandemic started? Have you had major life changes — beyond lockdown — like losing your job or the death of a relative? (You may be looking for solace from these stressors at the bottom of your glass.)
If your answer to some, or many of these questions, is yes, it may be time to step back and reconsider. And if you try a sobriety month and find that going without alcohol is painfully difficult, you could have A.U.D., which is a disease necessitating treatment and is not your fault. Check out this N.I.A.A.A. navigator to determine the right treatment for you, and then use this services locator to find the help you need.
Social settings are an important part of recovery, and many treatment centers have closed down or greatly limited their in-person meetings, with a concentrated number of closures in the Northeast, because of New York being at the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States this past spring. Although in-person meetings aren't an available option for many during the health crisis, a plethora of virtual support groups gather for meetings from the comfort of their beds or couches.
If you are looking to join a free virtual support group, there are many communities to choose from, among them: Alcoholics Anonymous , SMART Recovery , SheRecovers , In the Rooms , Eight Step Recovery , Refuge Recovery , Recovery Dharma and LifeRing .
Ms. McKowen , author of “We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life," also founded the Luckiest Club , a virtual community group with membership and classes available for people struggling with drinking. Or try the online recovery program Tempest , which has different membership options depending on the intensity of the program you choose.
Some groups are also designed for people of color or belonging to certain age groups, interests and professions — like the sobriety support group Ben’s Friends , built for those in the restaurant industry, which has a notably difficult relationship with alcohol consumption. Another one: the Sober Mom Squad . Want to date without worrying about alcohol? Try Loosid , a sober social and dating network.
Read More Reimagining Your Relationship With the Bottle
Why are bars linked to outbreaks?
So a virus walks into a bar ... it sounds like the start to a bad joke, but, sadly it is no joke.
This summer, as people began once again flocking to restaurants and bars, some of those places became breeding grounds for outbreaks . And such outbreaks continued into the fall . As a result, we're still seeing restrictions into the winter, although in places like New York City that have had stringent rules, those restrictions are beginning to loosen ever so slightly .
To understand the connection between bars and outbreaks, consider a simple question: Are you your most vigilant self after a few drinks? A bar is an intimate environment, where alcohol is flowing, inhibitions are down and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend (or that cute stranger that just came up to you). But feeling good and close to strangers is so a thing of 2019 — to be revisited only when we've all been vaccinated or are at least enjoying the perks of herd immunity .
For now, when we're doing our best to keep our distance — even from our friends and loved ones — the very point of a bar setting is rindered null and void. Bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials tied at least 100 new coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota traced at least 328 cases to bars across the state. And in Idaho , health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise.
So for now, cozy up with people in your pod or household (or jump on Zoom) and pour yourself a glass of your favorite libation. It's safer (and so much cheaper, too).
Read More All Eyes on Bars as Virus Surges and Americans Go Drinking
What should I consider when ordering food?
Both takeout and delivery are safer than eating in restaurants, because social distancing is possible. And, good news: packaging has a low risk of transmitting the disease. Although the C.D.C. says that surfaces contaminated with droplets of the virus can infect people, the agency notes that it is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
Delivery, though, is slightly safer because of contactless delivery, which lets workers leave food at your door, said Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. Since the ordering and payment can be done electronically, customers and workers never have to touch each other during the interaction.
If you choose to pick your food up, ask the restaurant worker to put the food down and walk away before you pick it up. Wear a mask. Stand far apart from other patrons. And whether you choose takeout or delivery, try to pay in advance. You can do it electronically, which will keep both you and the workers safer.
Read More Is Takeout and Delivery Food Safe?
As the world is reopening, i’m anxious. what should i do.
Lots of people with anxiety are struggling more than usual, and lots of people who haven't been anxious before are dealing with symptoms. With different messages coming from varying levels of the government, people can be left feeling as if there are few reliable answers about what precautions they should take or whether or not things are under control.
"Uncertainty drives anxiety," said Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University and the author of " How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety ." She added: "Anxiety is rooted in not knowing what is going to happen."
Just because the world is reopening, you don’t have to (and shouldn't) start living your life as you did before the pandemic. Instead of focusing on what frightens you, think of the things that you want to have back in your life that would enrich and fulfill you. Ease back in with activities that you actually want to do, and view this time as an opportunity, weighing whether you want to continue past relationships and activities. (And just because you try something once, like taking the subway, doesn't mean you're stuck adding it back to your routine if it makes you uncomfortable.)
Feel free, also, to tell people what your boundaries are, or name the awkwardness. You might just ask what the other person feels comfortable with. “Should we elbow bump? Do you want to go first? I guess I’ll take the next elevator, right?"
"A problem shared is a problem halved," Dr. Hendriksen said. "Naming the uncertainty is helpful because it shatters the illusion that there is a right way to do this."
Am I depressed? Or just in a bad mood?
Most experts expect to see rates of depression and other psychological disorders increase as the pandemic continues . And yet, a majority of those who seek treatment for depression will improve if they persist.
"I don’t know anyone right now that’s not having depression-like symptoms," said Luana Marques, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America . "It’s hard to keep going when our brains are constantly on fight or flight. It makes people really tired. If you’re having trouble concentrating or getting out of bed, it’s not abnormal. It’s an evolutionary response to a threat."
Familiarize yourself with depression’s physical and mental markers . Or take a self-diagnostic test . When depression isn’t severe, a self-care routine may be enough. (And check out "How can I deal with the loneliness?" for some more tips.)
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide for a list of additional resources.
Read More How to Tell if It’s More Than Just a Bad Mood
What about meditation?
Meditating is a great way to take care of your stress. If you’re a novice looking to start , try for just five minutes every day. There’s no right way to do it, but a consistent practice is a good way to build your relaxation muscles. (Here's a guide for beginners .)
Apps can be helpful: Wirecutter , a product recommendation site that’s owned by The New York Times, recently named the meditation app Headspace (which costs $69.99 a year, after a free two-week trial) as its top choice for both beginners and experts.
Or, just try to find a comfortable space to breathe through your stress . Some people think yoga is intended to let you escape your thoughts, but especially for beginners, it's about allowing them to pass over you: let the thoughts that come to you, enter and then leave with your breathing. Breathe from your belly, imagining your breath moving up from the depths of your body. Slow it down, close your eyes and feel your lungs expanding and deflating.
Read More How to Start Meditating
How do I find a therapist?
Finding the right therapist can be difficult, even under normal circumstances . And these certainly aren't those.
During the pandemic, people's anxiety and depression have shot up — and that includes young adults . If you're looking for someone to talk to, you're not alone.
For starters, therapy is different than counseling, both of which have merits. In many states, a "therapist" (providing therapy) is licensed, while a "counselor" is not. Our below recommendations are for therapists, although you should go with the person you're most comfortable talking to.
Therapy can be time-intensive and expensive. If you have insurance, figure out who is covered under your plan and narrow your choices from there. Regardless of insurance, if you are able to make it work, then consider following these steps:
1. Determine what type of professional help you need.
If you’re mostly looking to talk, a psychologist (someone who cannot prescribe medicaton) is a good bet.
But if you have a specific ailment — panic attacks, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, sociopathy, borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia — you should see a psychiatrist (someone who can prescribe medication) or a psychologist with considerable experience in that specialty.
2. Next, consider if you're ready to go into the therapist's office or if you'd prefer virtual therapy.
Video therapy is backed by peer-reviewed research and mirrors an in-person appointment, unlike text-based therapy services. In fact, teletherapy may be as effective as in-person therapy (and certainly has some advantages right now).
Therapists say it gives them a literal window into your home, which can make for more effective therapy, depending on the situation. And it's more convenient and sometimes less expensive than in-person consultations. Go to Psychology Today’s therapist finder to compare online and in-person therapy options where you live. As long as the therapist is licensed in your state, video appointments can expand your search beyond your immediate geographic area. (Of note: The selection of online therapists is still fairly limited, especially in some less-populous states.)
If you want to go the online route, we suggest searching for an online therapist with Amwell . (We're not making this suggestion lightly: Our reporters researched five platforms for more than 70 hours, going to appointments with each over a two-year period.) The service is private, secure, accredited and accepts insurance. It also offers more therapists than the competition — increasing your chances of finding someone who fits your schedule and needs.
Plus, you know how annoying it is when you're video-calling someone and then your eyes wander to that little square with your face in it? (Is that a hair out of place? Do I really look like that? What am I doing with my hands? Wait, what were we talking about, again?) Well, with Amwell you can hide yourself, making your session feel a bit more like a real-life conversation.
Other teletherapy services include MDLive and Doctor on Demand , among others. You might also consider these newish mental health startups , which also provide virtual services, among them: Real Therapy , Two Chairs and Cerebral . (Of note: since the pandemic, Medicare has changed its policies to cover most telehealth , and the same goes for many private insurance companies.)
Some people are even finding connection through TikTok , where therapists sometimes post in their PJ's and the usual walls are down. The burgeoning of mental health content has come when more and more people are feeling down and seeking connection. Of course, the 60-second video platform should not be the end of your therapy search, but it might be a toe in.
Now, if you're in a home situation where you can't safely talk, you could consider counseling or therapy services through texting apps like BetterHelp and Talkspace , both of which have seen an uptick in users since the start of the pandemic. While this does not provide the same interpersonal connection, depending on your circumstances it may be the safest bet. The most important thing is to reach out for help. (Also check out our question: "I’m worried that I, or my friend, might be suffering domestic abuse. What should I do?" for more information about what to do to get out of a bad situation. We've including help numbers and chat lines, too.)
3. Then, set up a few preliminary calls and consultations. The getting-to-know-you session is often free, and you should take it as an opportunity to talk about what you are looking for from therapy, and learn how each therapist approaches their practice.
4. Whether online or in person, you might click with someone the same way you would with a new friend. And there’s nothing wrong with trying a few initial appointments to learn about your own wants and desires.
Read More Questions to Ask a Prospective Therapist (from Your Own Couch)
I’m having trouble sleeping. What should I do?
Seems like it's getting harder and harder to fall asleep and stay asleep these days. And while there's no catch-all fix to getting good night's sleep , staying on a consistent schedule is certainly a good start to improving your sleep . (That means sticking to a regular wake and bedtime, and setting up a relaxing pre-sleep routine that helps you wind down before you even get under the covers.)
Not to give you something else to contemplate when you should be counting sheep, but sleeping seven hours a night is linked to a healthier, longer life. (Eight hours a night is the magic number that most adults need.) And sleeping less than that is associated with a nightmarish assortment of problems: obesity, heart disease, depression and impaired immune function, among others. (And we could all use a high-functioning immune system right about now.)
In fact one study links a decrease in sleep to an uptick in your risk of getting sick and without sleep you're curbing your body's abilty to produce cytokine, a protein boosting your immune system's response to antigens. Even less than a week of really bad sleep, one study found, can cut a healthy young person's typical number of antibodies to a flu vaccine in half.
We all come with a 24-hour internal clock that keeps us in time with the earth, but genetics, age and our personal habits throw that timer off. If you're not sure where you fall on the spectrum of lark to night owl, take this sleep quiz .
And keeping a simple sleep log for one week (here's our sleep diary worksheet ) can help you determine any issues with sleep:
1. Note the time you go to bed and the time you wake up.
2. Now do the math: how many hours did you get?
3. Are you waking up in the middle of the night? Also note any mid-day siestas.
4. In the morning ask yourself: Am I tired? (Hint: If you're falling asleep throughout the day, or longing to curl up for a nap, then the answer is: "Yes.") And if you're getting that seven to eight hours and you're still answering "Yes," then it may be about the quality, not the quantity, of sleep you're getting; you could be experiencing interrupted sleep or a sleep disorder, so talk with a doctor or undergo a sleep study, so you can take advantage of those sacred hours of shut-eye.
To reset that internal clock, start with a goal: When do you want to wake up each morning? (And be honest, how does that compare to when you're actually waking up?) Begin waking up 20 minutes earlier each day, inching toward that goal wakeup time. (Hopefully, of course, you'll also be getting to bed 20 minutes earlier each night, too.) And whatever you do, don't mix it up on the weekends. It should go without saying, but: go to bed when you're sleepy — your body wants to get back on rythm, so let it.
And if you want to avoid those hours tossing and turning after your head hits the pillow, consider incorporating some or all of the below:
-Nix that late cup of coffee (obviously). Also, alcohol (which leads to fragmented sleep ), as well as any food (no need for the heartburn or the extra inches around the waist).
-Cut the screentime 90 minutes before bed. (That means no emails, social media or TV.) Might we instead suggest some more soothing options: take a bath or read a book. And if you're still doubtful of your willpower, start small with 15 minutes away from the screen and continue cutting back.
-Make a list of what you need to do the next day and then let it leave your mind. It's written down — for tomorrow.
-Your bedroom should be a place of rest. Don't leave out unfinished work, exercise equipment or other stress-inducing reminders from the day. (And yep, that includes television and other news media.)
-Sleeping pills could help, but you may want to talk to a doctor first. One option could be melatonin supplements . But be sure to read the pill bottle for what you can and can't take with any medication. (Sleeping medication might be another good reason to cut down on the alcohol: you shouldn't be mixing it with melatonin supplements, for instance.) Better yet, try these drugless alternatives .
-If you have a hard time waking up, then leave the blinds open so the natural light will stream into your room in the morning, gently nudging you to consciousness. (And if you have a work shift that requires you to work nights, consider investing in blackout curtains.)
In the morning:
-Get up with your alarm clock — and don't even think about hitting snooze. (Pro tip: if you're not waking up to your alarm clock, then buy a louder one or switch up the ring tone.)
-Head outside for at least 15 minutes of sunlight early in the day. The sun nudges you awake and has other positive effects for the mind and body .
-Yep, actually eat breakfast. Not only is it good for your metabolism, but it also gets you into a good grove from the start.
-Get moving earlier in the day: Working out (a socially distanced walk or at-home routine) uses up that nervous energy and tires you out by the end of the day. Just be sure not to get your blood flowing too close to bedtime, or you'll be wide-eyed (and sweaty).
-To the extent possible, throughout the day try to keep to a routine: eating around the same time and winding down, too.
-If you need a nap, take it between 1 and 3 p.m. But don't let the nap become your sleeping problem. Michael Breus , a clinical psychologist who studies the connection between behavior and sleep, recommends keeping it short : 10 to 20 minutes should do it. (Yep, your cat really has been doing it right all along.)
Read More How to Get More Sleep Tonight and Every Night After
How can I stay motivated to work?
As the months mount to a year, the ennui of coronavirus-induced isolation can undermine our enthusiasm for getting anything done. (Or maybe "enthusiasm" is a misplaced word: It's been a real slog, over here.)
If that sounds familiar, remember: Doing what’s meaningful — acting on what really matters to a person — is the antidote to burnout.
Motivation might best be fostered by dividing large goals into smaller ones (specific tasks that are more easily accomplished), but not so simple that they are boring and soon abandoned. Avoid perfectionism — the ultimate goal could become an insurmountable challenge. (Do it the best you can, then move on — leaving room and energy to do it even better next time.) As each task is completed, reward yourself with something fun (maybe calling a friend, trying a new recipe, organizing your closet — whatever gives you joy) and then go on to the next one.
Read More How to Maintain Motivation in a Pandemic
Help i’m frustrated with my partner..
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single person a year into the pandemic must be in want of a partner ... and that a couple one year in must be in want of, well, a little more alone time.
In some cases, the pandemic has fast-tracked relationships , and couples who have known each other for only a short time find themselves cohabitating or even heading down the aisle. In other cases, couples break up , and divorce rates are rising in some places. What this all reminds us is that relationships, too, relationships, too, must live or die by the pandemic .
If you’re cohabitating, you could be in a tough spot. If you’re not, while your situation could not be more different, you may similarly find yourself with difficult decisions to make: you’ve probably had to figure out ways to see each other — or not — that feel safe and nurturing for both of you, as well as those in your inner-circles.
Or as Eric Spiegelman, a podcasting executive in Los Angeles, tweeted in April , “My wife and I play this fun game during quarantine, it’s called ‘Why Are You Doing It That Way?’ and there are no winners." (It got over 400,000 likes and some 47,000 retweets. Apparently, a lot of us have been playing that game.)
"The traditional marriage vows are 'for better or for worse,'" said Jean Fitzpatrick, a relationship therapist in Manhattan. “This is for worse. And so, how do we navigate a time like this? Our relationships will either grow as a result, or they will be harmed."
Long before the pandemic, one married couple tied themselves together with a 15-foot string for a whole day and wrote about their experience for Slate. “We don’t have any stories to tell each other about our day because we lived the same day,” David Plotz, the husband in the article, wrote. “We don’t have questions for each other because we know the answers. We can’t lie and exaggerate and twist the day’s happenings to gain sympathy — the usual evening activity for most married couples, I suspect — because the other will call foul.” Sound familiar?
If it's too late and your partner is already out the door or you've been single throughout the pandemic and are now looking for a new match, consider skipping down to the question "How do I date during this time?" For others, whether you're too far apart or too close together right now, you may be missing your partner . Vanessa Marin, a relationship and sex therapist, has written several columns about maintaining your relationship. We've compiled some of her advice (and advice from others) to help your relationship survive the pandemic:
1. Take care of yourself first. (And, no, that's not a selfish No. 1.) Being a better you will make you happier, as well as your significant other, because, newsflash: taking care of you is not the sole job of your partner. Right now, it's more important than ever to "feel your feelings," writes Ms. Marin, adding that validating your emotions will help you move on more quickly. To get in touch with yourself, try meditating, journaling free form for five or 10 minutes a day and exercizing. Also, be sure to reach out to others beyond your partner. Remember those friends you used to get together with before the pandemic squeezed the normality out of life? Reach out to friends and family to see how they're doing and share what's going on in your own life, too. (Pro tip: If you're getting almost all of your social and emotional support from one person, you're not doing it right. It's not fair to expect or possible to deliver on taking care of each other's every need. Bottom line: It's just not healthy and you're building a foundation for certain disappointment.)
2. If you live with others, consider the safety of everyone in your households and openly communicate with them to determine individual comfort levels before bringing your significant other back to that shared space. Then be sure to check-in frequently: With passing time and new strains of the virus cropping up, those comfort levels may be changing, and what people were good with in the summer could be very different from what they're OK with now.
3. Make (and stick to) a plan. Discuss what each of you have to tackle (both longterm and over the course of the next week or so). Check in at an appointed time each week to recallibrate and nightly to tweak the day ahead. Right now, the pandemic has put only added pressure to a persistent disparity in the distribution of parental labor, with women carrying the brunt of added child care responsibilies (as well as disproportionate job loss) even beyond their majority share before the pandemic . That unequal division of parenting and household responsibilities, along with financial problems, and just too much arguing are among the top reasons couples separate or file for divorce , studies show. So be sure to divide the responsibilities, and if you're the kind of couple that gets joy (or at least a bit of peace) from a shared calendar, then go for it.
4. Yep, you should still be checking in on each other. Whether you're living in different timezones or literally sitting next to your partner all day, every day, be sure to remember: “It’s not about grand gestures, it’s about doing small things often," says Logan Ury , the director of relationship science at the dating app Hinge. (And that goes for asking about the little things, too.) Some of us are experiencing “ambiguous loss,” said Sinead Smyth, a licensed marriage and family therapist, adding that some of us may not want to complain to our partners about these frustrations, but if you don’t honestly share these feelings, you may start to lean away from each other, when you should be leaning closer. (At least metaphorically speaking.)
It might seem simple or even over-redundant, but you should still be asking the questions you (hopefully) were asking pre-pandemic: "How was your day?" "How are you feeling?" (Or, "I notice you seem [insert emotion here], what's going on?") "What can I do to better support you through this?" And while you're at it, say "thank you" and be specific: "I really appreciate when you do [insert that great thing they do]," or "thank you for seeing I was losing it and stepping in with [insert that great save they made]." The more you start spelling out what you're grateful for, the more you will find things to be grateful for. As for your partner: it never hurts to hear you're appreciated, and they might just return the favor. In the end, this time together could actually make you closer. (Take a look at the next question, too, for pointers about how to start a good conversation with your partner.)
5. Mix some excitement into the relationship, suggests Jancee Dunn, a frequent NYT Parenting contributor and the author of “ How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids ." According to one experiment just 90 minutes of novel experience a week for a month can make for a more satisfactory relationship for months to come. Consider planning a future trip together (just maybe don't buy the tickets yet). Or start a new at-home hobby together (you don't even have to be good at it for it to still be fun and different). Pasta making , anyone?
6. Create boundaries: they're a sign of love, too. How can you give each other space — when we all need a little more of that from the people we're now doing everything with? If you were both usually apart and at work before the pandemic, you probably didn’t talk for 14 waking hours straight. (At least your boss hopes you didn't talk for 14 hours straight.) So now if you're sudden-cubicle buddies, build in that time apart, so that seeing each other is a nice break at the end of the day.
If you're both working from home, create separate work spaces. (If you can, close the door.) And to keep those dividers up, even consider texting during the work day as opposed to screaming into the other room. That way you can each respond when you have a moment. It's also nice to have peaceful alone time, and you can find creative ways to make that a part of your everyday routine. Maybe you devy up who gets up first to fix the coffee or wake the kids, while the other luxuriates in bed a little longer. (Then switch the next day.)
7. Remember, this isn't actually the pandemic of 1918: We live in a technological world, so take advantage. Even if you're tired of video-chats, if you're separated from your partner, seeing each other's faces is an important way to stay connected. On Zoom you can even use the function to hide your own face making it seem more like an in-person conversation. (Plus, you shouldn't be staring at yourself anyway.)
To bind your lives together, what's known as "interdependence" , try video-chating while cooking from the same recipe (in two separate kitchens), then get dressed up for a candle-lit dinner via laptop, or take your FaceTime chat outside and go for a walk together or cozy up on the sofa and pick a TV show to watch at the same time: one-two-three-play. (Texting and sending audio message reactions throughout can be fun, too.)
Evidence suggests that your long-distanced relationship can work just as well as those close together. So if you're in a newly long-distanced relationship, consider some hilarious (and actually helpful) advice from Holly Burns , a writer in the San Francisco Bay area and the survivor of a long-distance relationship in the era of AOL Instant Messenger. (The highlights include a few mind-twisters: "talk about when you’re going to talk," "be there even when you can’t be there," and "get awkward early," among others.) And Ms. Marin, the sex therapist, has a few more suggestions about how to keep your sex life alive (including the use of remote sex toys, which your partner can control from afar).
8. But no matter what, prioritize quality time — it's more important than the quantity of it. Whether you're living together or rarely ever see each other these days, be intentional with the time you do have in-person, as well as virtually. Talk about the things you miss doing together and find ways to salvage old routines while creating new ones. Maybe that's rejuvenating your long-lost date nights, maybe that's starting them up for the first time. Consider among the options (side-by-side or via face-cam): cooking an elaborate meal or reading a book together — agreeing to a number of chapters a night or even reading aloud together. And in case you've forgotten how: Get dressed up for an evening in. Give your partner a massage. Pop open a nice bottle of champagne — OK, we'll leave the rest of the night up to you.
Read More How to Help Your Relationship Survive a Lockdown
My partner wants to go out more than I do. What should we do?
You are going to have to work together to weigh each other’s needs. (And take a look at the question above for pointers about the questions you should be asking yourself and your partner regarding those needs.) One partner might have parents who are older and at higher risk of complications from Covid-19; the other might be an extrovert who thrives on being around other people and is at an emotional breaking point.
Remember that the definition of a partnership means you're on the same team — or at least, you're supposed to be. “It’s not, ‘My needs versus your needs, and let’s negotiate,’ but asking the question and having the posture of: ‘What is best for our relationship?’" said Jennifer Bullock, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia .
Several psychologists and counselors recommended presenting a united front when explaining shared decisions to friends and family. Any sort of “I would, but he’s afraid" seeds resentment and can amplify the problem far beyond the boundaries of your own home.
In any fraught situation, sit down with your partner and listen. Instead of offering rebuttals, try to treat it more like a two-way interview, with the goal of determining where each of you is coming from. Ask open-ended questions — which can’t be answered with a simple “yes" or “no." For instance, you could try: “How should we approach our safety when I go back to the office?"
But remember, this is a pandemic. If one person is seriously scared about their health or the health of their family, their needs likely should take priority. Ultimately, the well-being of you and others should take precedence.
Read More Tackle Reopening Choices as a Couple
How do I date during this time?
Yep, it's been a tough year for us single folks . (Me, too.) How many months has it been since you last had physical touch? I'm not even talking about sex; how about just a hug without fear that you might kill someone? Are we still counting the months? Have you broken the streak? And, no, your coupled friends absolutely do not understand. (And don't let them nod and smile and pretend they do.) Gagan Bhatnagar, 35, a clinical oncology consultant in London (yes, he's single), does understand, and you'll find other singles who do, as well, on his cry into the darkness on Twitter in December.
As the writer Megan Nolan points out, just because you hadn't found your perfect match by March 2020, doesn't mean you should be hung out to dry until whenever you happen to get vaccinated — nor should you feel shame in lamenting your loss (however you define it): "There are not a finite number of ways to have felt pain," in this pandemic, she writes.
As if dating wasn't already hard enough, dating in a pandemic is that much harder — and, let's face it, even if you're not serious about the person, dating right now is a serious undertaking. Before we went by the adage that you are sleeping with every person your partner has ever slept with, but now, in a pandemic, you're hanging out with every person your partner has been near in the past 14 days. As such, if you are dating, you should be more transparent than you were before the pandemic about the social interactions you've had and the risks you've taken (including those outside your typical geographic space).
On the flip side, it's not healthy to be alone for too long , and one particularly disheartening study shows it can even increase the risk of premature death by 26 percent.
But before we get too dating-doomsday, Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who has spent some four decades studying romantic love across the globe, offers some positive thoughts about dating during this time , including among them: spending and chitchatting less, while slowing down to have more real conversations before things get physical. Gone are the days (we hope, at least for now!) from before the pandemic, when some 34 percent of American singles had engaged in sex before an “official” first date. And now deep into the winter months, we're experiencing an >a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/style/cuffing-season.html">elongated cuffing season , which has been going strong since the summer.
Really getting to know one another, sharing our innermost feelings and life story, creates intimacy, love and, yes, even commitment. (By the way, men are equally likely to share their feelings as women .) And although romantic love may suddenly hit you over the face , those feelings of deep attachment take time — something many of us have a bit more of these days. In fact, the social psychologist Sara Konrath, Ph.D., says that "somewhat ironically" the pandemic is speeding up the slow dating movement .
You can start by getting to know each other over video-chat . To relax be sure to keep to your typical pre-date rituals: play that Beyoncé song, sip that glass of wine, give yourself that mirror pep talk. And then, since they're getting a peep inside your home anyway, set up in a spot that may lead to meaningful conversation. (Not the one corner of your apartment that isn't covered in unfolded laundry — because obviously that's not really you.) Try for a space that will encourage questions and deeper (maybe even funny) stories that help you get to know each other: situate yourself by your favorite piece of artwork (and talk about how you bartered for it on a sidewalk in Santiago and somehow, against all odds, it survived international travel in your over-stuffed suitcase), or by that piece of furniture that (just barely) survived a house party with a bit too much mezcal, or (here's a novel idea): how about by your open fridge. ('Why, yes, I do have four types of hot sauce.') Or what about by that pile of books by the couch (a bookshelf works, too) — pick up a few and share what you're reading. Then ask them to share from their favorite corner — although if one of you opens your fridge, expect reciprocal action.
And, unless you really do want to stare at yourself all night, be sure to hide your own face on Zoom, to make it seem more like the in-person dates of bygone days. For more ideas, here are six things you could consider for the first virtual date — from getting ready beforehand, to breaking the ice shortly after logging on, to deciding if you really want to see them again. (Speaking of which, if things go well, be sure to switch it up for future dates. You wouldn't go back to the same restaurant every time now, would you?)
But be aware: virtual dating does have its drawbacks; the chemistry you feel online may not result in sparks face-to-face . That's because you've gotten to know the person that they presented themselves as, not necessarily the person they prove to be, in, well, person. Yep, we're talking about that inexplicable vibe, built on that (yes, it's shallow) full-body view, hand gestures and our preferred distances from one another. On video chat, space is just an illusion; only in person do we have the chance to mediate boundaries and comfort zones. When we don't have that, we fill in the gaps with our imagination, painting a frog as a prince(ss), something a few of us are guilty of even in regular times.
So since taking it slow is both safer and statistically proved to cultivate a deeper relationship, if you decide to take the dive into the pandemic dating pool and see your date in RL, you might start with a socially distanced walk with masks. But no matter what, get to know them (ideally in an outside setting) before taking off each other's masks (or anything else you both so choose). The C.D.C. has a few guidelines for dating in person , too: Stay home if you feel sick, wear a mask in public, keep at least six feet from others and wash your hands after the date. Also, outdoor meetings are safer than indoors ones.
And perhaps more important even than the date itself is the communication before and during your outing. You should be up front about your expectations and what precautions you plan to take — like if you're going to wear a mask or not. (Please, wear a mask, though.) You can try questions like: "What does social distancing mean to you?" or "I'd like to meet up, but only if we wear masks and get tested first." You can also phrase any considerations you have (like the idea of holding hands or kissing during a date) as a hypothetical to take the forwardness out of the proposal (if forward isn't your style). And if you're uncomfortable asking, just say so: naming the feeling automatically diminishes it. You can (and should) also share upfront the risks you've taken and ask about the other's comfort level in social interactions and any intimacy that requires less than six feet of distance. (Of note: some dating apps do some of the work for you. Bumble , for instance, uses a badge system to note user's social distancing comfort levels on dates, while Lex , an app for the queer community, includes Covid-19 and antibody test results on profiles.)
While on the date, be sure to verbalize any discomforts you have. Non-verbal cues (like turning away from your unmasked date) can signal disapproval, but in a time when issues of consent blatantly extend beyond the bedroom (what about hugging? removing your mask?), it's always best (and clearest) to use your words, especially when our masks cover much of our faces, literally masking our expressions. Remember: just because you like your date, doesn't mean he/ she/ they fall under what Marie Helweg-Larsen, a professor of psychology at Dickinson College, calls that supposed "umbrella of invulnerability" that we tend to assume of those we, well, like.
Now, we do need human touch — it's a proven mood stabilizer, and if you're still counting that time a cashier accidentally grazed your hand while giving you change, you may be feeling anxious, even depressed right about now. Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, put it simply: "Abstinence for the duration of the pandemic is not going to work."
In fact, the New York City health department has infamously provided a " Safer Sex and Covid-19 " fact sheet with more-detailed and, shall we say, descriptive advice. These guidelines remind us: “you are your safest sex partner," the “next safest partner" is someone in your household, and, of course, "heavy breathing and panting can spread the virus further." A number of other public health agencies have offered tips for dating and sex during the pandemic ,.
Of course, if you are going to be physically intimate, you’ll need to have frank and honest conversations about your limits and your living situations. (Actually, while we're on the topic, that's a good conversation to have whether you're living in a pandemic or not.)
Read More Your Corona-Dating Guidebook
I’m worried that I, or my friend, might be suffering domestic abuse. What should I do?
If you are in immediate danger call 911. If you are not in immediate danger but living in a dangerous situation at home, call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline : 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text LOVEIS to 22522. Services are available in more than 200 languages. And if you belong to the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community and are experiencing abuse or hate-based violence, call the Anti-Violence Project at 212-714-1141, which provides round-the-clock hotline help in English and Spanish.
If you are a child who is being hurt at home, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline : 1-800-4-A-CHILD (22-4453).
But please be careful when reaching out for help, especially if your partner, parents or caretaker monitors your phone and/or computer. If you fear being overheard, we have linked to the texting and chat tools for each website above. (Many local hotlines also have texting options.) Or ask a trusted friend to call for you. (Typically, that trusted person should not be related to your abuser.) Here you can search for domestic violence shelters by your zipcode . And this listing includes agencies by country in over 115 languages.
And remember, if your abuser comes upon you while you're reviewing any website, you can hit the “Escape” button on your keyboard twice to exit immediately. (Many sites also have quick exits displayed when you visit.) No matter what, afterward, please clear your browser history and the phone number in your call log. (That includes clearing this question from your browser history.) Here's how to clear your history from any browser , and here's more on your digital security .
In the interim, if it's not possible to leave, try to make your home life as safe as possible. Think through your options: where is the safest place within your home? If an argument starts, where should you go? (For instance, you probably want to keep away from the kitchen where there might be knives, or the bathroom, which can also be quite dangerous.) Is it possible and safe for you to sleep in the car? These are questions you should brainstorm, if possible with that trusted friend.
Of course, abuse extends well beyond physical and sexual violence and may include isolation from friends, family and employment, as well as constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behavior; and restricted access to basic necessities including food, clothing and sanitary facilities. It can be triggered by stress, which is now at an all-time high: many people are out of work or with less of it, concerned about money, struggling with alcohol, drug and other addictions and cooped up in small spaces with family even easier targets than usual amidst frequent lockdowns and quarantines. No matter what, our lives are more shuttered to the outside world than they were a year ago, further isolating families and shattering support networks like schools, workplaces and religious institutions, among others. Now spending more time than ever with their abusers, families often have a harder time reaching out for help — while facing an even more extreme version of the age-old problem: leaving the devil you know for an uncertain future (in this case, one filled with fears of contracting Covid-19).
“It’s terrible for women who are living with their abusers right now,” said one woman in Chicago who had left her abusive husband. “It’s hard to walk out during normal times.” And these are anything but that .
Even now, you are not alone. This is a problem affecting people around the world. If you are looking for services and resources in the United States check out the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 's compilation of organizations helping people who have been abused, which also lists specific resources for targeted sub-groups. (And if you yourself are struggling with coping mechanisms that have become addictions, you may want to check out some of our other questions including: "How can I deal with the loneliness?" and "I am drinking a lot of alcohol. Should I be worried?" If you need someone to talk to about issues like these, scroll up to: "How do I find a therapist?")
Early into the pandemic, reports at domestic violence hotline centers spiked in some places across the country, with calls and text messages mounting. But in other places and as time went on the calls tapered off — not because abuse has fallen but becuase those experiencing domestic violence have found it more and more difficult to distance themselves from their abusers and orders of protection have slogged through court systems operating below capacity. And along the same trend, reports of child abuse cases are also falling , which is worrisome.
Shut off from their typical daily reprieves at school and trapped in the hands of their abusers all day, children have even less agency than usual. Teachers are often the main reporters of suspected child abuse, but with many classes still virtual across the country, such small windows into the children's lives may not be cutting it. After all, people who abuse their families now have more control and supervision than before, making it easier for them to hide the mistreatment and harder for children to seek help. Additionally, it is nearly impossible for teachers to ensure their students are getting enough to eat or to suss out other forms of neglect or mental abuse that requires time, space and the trust that develops face-to-face. Earlier in the pandemic, the drop in reports was palpable, with cases dropping by 51 percent in New York City .
The pandemic has put in stark relief a rather consistent global failing to take care of those experiencing domestic violence, with countries' policies often falling like dominoes in the early onset of the pandemic. While such early missteps might be expected from some of the first countries ravaged by the virus, the fact that places like Britain , which ignored early warnings, were so under-prepared, lays bare a wider failing to take seriously and prioritize violence within the home. Meanwhile, the United States's mismatched patchwork of health policies made it difficult for service providers to adhere to changing guidelines while continuing to serve their clients.
And none of this is surprising. The pandemic is just the latest in a series of crises that have shaken households, exacerbating the intensity and frequency of abuse cases, it also happened immediately after 9/11, with the economic downturn of 2008, and after both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.
For people concerned about a friend or family member who you believe to be mistreated, remember: you may not have success reaching out the first time. Oftentimes, the methods used to control partners and children “bear an uncanny resemblance” to those used by kidnappers against their hostages and repressive regimes against political prisoners, according to Judith Lewis Herman, a renowned trauma expert at Harvard University Medical School. Let the person know you're there and ready to talk whenever and wherever, keep reaching out and file reports if you witness or are told about the mistreatment. Those reports are anonymous and confidential.
Read More What to Expect When You Call for Help
Is it coronavirus or the common cold.
It’s inevitable. In the fall and winter your child is likely to develop a fever, runny nose or cough. Maybe even all three. (Or, if you're like me, you'll be laying prostrate on the couch for two weeks, sure that Covid-19 has finally caught up with you, only to learn you just have a cold.) Yep, it happens even to the best of adults, too.
That said, don't assume either way. If you feel bad, you should stay home, call a doctor, schedule a Covid-19 test — and nestle down with some O.J. and Netflix as far from the rest of the people in your home as you can. (Especially if you have high-risk family members.)
“This is not the year to just send your kid to school," said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and assistant dean at Brown University. “This is the year to respect the community and get your kid tested before sending them back."
You likely won’t know if it’s the coronavirus or a common cold because the symptoms are so similar. And that means: no going to work or school when you're feeling sick. (You shouldn't have before, but now you really, really shouldn't.) And no going back until you're feeling better — and have a negative test to prove it.
Research suggests your kids can be asymptomatic but still contagious . (So if they have symptoms — even sniffles or an upset tummy — play it extra safe.)
A chart on the C.D.C.’s website shows just how often these symptoms can overlap.
If you think your child has been exposed, get a test.
“We have seen, time and time again, kids with very mild symptoms with no known exposures who get tested with our very accurate P.C.R. and sure enough, they come back positive,” said Dr. Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics, the largest pediatric primary care group in the country, and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
And never mind the struggles of getting your kid to calm down enough to be tested, pediatric tests may be hard to come by in and of themselves. So don’t assume that your local pharmacy will also swab your kid. Call ahead.
And if your kid has a preference for test type, be sure to specify before you confirm. You'll want to ask if they use the short (anterior) swab — it's supposedly more comfortable and certainly less intimidating — or the long (nasopharyngeal) swab. If the place where you're scheduling your appointment does not offer the test you prefer, you can try other neighborhood testing locations, including pediatric urgent care centers.
Molecular tests, like the P.C.R. tests are best for detecting infection in your children, and rapid tests may not be very accurate for them anyway; there just isn't data showing us that they really work for our kids. (Which sort of defeats the purpose of getting that uncomfortable test, no?)
And before you go, check out these tips for what to expect. Also watch this video — having some answers and understanding the process will help calm down your kid, or any other members of your household disinclined to a nose probe.
Read More Does My Kid Have a Cold or Is It Covid-19?
Should my kid get a flu shot?
As any parent knows, cold and flu season always brings a host of respiratory viruses and runny noses, but this year there’s the possibility of getting both the flu and Covid-19 . So public health leaders are urging everyone to get the flu vaccine to both protect ourselves and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with sick patients.
If your child is younger than 9, keep in mind that they might need two flu shots, as their immune system isn’t strong enough to launch a response after just one. Ideally, they got their shot early — September or October (so they're protected from early flu season) — but better late than never in this case. And while we're on the topic, it's not just your kid who needs a flu shot. Be sure to get yours, too.
Read More Getting Children Flu Shots Is Even More Important This Year
What about a coronavirus vaccine for kids?
The short answer: Not until (at least) the end of the summer — if things go well.
The vaccine process for children is behind that of adults, because the purpose of the vaccine is to save lives. It needed to be tested in the most at-risk populations first, and older people are dying at a much higher rate from Covid-19 than children. People under the age of 21 make up about one-quarter of the country's population, but not even 1 percent of deaths from Covid-19. (That said, about 2 percent of children who get Covid-19 wind up in the hospital, and at least 227 children in the United States have died from the virus.)
Additionally, only if researchers discovered no serious side effects in adults, would they be able to start testing a vaccine in children, beginning with teenagers and working their way to younger ages. Vaccine developers are keenly aware that children are not simply miniature adults. Their biology is different in ways that may affect the way vaccines work.
Here's where we are now:
-The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is authorized for anyone at least 16 years old , although there are ongoing trials for adolescents ages 12 to 15 — a crucial age group, as teenagers are almost twice as likely to get Covid as younger children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Results are expected by summer, and a new study will be conducted for kids under 12, according to Keanna Ghazvini, a spokeswoman for Pfizer.
-The Moderna vaccine (also authorized for adults in December), that month began testing adolescents 12 to 17 , with results expected around summertime, according to Colleen Hussey, a spokeswoman for Moderna. Following those results, the company plans to roll out another study looking at children ages 6 months to 11 years.
And here's some good news while we wait: getting your kid vaccinated won't be a prerequisite to opening schools back up in the fall, although it will be helpful for making close-contact extracurriculars (soccer teams, band practice, ballet class) safer.
As for new mothers who have just given birth, we've got some promising news (for some of you): while infants have rather weak immune systems, possibly making them more susceptible to infection if community transmission is high, infants born to vaccinated or infected mothers may come into the world with the antibodies already in their systems . Even so, this maternal protection will not likely last through a baby's first birthday.
Getting your kid vaccinated (once a vaccine is available) will be incredibly important, not just for your child's health, but for getting us all on track to reach herd immunity , when we'll all start feeling the protections that come when the virus can't find any targets because most of us have already been immunized. That magic number now appears to be anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the population — meaning kids have to take part.
And in the interim, check in with your kid's pediatrician to make sure they're up-to-date on all those other vaccines and boosters. With time warped this past year, you may have forgotten, and stats from the Vaccines for Children Program suggest you're not alone: There have been some 10 million fewer ordered doses of non-flu vaccines. Yep, that's the big ones, so while you're waiting on that Covid vaccine, check in on measles, HPV, tetanus and pertussis. (No need for any new outbreaks in 2021.)
Read More Covid Vaccines for Kids Are Coming — Eventually
How should I explain this to my kids? How is their mental health?
If you've noticed regressive behaviors in your kid, that's normal. If the kid has been acting out more, that's normal. And, yep, if the kid has been super happy at home, that's normal, too. Just like the rest of us, kids react to stress in different ways — the important thing is to be there for them.
The protections we get from positive relationships , along with sleep, exercise and a healthy diet are important for keeping those stressors in check. Parents: that mean's a lot of this is on you. (What isn't these days?) So you may want to check out the American Academy of Pediatrics's clinical interim guidance , released this fall, which walks parents through their role in supporting children through their emotional needs right now.
Look out for these warning signs that your kid may be stressed out:
-Has your young child lost skills she had already mastered? This is called regression, and it's normal for children to proceed, regress and proceed again; nothing in life is truly linear, but if it becomes a troublesome pattern, it could again indicate internalized stress.
-Are your kid's eating habits changing? Is he eating more or less? Stress can affect the diet, and while it's totally normal for a kid to eat a lot one day and hardly anything another, watch these habits carefully to determine if such behavior appears normal or an indicator of something bigger.
-The same goes for unhealthy sleeping patterns (sleeping too much or not enough).
-What about trouble concentrating or a sudden uptick in headaches, stomachaches or muscle tension?
-Has the kid turned the home into a zone of negativity? Perhaps you're hearing a lot of negative self-talk and general pessimism about others and their environment: "I'm so stupid, you're so stupid, the world's so stupid," etc. Help your child reframe those thoughts in a more positive light — that will be important for how your kid tackles the day (or maybe just that tough homework assignment), as well as for the rest of the family. (Negativity is contagious, too.)
-Has your teenager closed off (more than usual) about how they feel? Starting in middle school, some kids may begin hiding their concerns out of “fear, shame or a sense of responsibility to avoid burdening others,” according to the American Psychological Association.
-Or has your teenager become more hostile and irritable (again, more than usual), withdrawn (more) from you or even from close friends? These can also be signs of stress.
When talking to our kids, word choice is important, but it's not just about what you're telling your kids, it's also about how you're telling them. Children under the age of 5 need you to seem OK (even if you're not): what you say in answer to their questions is secondary to how you seem to think and feel about those words. That means prioritize the way you present the information (your demeanor, tone), because that may be more important even than the information itself. Naturally, it affects the way they process it. Try to avoid hyperbolic words and phrases with any child, but that's particularly important with our youngest children, who understand the world in magical terms (monsters under their beds and tooth fairies under their pillows) and even our kids through about age 10, who have started to understand logic, but not irony and sarcasm. At this age, they're worried not just about themselves but others, too, which can make this pandemic a lot scarier. Be sure to listen to their questions, explain things clearly and ask them what made them think or ask a certain question. It's important to understand the source and substance of the concern in order to effectively combat fear with knowledge. By age 11, your kid has probably begun to understand abstract thought, and as they progress through adolesence is also dealing with social and bodily changes that can be overwhelming separate from the pandemic. Be empathetic and remind them (if needed) why we're all having to give up so much right now.
Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist, reminds us: "This is not the apocalypse. The crisis will pass. In the meantime we will have to teach our children how to deal with uncertainty. We don’t have to love it. But we do have to model it." She has also offered tips about how to do that, tailored to your kid's age .
And if you're stressed it's probably coming out in how you're reacting to and explaining the changing situation to your kids (not just your words, but your facial cues and body language, too). Give yourself grace and let yourself cut corners if you need to. It's really OK: no one's popping in to judge you, anyway. To the extent possible put a timer on your worries. Allow yourself maybe 30 minutes to really dwell and then after that 30 minutes, write them down to consider down the line. If that doesn't work, try keeping your worries at a distance for an hour at a time. Remember, worrying over the unknown is not in fact going to do anything to change it.
If you're part of a two-parent household, now is not the time to turn on your partner (even if you really do think they've totally lost it this time). Keep an open and non-judgemental dialogue about your own emotions. Starting sentences like: “I need” or “I would feel better if,” can help cue your partner to what will make you feel better. (Because, obviously, by that really stupid thing they just did, they haven't been getting it right so far.) And if you need a starting point for processing your own emotions, take a look at: “Am I depressed? Or just in a bad mood?”, "Help! I’m frustrated with my partner" and "How do I find a therapist?" among others.
“When parents are stressed and worried, kids become stressed and worried,” said Dr. Carol Weitzman, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.
Even our youngest children — as young as just 3 months — can tell when their parents are sad or angry — and can also feel those emotions. In fact, infants and toddlers are so aware of their parents's emotions (noting small changes in how they're held, facial expressions, tone of voice and changes in routine), that if you don't keep your own stress in check it's literally going to rub off on the baby.
If your child is worried about the pandemic, listen and validate those concerns. Don't shrug it off with a comment like “Everything will be fine." Such dismissive reactions can make children feel like they’re not being heard, said Abi Gewirtz, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota. Kids want to understand. (That's the why behind all those "why's?") Moreover, talking about the pandemic and its impact may help alleviate harmful stress .
Plus, with understanding we all (kids included) start to see a way forward (and a light at the end of this long tunnel of unspecified length). To begin, focus on what's in our control, what we can do day to day to help others — like staying home whenever possible and wearing a mask when we go out. Just like the rest of us, kids like having a purpose and being a part of the solution.
There's another kind of talk — one you may have already experienced in the past year — which is even harder, but also crucially important. And that's talking about the grief we've all been experiencing in different ways. Maybe that's the death of a loved one, a divorce, the loss of Mom's job or the house, or even the smaller but still painful losses like missing senior year, prom, graduation ceremonies — or even one of those infrequent play dates. While those conversations will look quite different depending on the type of loss, and permanent changes (especially death) will require ongoing support and conversation, all of these losses (even the ones that may seem inconsequential in the long run) can hit hard these days. We've already lost so much in the past year — including our very sense of normal — and we've likely had fewer joys to look forward to and fill in the gaps. Now even the small things feel so much bigger. Just like the rest of us, your children need time, love, support, and, yes, even space to process these emotions. And even though it goes against every parental instinct you have to try to make things better, remember it's OK for things to not always be OK ... so long as we recognize those times and help each other through them.
Along with the talking, you should also build in some important structure to the days and months that still lie ahead. For kids who like structure, try to keep things as close to their "normal" schedule as possible, and even for those who take the day in stride, a little extra support can be helpful — in other words: lean into routine . (For a starting point, take a look at our questions: “Help! I'm now both working and parenting from home. What should I do?” and “How can I keep my kid on track?”)
And don't forget to make sure your kids are getting interactions with other people to help keep their spirits up — whether that be virtually or through distanced or pod play dates. (Scroll down to "What about socializing with other children? Can we do it safely?" for some ideas about the best ways to go about this.)
All this is to say: No matter your child's age, check in on them. Even if they push you away, be that annoyingly persistent parent you promised you'd never become and keep knocking on that locked door. We all need someone to ask how we're doing now and again. Maybe you check in with everyone in the family around the table at dinner every Monday night. Maybe it's individual check-ins that aren't on a schedule. Whatever it looks like, just be sure they know you're their for them — always.
Read More How to Keep Children’s Stress From Turning Into Trauma
How does this affect kids, physically? Can they transmit coronavirus?
Fewer children seem to get infected by the coronavirus than adults, and their symptoms tend to be mild.
But Covid-19 can still be serious for children. A very small number of children with the virus have shown symptoms associated with toxic shock or Kawasaki disease . This is a rare illness in children, according to the New York City health department, that involves inflammation of the blood vessels, including coronary arteries. (There is also a case of a 12-year-old Covid-19 long hauler .)
Moreover, federal data released last fall shows a racial disparity that has continued this year : children of color have been most harshly affected, making up an overbearing proportion of the children who have died or developed life-threating complications from the virus.
Monitoring your child is important both for their health and for the health of the community. Children can transmit the virus to others , although schoolage children are less likely to do so than older populations.
If your child develops severe symptoms, such as trouble breathing, an inability to eat or drink, or a change in behavior, you should contact a doctor.
Read More What to Watch for When it Comes to Your Kid and Covid-19
Help! I'm now both working and parenting from home. What should I do?
Honestly, the first step is to acknowledge that this is totally bonkers. The writer Deb Perelman, who created the food blog Smitten Kitchen , laid it out plainly in her essay: " In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both ."
“Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it?" she asks.
But enough complaining. What to do?
1. If you have a partner or another person or people who share the child-raising responsibilities, work with them to present a united front. Division will create disorder, which will create chaos, which will drive you all up the wall. (If you are going it alone, it's that much harder. With all you have to juggle, please accept our greatest admiration and proceed on to Step 2. At least there's *one thing* you don't have to worry about.)
2. Create boundaries. That might be a time boundary (“You are not allowed to talk to Daddy until 2 p.m. today") or a physical boundary (“This is the adult room"). You can also make color-coded cards (green for "go, red for "don’t even think about it") for the space dividers, which can signal when each of you can invade the other’s space. And remember, it may be going both ways — your kid could be sick of you, too (despite how perfect you are), so create boundaries for everyone in the family.
3. Also, there has never been a time when it was more important to use that precious time wisely. Think back to when you first had your child: sleep whenever you can and use noise-canceling technology, if needed. Having a daily schedule helps, too. (For more ideas about balancing work and school and creating effective schedules, skip down to the question "How can I keep my kid on track?")
4. Remember, now is not the time to beat yourself up about things not being perfect. We're in the midst of a pandemic: things aren't perfect. So, be kind to yourself, and to one another. If the kids are spending more time on their screens , or if you’re whipping up (okay, warming up) more chicken nuggets than super-healthy organic meals, that's OK, too. (The kids are probably thankful.) The most important thing is that you're together and loving one another through it.
Read More Figuring Out Work and Family in the Age of Coronavirus
I’m worried my kid isn’t actually learning much through remote school.
For many of us, this year has been an epic fail. And unfortunately, that failure is extending to a lot of our childrens' education — in staggering numbers.
“We’re obviously dealing with unprecedented learning loss and course failure,” Brian T. Woods, a Texas superintendent, said, “and it’s going to take years to mitigate.”
Across the country, from Houston , to Washington, D.C. , to Chicago , children are failing their classes at much higher rates than before — up 42 percent from 11 percent for a normal year in Houston, for example.
Declining literacy rates are particularly concerning. An overwhelming amount of data shows that if kids aren’t reading by the third grade, they may never catch up — and they’re more likely to drop out of high school.
Now, if your child's grades were better in the spring but plummeted in the fall, that’s not necessarily a reflection on your child: Schools often inflated grades at the start of the pandemic in an effort to keep things less stressful as everyone needed time to become acclimated. The problem is we’ve still not adjusted and the grading system is now becoming evidence of that.
Of course, the past semester’s grades are generally less an evaluation on our children and more on how the school system is handling the seismic shift in education this year. (Isn’t it nice to have someone else to blame, parents?)
Many children have still not returned to the physical classroom — their schools shuttered since the spring. Disrupted class schedules, online learning and unequal resourcing across districts and within homes have all teamed up against our children at the expense of their learning.
And kids with slow internet or who are sharing devices with siblings on similar school schedules, or who are still without an electronic device to tune in — are at a still greater disadvantage.
In California, seven families have sued the state , saying in the lawsuit that remote learning has heightened inequality in the classrooms and infringed on the rights of “low-income and minority students” from receiving an education.
For ideas on how your child can keep up, head to the next question.
Read More Your Kid Isn’t the Only One Failing
How can I keep my kid on track?
Here are a few tips to keep your kids engaged in the remote classroom. (Most of these ideas are good personal reminders for the working parent, too .):
1. Don’t let them study in bed: If your children aren’t asleep, they shouldn’t be in bed. Instead, create a space with your children that fosters a good learning environment — one that separates work from the rest of life, says Donald M. Rattner , a New York-based architect who specializes in creating productive home and office spaces.
2. Pick a space away from other distractions (like the television) and where they have room to move around. If you can position their desks by a window to let in natural light, that’s even better. Create separate spaces with curtains, screens or an extra sheet. And let your children take some leadership in creating their spaces, adding artwork, fun pencils or a favorite photo. The in-home classroom should be a place where the kids want to be.
Just be sure that the work space includes all of their necessary school supplies. (Nothing wastes time like walking all over the house in search of a sharpened pencil or that long-lost password to login.) In fact, depending on the age and needs of your child — as well as the layout of your home or apartment — you may set up offices as though your child is the co-worker in the next cubicle over .
You have an important work call, your child has a test or maybe one of you just needs a moment’s peace? Signal that. Color-coded cards (green for "go," red for "don’t even think about it") on the space dividers can signal when each of you can invade the other’s space.
3. Set a strict routine. Just because you’re not jumping out of bed and rushing to school every morning doesn’t mean that some parts of that morning routine can’t stay the same. Work on a schedule with your children — one that they are happy with and that works with your own schedule (you matter, too!).
Then help them keep to it. Set a time to wake up, eat breakfast and, yes, change out of pajamas. And be sure to follow the same rules as the kids. No just-coffee-for-breakfast hypocrites in the house, please.
4. Set daily goals. Sharing these goals with family members can give everyone ownership of their day and create self- and group-accountability, as well as compassion toward others in the house. If people are lagging behind, remind one another of your goals and see what you can do to meet them even after the inevitable hiccups in the day.
5. Transitions are natural — just don’t get caught up. You can’t be productive every moment of the day. Kids need breaks (and so do you) for snacks, recess — and, yes, even naps! — to process the day. Build that into the routine.
6. Get up and get moving. Take breaks to go outside, get some exercise or even just move around a bit inside the house.
7. Remember to engage with your child. There’s a reason children are always asking “Why?” They, too, are invested in the meaning of what we do day in and day out. And some of that gets lost in a virtual environment. Try to connect their work to an everyday example in which you’ve used the material they’re learning.
8. Keep in touch with the teachers. Just because you can’t go to parent-teacher conferences right now doesn’t mean you can’t check in and voice concerns or ask for help. This is a school year for the record books. So have compassion for the teachers who are up against even more than usual. (And that’s saying something.)
9. Keep your distance, too. While younger kids need more help logging on and staying on — their fine motor skills aren’t fully developed yet — older kids don’t need someone peering over their shoulder every few seconds. (And you have better ways to spend your time, too.) If your child needs help and you’re equipped to provide it, then schedule some time outside of class to work together. And be sure to mark an end to the school day. In pre-Covid times, the school bus ride or walk home from school was a nice cue that the day was over — at least before the homework began. But now since all work is homework, when work is finished, find cues for both students and parents that the day is done: Close the computer, stop checking email — you’re transitioning back into the life part of that work-life balance.
10. Remember, tomorrow is a new day. You might not be trained as a teacher and probably never expected to be a full-time worker, caregiver and teacher all at once: You’ll make mistakes and so will the kids. Give them grace. Give yourself grace. Give everyone grace again and again and again. You can work the kinks out with each new day.
Read More Help! I’m Working, Teaching and Still Doing All Those Other Parenting Things — But From Home
How can we keep grandkids connected to their grandparents?
Older people are more likely to have a severe case of Covid-19, so visiting grandparents or grandchildren is risky .
That being said, staying apart indefinitely is not feasible. Grandchildren are being born and passing other milestones, like hitting double-digits. Life is slipping by , so find a way forward.
Social distancing is hard to explain to kids, and often harder to explain to grandparents. In the nice weather, you could spend time together outdoors. (And remember, we're taking precautions for the grandparents, but that doesn't mean that they get to forgo their masks, either: Everyone should mask-up.)
And in colder (or otherwise dispecable) weather, video chats also work, although you might need to walk your older parents through the twists and turns, so you don't get any close-ups of ears and noses.
If you live close, perhaps you conjoin your quarantine pods. Get tested, quarantine while you’re getting results back, and then spend time together normally. That might be your best option: Parents, stressed from working at home, desperately need reliable child care. (Some grandparents who have become the primary caregivers are delighted and, well, exhausted .)
But ultimately, it's not just about this year: you also want your kids to have their grandparents around at high school graduations, first jobs and weddings. If you can’t see each other safely, maybe you should wait until you can. (And be sure to remind the grandparents to get vaccinated. We're moving back toward normal, soon. Fingers crossed!)
Read More When Can I See My Grandkids?
How do I get my kid to wear a mask?
Older children can be a little cranky about adapting to life with masks, but younger children are perfectly positioned to learn a new drill.
Most children enjoy the chance to feel morally superior to adults (and adults often make this all too easy); go ahead and encourage a little righteousness. They can be the family monitors, reminding their parents not to forget their face coverings when they leave the house. Explain to them that the best way to show our love to others is to wear our masks.
For some children, though, even the humblest of masks can be scary — scary in itself, and scary as reminders of the threat of infection and the generally frightening moment we're all living through. By making it into a game, or buying see-through or emotive masks for the family, you can alleviate their anxiety. Or, maybe it’s an opportunity to play dress up? Masks can be fun, and here are some kid-approved versions . (That's right, let your kid know: The masks were tested by a panel of children just like them, ages 3 to 10.)
Read More How to Help Kids Embrace Mask-Wearing
How do I help my kids entertain themselves without socializing?
Maybe don’t . Let them amuse themselves.
That’s tough: Research has shown that our heavily scheduled lives have contributed to a significant decrease in the amount of free time kids have, so their independent play skills may not be ready for the moment we are facing. So let's take advantage of the silver-lining, shall we?
“Independent play encourages time management, executive function and organizational skills, and emotional and physical awareness and regulation," said Dana Rosenbloom, a parent and child educator in Manhattan. “All skills that help us be successful individuals as adults."
You can help them play on their own. Start slow — let younger kids direct play for 20 minutes, 35, then an hour. And keep toys out of rotation, said Avital Schreiber-Levy, a parenting performance coach in New Jersey who has created a play guide for parents on lockdown. “When toys sit out too long, they go stale," she said. “It’s about making them novel again, either because we take them away or we set them up in a new way."
Let kids get messy (it was going to happen anyway), and keep play in a specific zone where they can wiggle and jump. And, be patient. If your kid is used to socializing and screentime, self-directed play might be tough for them. Letting them work out the kinks on their own will develop strength and resiliency that can last them a lifetime. (Just don't tell them, "This is how we did it back in my day." That is so, well, stoggy.)
Read More Now’s a Good Time to Teach Your Kids to Play on Their Own
What about socializing with other children? Can we do it safely?
If your family or friends live nearby, consider linking up quar-pods . If you as parents agree to community norms and guidelines, you can probably let your kids play together as if the world were normal.
But if you’re unable to do that, or you want to see someone outside the pod for a play date, know that there are risks. Playgrounds are open in some states, and young children are being asked to stay six feet apart and wear masks, which let's face it, is an often unrealistic expectation.
If you’re trying for a play date, good communication with other parents is essential.
“A start would be, ‘Hi, our kids have been asking about getting together, and as you know, this is a complicated conversation right now,’" said Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. A parent could continue, “I wanted to start with an open conversation, see where you are, tell you where I am and see if it’s possible to send a consistent message to our kids."
Enlist your kids for help, too. If they feel as if it’s a project that they’re doing together, they might find some way to enjoy it. You could make spaces — all of the kids get their own blanket — if you’re playing outside.
But there’s no good answer to this. If you can keep your kids away from other kids, you’re reducing your family’s risk of infection. That might not be possible, but it might also be the only way to do it safely.
Read More How Do You Decide if Children Can Play Together Again?
But will not socializing with other children stunt my kid’s development?
Your concern is certainly understandable, but the answer is: honestly, probably not.
Friendship is like riding a bicycle. You don’t really forget how, even if you have some time away.
Yes, social interactions are an important part of development throughout childhood, and spending time with peers is typically part of that process. But try not to fret too much about what kids are missing right now. Children are resilient and often better at adapting than we are — and they’re not entirely cut off from other people, anyway. (You may not feel like it right now, but you're a person, too, and count as human-interaction.)
And there's much to be gained from interactions with parents, siblings and even pets. Time alone is valuable, too. And connection through technology, like hanging out or playing games through video chats, can fill in some of the blanks. Even without peer interaction for a while, kids can still develop socially and emotionally in ways that will prepare them to pursue real-world friendships when those can resume.
Read More Worried About Your Kids’ Social Skills Post-Lockdown?
There’s a case at my child’s school. Help?
If we’ve learned anything from being back in school, it’s that if your child is in a classroom, you’ll most likely hear about some Covid-19 cases. But that doesn’t mean that schools will necessarily reshutter in response.
Nor does a case at your child’s school mean you should panic. Schoolchildren aren’t likely to get and spread the virus , so your kid is probably OK.
Plus, a classroom in quarantine, or a school forced to switch to remote learning, does not necessarily mean a district has failed. In fact, if your school is following an established pandemic procedure, it may signal that things are working effectively — contact tracing is essential to helping families and classrooms assess risks and then plan accordingly.
As gut-wrenching as the news of Covid-19 in your school may seem, it’s better to catch a small number of cases before your school has an outbreak — so hearing about it could even be considered good news. (These days, we've got to reach a little farther for those silver-linings.) And remember: If transmission rates in the surrounding community are high, students are most likely getting infected outside of school, where the environment is less controlled.
“It’s important to distinguish between Covid in your school, which is bad, but not exactly the same thing as Covid being transmitted in your school,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University. “People have lives outside of school. It’s very likely that people will get infected somewhere else.”
Most experts agree that students shouldn’t return to school if more than 5 percent of people in their community test positive. In some places, that number is even lower — at one point, New York had an infamously low threshold of 3 percent .
Read More Why You Don’t Need to Panic If you Find Out About a Case at Your Kid’s School.
Is there help available to families without access to the internet?
It's hard enough to learn through the Zoom classroom, when all the technology is actually working properly. But what about when you’re not even able to do that ?
The effects of this year of disrupted schooling on learning loss is yet unknown — but early indicators show that literacy among our young students could be horribly stunted.
As last school year wound to a close, a survey of more than 1,500 families around the country conducted by ParentsTogether , a national advocacy group, found a deep disparity between low-income parents and those making more than $100,000: lower-income students were 10 times more likely to be doing little to no remote learning. In other words: Many of these students weren’t receiving any formal education.
The reason for the disparity is simple and horrifying: The digital divide is greatest in rural areas and communities of color, where families are sometimes without access to high-speed internet or are sharing devices for remote learning.
Poorer school districts put those families at a further disadvantage — unable to compete with richer districts quickly shelling out money for student devices. With worldwide demand for low-cost laptops up 41 percent from before the pandemic, shipments have been long-delayed — with poorer students in poorer districts last in line. Those students are now forced to watch recordings of classes or complete printed assignments delivered to their homes instead of attending the more interactive live classes.
Among older students in less affluent families who are facing constrained economic situations at home, dropouts are on the rise, as children pick jobs over lackluster learning.
If you’re in need of low-cost internet or affordable devices, reach out to your school to learn about options it may provide. And if there's no help available there, then check out EveryoneOn , which pairs you with programs that help you find low-cost internet and affordable computers by your ZIP code.
For those who want to help, you can donate to EveryoneOn or check out National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit organization that urges the importance of internet access for all and has a list of local organizations working toward digital inclusion. You may also consider giving to Comp-U-Dopt, which refurbishes used computers and gives them to children in cities across the country. For $215, the organization can obtain a computer, overhaul it, deliver it and provide two years of tech support and training.
Read More Are We Losing a Generation of Children to Remote Learning?
Should my child take the bus?
School buses are the nation’s largest single form of mass transportation. But during the coronavirus pandemic, the C.D.C. recommends that buses operate at reduced capacity to allow for social distancing.
Before putting your child on the bus, be sure those guidelines are being followed. Among the C.D.C.’s suggestions: mandatory mask-wearing, open windows, clearly marked six feet of space for children lining up and unidirectional markers inside the bus to keep the flow of kids easy and uncongested.
Disinfectants should be on board, but it never hurts to pop an extra hand sanitizer or pack of wipes in your child’s backpack.
Similar to some of the outdoor dining situations you’ve seen, temporary dividers are also helpful on the bus — as well as leaving seats empty between people. (An easy reminder for kids: marking seats off-limits.)
It’s also a good idea to keep some space from the driver, who is more likely to contract the virus than many of the children on the bus. But don’t be surprised if your bus driver isn’t wearing a mask. While the C.D.C. says mask-wearing should be encouraged, officials note: “Masks should not be worn by drivers and aides if their use creates a new risk (e.g., interference with driving or vision, contribution to heat-related illness ) that exceeds their Covid-19 related benefits of slowing the spread of the virus.”
Of course, if you’re still worried and can walk there or have a car and time to drive your children, you can log some good quality time with the kids while taking them to school.
Read More The Wheels Come Off the School Bus Industry
What is college looking like this spring?
For most college students, it has been a rough last few semesters. But across the country, administrators were optimistic that the lessons learned at the start of the academic year would serve them well, enabling them to bring more students safely back to campus , through consistent testing , thorough contact tracing and, of course, requiring masks and social distancing.
As a result, the University of Michigan — which had 2,500 confirmed cases this fall , shifted to more remote class offerings in the spring, upped its testing, limited dorm room capacity to one occupant and set a no-tolerance policy for rule violations. Even still, students coming back to campus brought with them the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant . And from the start of the year through early February, the school has announced more than 1,000 new cases .
Although the school was better prepared than in the fall: “This is a variant that moves 50 percent faster than anything we had to deal with last semester,” said Emily Toth Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology who devised the campus testing program.
And since the spring semester started , other colleges across the country have also struggled with emerging variants, among them: the University of Texas at Austin , the University of Miami , Tulane and the University of California, Berkeley .
Even before variants emerged in the United States at the end of the year and in January, by early December, The New York Times had already linked more than 397,000 cases and at least 90 deaths to campuses since the pandemic's start.
Ahead of the spring semester, the University of California, San Diego, planned to bring an additional 1,000 students to campus housing, the University of Florida to up the number of in-person classes offered and Princeton to increase its on-campus living student population to thousands of undergraduates from a few hundred. Almost two times the number of students would return to Harvard — and make that almost three times to Brown . And Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., wasn't just increasing the number of students on campus, it planned to reopen study abroad, too. (On the other side of the argument, California State University’s 23 campuses planned to be mostly remote this spring.)
Far from everyone was happy about the reopenings. Faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voiced their concerns about in-person classes in an open letter : “We have every reason to expect that the university will — once again — be overwhelmed by infections when classes resume,” they wrote, asking the university to cancel most in-person classes in the spring.
More than 200 professors at the University of Florida asked for reprieves from teaching students face to face — less than half were given permission to do so.
And State University of New York at Oneonta in upstate New York announced it would reopen for in-person classes in the spring — to a voluminous petition in protest. In the fall, the school, which suffered the worst outbreak of any public college in the state, had not mandated negative tests before students returned to campus (although many schools in the college system asked students for test results). That changed in the spring, and students have also been required to complete a daily health questionnaire for the 14 days before they came to campus and to quarantine for seven days before arriving. They are also subjected to weekly pooled surveillance testing.
Yes, money is, of course, a factor in the decision to bring students back. (Colleges make a lot, charging for room and board.) But actually, some studies suggest it’s not a bad approach because oftentimes cases aren’t traced back to in-person classes anyway — the biggest risk is the social activities college students like to engage in after class. In fact, a study of 70,000 undergraduates at Indiana University suggested that the more classes a student took in person, the lower the likelihood that student would become infected with Covid-19. But that was before the variants appeared on campus, which could affect how schools adjust going forward.
Of course, not everyone will adjust the same. So far, colleges have adapted a patchwork of policies of varying strength and effectiveness to combat outbreaks on campus. At times the gaps have put students and faculty at risk. In fact, although the American College Health Association's guidelines suggest testing college students twice a week in order to detect asymptomatic infections, it is unknown how many colleges have gone ahead and adopted this research-backed approach .
Separately, college students are becoming frustrated with fees and loans that don’t seem worth the virtual education. Students at the University of Georgia and at Georgia Tech are suing to get some of their tuition and fees back. Community colleges are enrolling fewer and fewer male students — especially among students of color. (Right now, you shouldn't have to pay anything toward your student loans — or accrue interest — through the end of September. And you won't need to pay income taxes on that forgiven debt , either for any debt forgiven from the start of this year through the end of 2025. For more info, see this Q. and A. with the Education Department.)
It’s not an easy time. Last year colleges asked Congress to pass a bill with $120 billion in relief for higher education. The third stimulus package puts almost $40 billion toward higher education.
Read More Tracking the Coronavirus Across U.S. Campuses
Why are some schools and universities remote only, while others are open for in-person learning?
Without clear federal mandates, state and local authorities have largely been on their own to determine the best course of action for their schools — and those plans differ greatly even under similar circumstances. ( The same goes for colleges .) The result: a patchwork of unclear messaging and policies that has left many parents in the lurch.
It seems that access to the right resources and advance planning have given some schools a better shot at opening successfully. For that reason, across the country schools in lower-income neighborhoods are significantly more likely to opt for remote-only instruction, furthering the disparity in quality of education. At the same time, some public schools are located in places with high community spread, so many of these districts have made the tough decision to start and stay remote only.
In New York City and San Francisco , private school students are generally receiving live classroom experiences, while most public school students in both districts spent much of the school year without — meaning that the class divide is determining which children receive in-person instruction.
And across the country, some public schools that are reluctant to fully reopen have been pushing to at least get younger students back in front of a teacher — as research suggests that these children are in particular need of in-person instruction.
But no matter what kind of school your children attend, if they were remote for the fall and have returned in-person for the spring semester, be sure you know what to expect. At this point it should go without saying, but again: If your school has a “masks recommended” policy, rather than a masks required one, you’re at greater risk. And old ventilations systems with poor circulation can mean that the virus hangs around in one place that much longer.
Students in districts with low community spread will be safer.
Read More How One District Got Its Students Back Into Classrooms
Why are my younger kids in the classroom and the older ones still at home?
Schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (But that hasn't happened anywhere.)
And for no one is that more important than for our youngest students, because: 1. They really need that in-person instruction more than the older kids, and 2. It’s safer for them to be in the classroom.
In February, the C.D.C. urged schools K-12 to reopen as soon as possible , while emphasizing the particular importance of getting younger children back in their desks. (The C.D.C. also said that vaccinating teachers should be a priority but not a prerequisite for reopening, which follows New York's statistics, as well.)
“C.D.C.’s operational strategy is grounded in science and the best available evidence,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the C.D.C.
Younger children — those under 10 — are less likely to contract and transmit the virus, so they can enter the classroom at a much lower risk than older students.
Plus, many health experts , say classrooms are rather safe, so long as schools enforce safety measures like mask wearing and social distancing.
Elementary students can safely receive at least some in-person learning in communities with high transmission rates, according to the C.D.C. And taking those children out of the classroom should only be in the most extreme circumstances (and even then, they should be on a hybrid model with some in-person instruction). Meanwhile, older students can safetly attend if their community has lower transmission rates, or if, amid higher rates, their schools enforce weekly testing of students and staff to weed out asymptomatic infections. But, the C.D.C. notes, those students may have to return to hybrid or remote learning in those cases, and at the highest transmission rates, these classrooms should shutter. (Additionally, the C.D.C. urged prioritizing in-person instruction over other school activities — like sports, clubs.)
Of course, it's safest for everyone if local governments do the work to tamp down their numbers — and parents might also be more comfortable sending their kids back. But across the country, city and state governments have prioritized the openings of nonessential businesses and other quickie-economic fixes over getting kids back in the classroom. And although the C.D.C.'s guidance is rooted in science , it has no enforcement mechanism.
Sadly, that means that while the agency is pushing for the reopening of schools, its own criteria would keep more than 90 percent of U.S. counties from full-time classroom teaching, according to Dr. Walensky's own figures.
The good news: Most public school districts across the country are providing at least some face-to-face teaching, although only about half of the country's students are learning in the classroom. The bad news: Poor students of color in urban districts are less likely to get that face time — often, their schools are still closed.
When many elementary students in New York City started back Dec. 7, they returned to classrooms with even more health precautions: random weekly testing and 10-day closures for every two unrelated positive cases detected in the school. (Individual classrooms also shutter with the detection of a single case.) As a result, between Jan. 4 and Feb. 10, more than half of the 1,052 open school buildings had been closed for up to two weeks, while less than 400 had not had to close at all in the new year.
In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that about 62,000 New York City middle school students (those who last year opted for in-person learning) will return to the classroom for at least part of the week beginning Feb. 25 — the first time since November. (The two-case rule is not likely to change before they do.)
Mr. de Blasio also wants to reopen high schools this spring, too — but they're “a complex situation,” he said.
And aross the country, school districts have turned to New York, the nation's largest district, which has been leading the pack in reopening to determine the best course of action. Even so, by the time elementary students started back in New York, those in Michigan, Cambridge, Mass., and Johnson County, Kan., were already in class.
Read More Say Goodbye to Your Elementary Students, Class Is (Finally!!) Back in Session
With a vaccine rolling out, will school get easier?
Short answer: It should!! But, according to C.D.C. guidance in February, you shouldn't have to wait until your kid's teacher is vaccinated, anyway.
Of course, kids will have to wait longer than most of the rest of us to get vaccinated — although Pfizer's and Moderna's trials for kids over 12 have started. But kids aren’t the ones who are keeping the schools shuttered anyway.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says vaccinating students is “an extra added benefit,” but not necessary for reopening.
Children rarely die after contracting the virus. In fact, young kids do not even pose a high risk of infecting others .
The real hiccup in many places for school starting is protecting the adults in the building, although the C.D.C. says that while vaccinating teachers should be a priority, it is not necessary for safely reopening. New York's statistics support that assertion, although many teacher's unions across the country disagree and have stalled reopenings despite the guidance.
Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that getting teachers vaccinated helps reduce cases among teachers as well as students and should be prioritized, but: “I can certainly see why they chose not to make it a prerequisite, because it may not be something that can be done in time to have schools open.”
While teachers are often among the first to get vaccinated — after health care workers and people living in long-term care facilities , many have still yet to be vaccinated and stalled roll-outs across the country leave many question marks as to when they realistically will be inoculated.
Even in places like Oregon, which have prioritized vaccinating teachers , concerns linger that it won't be enough to reopen schools there.
Of course, teachers aren’t the only adults at school. Bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians and receptionists are all critical to keeping a school running — and where they will fall in the vaccine line remains uncertain.
“The equity angle is really important,” said Dr. Grace M. Lee, an associate chief medical officer for practice innovation at Stanford Children’s Health. “All of the folks that enable a school to open are going to be critical to that work force.”
Read More Why Your Kid Doesn’t Yet Need to Be Vaccinated Before Heading Back to School
Do you have any strategies for staving off boredom at home?
We've got you covered. At Home is your one-stop guide to riding out the pandemic. In it, you’ll find advice and guidance on everything you’ll need to pass the time : what to watch , cook (and eat) and read , as well as how to celebrate holidays and tips for dealing with the psychological and emotional effects of, well, staying at home.
Looking for a nice way to spend a quiet day? Try writing that short story , cook dinner (without a recipe) , binge your way through these 50 Netflix shows (well ... maybe just 49 of them), or lace up your shoes and go for an "awe walk" to (re)discover the beauty all around us.
And be sure to socialize with us (virtually, of course), through these New York Times events — we've got fun activities to break up any rigamarole routine.
Need a total escape? Plan a trip. My grandfather said half the fun is in the anticipation .
Or ... go ahead and take that trip you've always dreamed of — (again, virtually), traveling the world through these readers' memories with this list of " 52 Places to Love in 2021 ." Or, if you want a little taste of some of your favorite cities, we have ideas about how to turn that cramped fourth-floor walkup into your perfect vacation oasis: Paris ? Tokyo ? Dakar ? Singapore ? Riviera Maya ? (The days go on ... and so does our list .)
Read More Okay, But What Do I Do this Weekend? (This newletter's got your answer.)
What should I do to keep my home safe? Should I still be disinfecting everything?
Always remember the basics, like washing your hands frequently (and lovingly reminding members of your household to do the same).
The coronavirus isn’t easily transmitted on surfaces . Or, at least, surfaces are a much lower risk than person-to-person transmission. So although disinfecting isn’t a bad idea (we are coming back around to spring cleaning season, after all) you probably don’t need to be quite as vigilant about that as we initially thought.
You can keep your home safe by keeping people who might be infected out of it. (And since we don't know for sure who those people are, it's best to keep to the members of your household or pod.)
And be sure to keep yourself safe when you’re outside of your home. That means wearing a mask and socially distancing whenever possible.
Read More How You Can Make Your Home Safer
I’m working at home and stiff as heck. Tips?
By now, you've probably figured out the best places to work at home — the height of your desk and the quality of your chair matters. (If you work for a company, check and see if they will reimburse you to get the right equipment.)
You’ll want to focus on your wrists and forearms, your shoulders, and your chest and back. Here's three stretches that’ll help, but for now let’s try this one for your wrists:
* Stand with one arm in front of you and your palm facing the ground.
* With your other hand, gently pull back the fingers of the outstretched arm. You should feel the stretch in the underside of your wrist.
* Hold for a moment or two, then release.
* Next, keeping your arm straight, use your other hand to push your fingers and palm down and toward your body. Hold a few seconds, then release.
* Repeat with your other arm.
(Yeah, it feels good.)
And don’t forget to stretch and strengthen your whole body , too. See The Times’s 9-Minute Strength Workout , which includes exercises you can do in a pinch. And a little yoga at the start of the day can get you breathing through the inevitable stress that is to come with working (and doing everything else) from home these days.
Read More Three Stretches to Tend to the Aches and Pains of Working From Home
I’m trying to exercise again. It’s really hard. Tips?
Over all, our excercise habits have changed considerably during the course of the pandemic. A study from the U.K. , which had not been peer-reviewed, showed than many of us have been less active since the start of lockdowns, although some people have really upped their routines — and many of those people are over 65. No matter where you are on that scale, it's never too late to get started.
Let's just get this out of the way up front: If you are healthy and do not have a breathing ailment, then, no, wearing a mask should not affect your ability to workout , and, yes, you should be wearing one — still .
Two studies — one published out of Israel and the other out of Canada — and both focused on cycling, find that masks don't negatively affect vigorous workout routines. People's heart rate and respiration changed negligibly. (That's right, it's in your head.) And, no, it doesn't matter what your mask is made of.
“From the results of our study, I don’t think masks are likely to make workouts feel worse,” said Philip Chilibeck, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, who oversaw the Canadian study.
That said, wearing a mask can take some getting used to, so you might want to take it slower while you figure it out. (The studies showed that after a period of acclimation, you'd feel like the workout was essentially the same level of difficulty as without a mask.) But you should find the mask that feels best while working out (and it might not be the one you use to walk the dog). Also, an N-95 mask isn't suggested, as it ups your carbon dioxide levels.
Now, if you’ve had Covid-19, expect a long recovery , and please take your time returning to exercise .
Even if you were an athlete beforehand, you are not going to be back at your peak capacity for a while . And the usual return-to-play criteria for sick athletes do not apply, said Dr. James Hull, a sports pulmonologist at Royal Brompton Hospital in London.
“We have seen people have some mild symptoms to start with and seem to improve," he said, “only to then deteriorate really badly at seven days following their first symptoms."
And no matter what, most everyone took some time off their normal workout routine in the early part of the lockdown, and many have struggled to hit stride with a routine that fits this new pandemic world. In other words, a lot of people are a lot less toned than they used to be.
If you are one of those people, start slow . Even just taking an " awe walk " — conscientiously noting the beauty all around you (at whatever pace feels comfortable) will make you feel happier and more rejuvenated than if you, well, didn't.
Focus first on strength, rather than cardio, because inactivity eats away at muscle mass. But take your time as you return to weight training, said Brad Schoenfeld, an associate professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York, who researches resistance exercise. “If you have been doing almost no training," he said, “plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of your prior workouts" when you return to the barbells. (And if you plan to head back to the gym, be sure to check out our question "How about gyms?" for safety tips.)
As you get back into your routine, you can add in cardio. But remember, even if you’re running outside, wear a mask. You’re breathing heavily, and you could be spitting out — or sucking in — virus droplets. (I know, yuck, right?) And while you might not be hitting the same mileage as before (or you may be a little slower), that's okay. You'll get it back ... one step at a time.
Read More Your First Workout Challenge
What about pets? Can they get the coronavirus? Can they transmit it?
While there is no evidence that dogs or cats can spread the coronavirus to other humans, we can pass it on to our pets. So, if you are sick with Covid-19, don't pet your dog or anyone else's for that matter. (Additionally, an experiment confirmed that cats can spread the virus to each another, while dogs do not shed the virus.)
In April, a dog in North Carolina tested positive for the coronavirus , as did two pet cats in New York as well as eight tigers at the Bronx Zoo . The animals showed mostly mild symptoms — though a tiger was “visibly sick" — and have recovered .
More recently in December several snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo tested postive for Covid-19, as did a cougar and tiger at a Texas facility in February.
In Denmark, a disturbing mutation was reported in the fall as the virus switched between humans and mink . While the mutations were not more severe or transmissable than before, one of the variants, found in at least a dozen people, was less responsive to antibodies in lab tests. Mink, which have been decimated by the virus and are among the only animals known to have passed the coronavirus to humans (there was also an early spillover from an unknown species), may even be in line to get vaccinated, too .
With all that in mind, be safe, but don't forget man's best friend: take care of your animal’s mental health — this is stressful for them, too. Staying at home for months on end can acclimate your dog to an unrealistic reality , experts say. And if you're still working from home and spending most of your days there, start leaving for a bit, even to walk (without the dog), so they get used to the idea that you won’t always be around.
And if you know someone is sick and has pets , check in on them. Some animals are being left behind by this virus.
Read More So You're Worried About Covid and Your Pets: This Study has Some Answers
I want to renovate my home. What should I do?
You’re in luck. Home renovation is the new sourdough bread.
Almost a month after the Phase 1 reopening of New York City that allowed contractors and their crews back into residential buildings, “we’re redefining what ‘full steam ahead’ means," said Steve Mark, the chief executive of SMI Construction. “It’s not going to mean what it used to."
It’s a tough balance as contractors and homeowners try to navigate restrictions, but hammers are hammering once more.
Other than pandemic-related changes, renovating a home is a pretty standard process. You budget and design, work with a contractor and/or a designer, and prepare yourself for the inevitable mishaps and mayhem — you know, the good old 2019 version of crazy.
Read More Advice for Renovating Your Home
I miss looking at art. What do I do?
A recent visit to New York's empty Met felt ripped from the pages of "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" — and while no one was actually spending the night in the museum alone with the artwork, there was a particular feeling of closeness, like the art might actually come alive when all the people were gone.
In Paris, the Louvre is still closed. In Madrid, the Prado is open. And in New York, museums including the Met have been open since August, despite a temporary case surge over the winter , while museums in Los Angeles, which has been hard hit by the pandemic, have been shuttered almost a year . (In March, some museums in the Bay Area began reopening , with decreasing case rates indicating that others in California might also soon begin welcoming visitors.)
But if you still aren't comfortable visiting a museum, or one in your area isn't yet open, you can get your art fix — virtually, of course. And why stop at one museum when you can dive into your favorite rooms (and maybe a few yet unexplored) scattered all over the world? (Of course, it's not the real thing, but by zooming in, you can “get up close" to the surface of canvases in a way that you might never have been able to before.)
First stop: New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for a 360-view of the Cloisters and the Temple of Dendur . Then skip that walk down Fifth Avenue and click on the Frick , with a virtual map letting you move through rooms and explore your favorite masterpieces up close.
Then head south of the border to visit Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul in Mexico City. The afternoon is promised to be sunny, as you pass through the open home.
Next, sneak into Europe — Starting on the streets of Barcelona, for a walk-through of some of Gaudí's most incredible archeological wonders, starting with his famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia , continuing on with Casa Batlló , and, finally spending a bit of time at Park Güell . Then over to Madrid for some close-up time with some of the Prado's greats : El Greco , Velázquez and Goya .
Hop over to Paris for a virtual Louvre experience , complete with a private viewing of the Mona Lisa . And be sure to dip into Musée de l'Orangerie for a full immersion in Monet's waterlilly garden (without all those other people crowded around you).
Then jet over to Upper Egypt and wonder at the ornate depictions scaling the columned walls of the Red Monastery and drop by Dubai's Al Fahidi Fort . Finally end in Japan, at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, scanning through more than 150 pieces of Asian modern and contemporary art.
Not sure where to go first? The Arts section ran a series of reviews of some virtual shows .
And remember, just because you're not buying a ticket for entry, doesn't mean you can't make a contribution to your local museum. These days some of our favorite art insitutions are struggling to balance budgets and keep staff amid diminished capacities , so if you have a little money to spare consider giving it to the museum that welcomed you through its virtual doors — isn't Picasso that much better in sweatpants from the comfort of your couch?
Read More Museums Embrace Art Therapy Techniques for Unsettled Times
I miss getting dressed up — and still haven't test-run the clothes I purchased just before shutdown.
Sure, you're stuck at home, but you're not stuck in those sweatpants. (That's all you, sweetheart.)
Extravagant purchases innocently made in those first few months of 2020, before the extent of the pandemic was known, have become markers of a fast-receding era of freedom. Some purchasers have even saved their sales receipts, as if they were historic documents. Many of these items now languish in closets. Others are put to good use. (I just found a pair of new pants bought a year ago — tag still on, but not for long.)
Beautiful clothes are beautiful clothes. You deserve to be stunning, even if you’ve got nowhere to be. Wear a gown with that mask to walk the dog, pick-up dinner from your neighborhood bistro, dance around the house. It’s a pandemic. There are no rules. Be fierce.
Read More They Splurged on Fancy Clothes Before Quarantine. Now What?
Money and Work
What's in the third stimulus package.
President Biden’s first major piece of legislation as president — a third pandemic aid package, this one in the amount of $1.9 trillion — helps to finance vaccine distribution and expand the safety net for America’s most vulnerable — what the White House correspondent Jim Tankersley described on “The Daily” as an insurance policy of sorts , promising government help if needed. (If it’s not needed, less money will be spent.)
The package will provide meaningful stimulus checks to families (up to $1,400), extend unemployment benefits and will establish long-term structural changes to the economy. This year it is expected to cut poverty by a third, while cutting in half child poverty through expanded tax credits, food aid, and rental and mortgage assistance.
At a news conference, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California called the package “the most consequential legislation that many of us will ever be a party to.”
Here’s a look at the numbers:
* $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments
* $130 billion for primary and secondary schools
* $45 billion for rental, utility and mortgage assistance
* almost $40 billion for higher education
* $30 billion for transit agencies
* $14 billion for vaccine distribution
* $10 billion for state infrastructure projects
* Billions more for small businesses and live performance venues
Keep scrolling for much more about the latest stimulus package and what it could mean for you.
Read More A Look at the Third Stimulus Package
Can I expect another stimulus payment?
Yes, you can! For those with a Social Security number, the third stimulus package provides a bit more: $1,400 per person — but for about nine million fewer households.
The measure ensures $1,400 checks to individuals earning $75,000 or less, heads of household with an adjusted income of no more than $112,500 and couples filing jointly earning no more than a combined $150,000, with diminishing payments for higher salaries up to the specified caps. (If you’re eligible you’ll also receive the same amount for each of your children.)
The income cap will be $20,000 less than before, and while those earning just above the threshhold would receive a partial check. But that drops to zero quickly: Any individual earning more than $80,000 (heads of household earning over $120,000 or households exceeding $160,000) will not receive any check. And that goes for the kids, too.
Now, if you still count your college kid as a dependent, they will get a check, too (unlike last time), as well as live-in elderly relatives.
Now, if you find yourself disqualified for payments because you made a lot more in 2019 than you did last year, when you file your 2020 tax return, you will be able to claim the money as a refundable tax credit.
Read More Am I Eligible for a Third Stimulus Check?
When and how should I expect recent stimulus payments to come through?
Some of you may have received that last round of payments from the I.R.S. within a few days. Some of us, well, didn't. (If you're still waiting, check the next two questions for what to do.)
On the whole, earlier rounds of payments are a good measuring stick: Under the CARES Act , people started receiving direct deposits two weeks after the legislation was approved — while those receiving the money by another method (an actual check or prepaid benefit cards) often waited much longer.
Then for the second round, the Treasury Department started making direct deposit payments before the end of the year and planned to start sending checks by Dec. 30.
And, yes, just like before, many of us will be receiving direct deposits for this third round of payments. So if you want to avoid the extra lag time, be sure that the I.R.S. has your bank account information on file through the I.R.S.'s Get My Payment tool , which will let you track the status of your payment the way you would the delivery of a package. (Of course, a lot of people are checking, so it’s a practice in patience for sure.) You’ll also be alerted if the government needs more information for the direct deposit, and you can also add your address if you want a check.
Read More On When to Expect that Check
But the income I made last year makes me look ineligible. What do I do?
For this third round of payments, the Internal Revenue Service uses your most recent tax filing on record to determine eligibility. So if you’ve already filed this year, that’s 2020; otherwise that’s 2019.
You’re not alone if your income is a lot less in 2020 than it was in 2019 — and although this means if you haven't filed taxes yet, you’ll still be waiting on those stimulus payments, the good news is that you’ll still be able to claim the money on your 2020 tax return. You can expect it back in the form of a refundable tax credit.
Go here for more information from the I.R.S. about what you need to know to receive your economic impact payment. And scroll to the question about taxes for a list of things to keep in mind before filing your taxes.
Read More How does the IRS Determine my Eligibility?
I still haven’t even gotten (all of) my earlier payments.
The I.R.S.’s online tracker says that all payments have been made at this time, so if you still haven't gotten your first or second round of payments (or didn't get as much as you expected), then you're looking at a tax rebate instead.
That means — even if you don't usually file a tax return — you'll need to do so this year. Go here for more information from the I.R.S. about what you need to know to receive your economic impact payment.
Then head here to claim the recovery rebate credit on your 2020 tax return. (Specifically, that's Line 30 of Form 1040 or 1040-SR.)
Read More How to Get My Money Through a Tax Rebate
How long can I expect my unemployment benefits to continue?
For those already receiving unemployment benefits, third relief package extends these benefits for another 25 weeks, until Sept. 6. And the extra $300 will continue coming in through that same date. Additionally, the first $10,200 of those benefits (for 2020 only) have been made tax-free — so long as you make an income of $150,000.
As for those receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which covers the self-employed, gig workers, part-timers and others who not typically eligible for unemployment benefits, you can also receive a total of 79 weeks, up from 50, with benefits running through Sept. 6.
Meanwhile, if you've exhausted regular state benefits and are now receiving money from the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, those benefits will last a total of 53 weeks, up from 24, also going through Sept. 6.
And that extra $300 will not mean the difference in calculating your eligibility for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, either.
Now, if you earn a mixed income of self-employment and wages from other employers and have been quashed into a lower state-issued benefits based on your lower wages, then you'll get an extra $100 weekly payment, called the mixed-earner supplement — again through Sept. 6. (But that money will be calculated in your eligibility for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.
For more on the extra $300, go to the next question.
Read More What You Need to Know About Unemployment Benefits
When does the extra $300 start coming and how long will it last?
That extra $300 will continue coming in with the rest of your unemployment — until Sept. 6.
Now, if you're separately worried about eligibility for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, be assured that that extra $300 will not mean the difference in calculating either.
Of course, this isn’t anywhere close to that $600 a week under the CARES Act that kept so many of us afloat in the spring and summer. That extra payment ran out in July . This time, we're continuing with the amount established under the second stimulus package.
Will there be a delay between payments?
There could be delays — as much as a few weeks, experts say, as agencies program benefit extensions.
Check your state’s website for instructions about what you need to do to get the extra benefits. While they’ll likely be reinstated automatically, you don’t want to leave that to chance, and you should expect to be waiting at least a few weeks before the money starts coming in.
Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for social insurance at the National Employment Law Project has explained that, historically, benefits are restored with the date of enactment, so what you’d be seeing is a gap in when you get paid, not a gap in your eligibility.
I didn’t qualify before, what about now?
Just because you didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits at the start of the pandemic, doesn't mean you don't now.
The second stimulus package tried to take care of unemployed people who previously received a mix of income from both self-employment and wages paid by other employers and were most likely placed into a lower state-issued benefit bracket based on those lower wages.
Let’s take Norma Jean, for example. She works as a waitress between freelance movie gigs. Her restaurant work qualifies her for the lower, state-level benefits while boxing her out of the more generous Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
So long as Norma Jean received at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income before the pandemic, she has been eligible for an additional weekly federal benefit of $100 — tacked on to the $300 extra everyone else is receiving. And under the third stimulus package that will continue through Sept. 6.
Still, there could be delays. Norma Jean’s state will have to reach an agreement with the Labor Department before she starts receiving that extra $100 — and with states coming to these agreements at different times, a Norma Jean in one state may receive her extra Franklin before a Norma Jean in another.
And take note: You don’t have to have lost your job to collect benefits. If you are quarantined or furloughed without pay, even though you expect to return to your job, you can collect benefits in the interim.
Will the third stimulus package help with my rent?
Yes, for some folks. The third stimulus package puts almost $22 billion toward emergency rental assistance, in an effort to keep people on the cusp of eviction safely at home.
The second stimulus package passed in December also put another $25 billion toward helping people catch up on rent — with a priority placed on families with lower incomes who have been unemployed for at least three months.
Like last time, that money — which may be used for rent and utilities, as well as other housing expenses — will be distributed through state, local and tribal governments, and eligibility is determined on several conditions : 1. Your household income cannot exceed more than 80 percent of the area median income; 2. At least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability; and 3. Individuals must qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship in some capacity as a result of the pandemic. Priority assistance will go to lower-income families who have been without work for at least three months.
More than 500 emergency programs have been created during the pandemic, according to Diane Yentel, chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition . (Here’s the group’s database and a map of some programs.)
If you're having trouble with your landlord, you may have legal recourse, as well. Check out the Legal Services Corporation's search bar to find legal assistance for little or no cost near you, or this clickable map courtesy of Just Shelter, a tenant advocacy group formed by Matthew Desmond and Tessa Lowinske Desmond, for listings of other local organizations that can help. And if you’re worried about evictions, scroll down to the next question.
Read More What You Need to Know About Rental Assistance
I’m worried about getting evicted.
President Biden says his $1.9 trillion relief plan is paramount “to keep people in their homes rather than being thrown out in the street.”
The third stimulus package puts almost $22 billion toward emergency rental assistance . And that money can be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses. Lower income families who have been without work for at least three months are prioritized. (See the question above for more specifics and to see if you qualify.)
Moreover, President Biden extended the federal eviction moratorium through March 31 . Congress also put $25 billion toward rental assistance .
But even still, tens of millions of people owing backrent may be uprooted anyway — the country’s data on evictions is so incomplete that city and state governments now with money to give away don’t know who is at risk of eviction and homelessness or how to get the money to those people .
Most renters in this country live in private rentals, their income just above public housing thresholds or their immigration status barring them from other options, and the U.S. holds almost no data on this vast majority. In fact, according to one study, one third of U.S. counties have no idea how many people are evicted from their area each year.
And so, against the backdrop of a federal moratorium and other state moratoriums, thousands of evictions (illegal and suspect) are currently forcing people from their homes, but without a federal database, such removals cannot be tracked or halted.
President Biden has said that “housing is a right in America.” But referring to the two-month extension on the moratorium, Eva Rosen, author of “The Voucher Promise: ‘Section 8’ and the Fate of an American Neighborhood” writes : “While this temporary measure is a necessary Band-Aid on a gaping economic wound, housing is not yet a right in this country — far from it.”
If your landlord is pressuring you to leave, be sure you know your rights (they vary widely by state). Also, be sure to take a look at the National Low Income Housing ’s federal eviction moratorium lookup tool to determine if your address falls under any of the federal eviction bans. And for more information on those bans, check out these detailed explanations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which also provides this guidance for renters who need help.
Check out low or no-cost legal assistance through Legal Services Corporation’s map , as well as Just Shelter, a tenant advocacy group’s website on local organizations helping tenants in need, and Eviction Lab ’s list of local and regional actions to halt evictions. (The research team out of Princeton University has developed the first national database of evictions and is also tracking evictions in real time across five states and 19 other cities, enabling them to determine if such moratoriums are working effectively .)
Depending on where you live, you may have several avenues to pursue before you’re kicked out.
Cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles are shifting to cash assistance programs. Moreover, the California Legislature recently passed a bill extending the state’s eviction moratorium and allowing renters to apply for assistance without formal leases (you can use documents like bills and school registrations instead). California will also put as much as $2.6 billion in federal rental aid toward clearing arrears.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers unable to pay rent are now also temporarily protected under a new state law , which will halt almost all evictions for at least 60 days, even those where the leases have expired. Additionally, tenants who sign documentation saying they have been adversely affected by the pandemic can lengthen those protections until May 1.
Of course, renters aren’t the only ones suffering. Mom and Pop landlords are struggling, too — and with far fewer reprieves and little relief under New York’s recently passed law. (The law does however keep lenders from foreclosing on property owners with no more than 10 units until May 1 — again, if they are adversely affected by Covid. Even still, however, they must pay mortgage, taxes, water and heating bills.)
Although renters and small landlords may find themselves at odds against each other, they are actually in a similar predicament right now. If you find yourselves on either side of this problem, try to talk to one another — respectfully.
Tenants, let your landlord know where you’re at. If your landlord has a heart (and some actually do), they will appreciate knowing why it is you can’t pay (even if they keep pressing): let them know if you’ve lost your job or wages or have had a health or family emergency that has depleted your funds. Tell them you understand they may be struggling, too, and that you want to work out a payment plan that works for both of you.
Small landlords, approach your tenants and ask for their backstory. Why can’t they pay? Are there some fixes they may not be aware of? (Remind them about unemployment benefits and other assistance, which can help bridge the gaps.) If you’re in the position to do so, you can offer them the option of paying a reduced rent and waive part or all of the arrears or put them on a payment plan that reduces what they pay now but still requires them to pay you in full later. Or you can offer to pay them to move out by your chosen date, although depending on how you file the paperwork, they may have difficulty finding another place.
You can, of course, bring a case against your tenant, which will damage their credit (and future building owners can sue them anyway, even if you turn the other cheek), but David Skaller, a litigator and partner at the Manhattan law firm Belkin Burden Goldman, says that by holding off, you can actually strengthen your argument. Suggest the credit-ruining, burdensome court process as your final resort and try to broker a payment plan instead. (While New York’s legislation delays evictions, it does not cancel back rent, so for renters it’s nice to get ahead of it as much as they can, and for landlords some money in the pocket is still better than none.)
The pandemic has not caused housing instability — but it’s made it far worse . Even before the pandemic, about 11 million households — or a quarter of all renters in the U.S. — were spending more than half of their total income on housing. Meanwhile, overcrowding ticked up. Now, renters across the country already owed $53 billion in arrears, utilities and late fees as of January, according to data collected by Moody’s Analytics, which considers all delinquent renters.
For families falling behind and noting increasing concern about hitting next month’s rent, that often means curbing groceries and other necessities just to pay the bills.
Oftentimes, to offset housing costs, families are moving in together, squeezing into too-small spaces, while taking on the added risk of infection by enlarging their household capacity. (Additionally, studies show such living arrangements create additional problems within the household, including diminished long-term health and education achievement — further exacerbating the socio-economic and racial disparities that this pandemic has brought burbling to the surface.)
The good news is that there may be more help on the way. President Biden campaigned on a platform of universal housing vouchers which could provide stable housing to many more Americans — although as the current voucher system works, where landlords often decline to accept the vouchers anyway, many who receive help can’t use it and those who do use it often end up in neighborhoods segregated by race. The system would have to be overhauled first.
Conor Dougherty is a Times reporter who covers housing and business. “Housing should be an investment in people,” he said in an edited interview . “It shouldn’t be an investment in structure. When we think of housing as a necessity, we think about shelter in the way we think about food, but when we think of it as an investment, we lose sight of its role in health care and in family security. We would do well to start asking ourselves more frequently, ‘What is the point of having a home?’ To live in it.”
Read More How to Prevent My Own Eviction
Does this affect how I should file my taxes this coming year?
A few things to keep in mind when filing taxes for 2020:
For qualification purposes, you may report earnings from 2019 on the questions about earned-income tax credit as well as on the refundable portion of the child tax credit. (This may help you maintain eligibility if you lost your job or have had your work hours reduced.)
If you didn’t get one or both stimulus payments because of an income discrepancy that mistakenly disqualified you or because you are married to an undocumented immigrant, then you can retroactively claim it on your 2020 tax return, and it will come back as a refundable tax credit. (Learn how to claim the recovery rebate credit here .)
If you deferred making payroll tax payments the last few months, you will have to make them — but you have all of 2021 to do so.
And remember, if you can, this is the year to give: Under the CARES Act , taxpayers can deduct up to $300 in cash without even itemizing your income tax return. And if $300 doesn’t seem like a lot, then go ahead and give it away — and take the tax deduction to boot!
Now, for those who filed early and are looking ahead to 2021, a Senate aid has confirmed that for purposes of calculating all those tax credits for added benefits — the child and dependent care , child and earned-income tax credits — next year, you can still use your 2019 income if it was higher than 2021. And a few permanent changes: If you would be eligble except for your lack of a Social Security number, then you still qualify for the childless household credit. Additionally, taxpayers won’t be disqualified for the credit in 2021 until their investment income hits $10,000, up from $3,650. (The $10,000 threshold is indexed to inflation.)
Read More I'm Filing My Taxes and Need Some Guidance
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
Employers have to provide a safe workplace with policies that protect everyone equally. And if one of your co-workers tests positive for the coronavirus, the C.D.C. has said that employers should tell their employees — without giving you the sick employee’s name — that they may have been exposed to the virus.
Read More A Hub for Help During the Coronavirus Crisis
I don’t have health insurance. Help?
We’ll start with the good news. Buying insurance through the federal program called COBRA will be a lot cheaper — for a little while. Often, recently unemployed people are faced with the option of keeping the insurance they had while employed — only if they can shell out large wads of money to keep it. Under COBRA, someone may have to pay even more than the full cost of the premium: at least 102 percent of it. But now, if you’ve lost your job or had your hours cut, the government will cover the entire cost of your premium from April 1 through Sept. 30.
And since private health insurance companies will receive government funds to cover recently laid-off workers, as well as those who buy their own coverage, several million more people are anticipated to gain private insurance coverage.
However, the bill won’t help everybody. If you qualified for new, employer-based health insurance elsewhere before Sept. 30, you will no longer be eligible for that no-cost coverage. And if you left your job voluntarily, as many working mothers have, you won’t be eligible, either.
If you find yourself once again on newly shaky ground, you’re not alone. More American workers lost their health insurance because of job loss in a three-month stretch at the pandemic’s start than ever before over an entire year — about 5.4 million people from February to May 2020, according to one study by the nonpartisan consumer advocacy group Families USA. And that estimate grows when you take family members into consideration: In early May 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation expected that almost 27 million people could become uninsured. And even more people may lose their health insurance as companies lay off workers and cut benefits.
If you’ve lost your job (and with it your health insurance), or if you have not yet signed up for a policy, you may still apply through the marketplace through May 15, 2021. Spend some real time on the website, however, as not all policies are equal or even particularly helpful. That said, if you were to be hospitalized for Covid-19 in the United States, the resulting bills would be nearly insurmountable without insurance. (And check out these options if you lost your work-based insurance.)
Also, if you've lost wages and already have a marketplace plan, be sure to log back into the system (even if it's passed open enrollment) and adjust your income for the chance to receive greater subsidies. The third stimulus package also puts $34 billion toward expanding subsidies for the Affordable Care Act for two years. These changes would make upper-middle-income Americans newly eligible to receive aid in purchasing through the marketplaces, while also upping the subsidies provided to lower-income enrollees.
Navigating the complex web of alternatives and figuring out how to qualify can be a challenge. Here's more on the various coverage options .)
And if you have a job and a workplace plan, you may be able to change your plan , or add additional family members even outside an open enrollment period. (The Internal Revenue Service has changed its policy, so ask your employer if it’s providing this option.)
No matter what, right now, it’s more important than ever to have health insurance — not only for your own personal safety, but for the safety of others as well. (After all, if you don’t have health insurance, the thought of that big bill could keep you from going to the doctor even when you really need medical attention.)
Read More What About Health Insurance?
What about my 401(k)?
Normally, we'd say, "No, don't dip into your 401(k)," — because that money will grow and can serve you well in the long run.
But these are unprecedented times, and if there was ever a rainy season when you may find yourself without sufficient rainy day savings, this is probably it. Now, if you are experiencing pandemic-related financial problems, the CARES Act temporarily allows you to withdraw up to $100,000 from any tax-deferred account — that's your 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) and traditional individual retirement accounts — without any penalties.
Yep, even if you're too young (the typical age requirement is 59½), you won't face that 10 percent penalty. And while income taxes are typically due on withdrawals the same year you take the money, you can now pay it back or put the money back over three years. (The CARES Act also makes it easier to get loans from your 401(k) plan, although most employers won’t loan you the money if you aren't still working for them anyway.)
If you need some cash quickly, you're certainly not alone. More than 2.1 million Americans have so far taken money from their retirement plans at the five largest 401(k) plan administrators — Fidelity, Empower Retirement, Vanguard, Alight Solutions and Principal. Of course, that number only makes up about 5 percent of those companies's eligible 401(k) and 403(b) clients — certainly higher than typical years, but still not as high as you might expect: many of those most in need of the money (like the lower-paid workers disproportionately hit by pandemic-related job loss) don't even have such an account to raid. Only about half of American households have money in 401(k) plans or individual retirement accounts, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Of course, just because fewer penalties accompany such withdrawals, doesn't mean you should do it without careful consideration. To refurbish the difference down the road, you may have to save aggressively in the future, and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we really don't know what's ahead or what will be possible to make up in the future.
Let's consider a typical withdrawer (based on a Vanguard analysis): Anna, a 43-year-old earning $62,000 takes out $10,400. That $10,000 would have likely more than doubled to about $25,000 over the next 24 years. So to make up the difference, Anna would need to up her savings rates one percentage point a year. Your ability to later replenish your retirement savings will of course depend on how much longer you're able to work and how much you'll be earning in that time — as well as how much you had to take in the first place.
Read More What to do with Your 401(K) — Let's Consider Your Options
Should I be putting money in a mattress?
Generally, that's not a very good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense.
But you may want to think about having enough cash to cover basic needs if you’re retired. One financial planner recommended that retirees set aside enough cash for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
Should I refinance my mortgage?
There are real savings to be had by doing so. Refinancing your mortgage allows you to renegotiate for a better loan at a lower interest rate — saving money in both the short and long term. It will also allow you to liquidate the equity in your house, negotiating a line of credit to put cash in your pocket during these tough times. (But remember, that means you'll be paying for your house again, so it's a quick short-term solution that could make things more difficult down the line.)
Mortgage rates have never been lower , with rates on a 30-year fixed mortgage at a 50-year low, dipping below 3 percent. (But with home owning suddenly more affordable, refinancing requests have pushed mortgage applications to some of the highest levels since the housing bubble burst of 2008, so be prepared to get in line.)
If you qualify, then refinancing a mortgage at the national median home price (about $285,000) would save you more than $100 a month in payments. (That's about $50,000 over the course of the loan.) Of course, in more expensive coastal areas, you could save a whole lot more.
When considering your refinancing options, it's all about what you're looking to get out of the refinancing deal.
If you want to reduce your monthly payment: You can refinance into a different 30-year loan with a lower rate. However, you may end up paying more interest over time. (Consider making extra payments toward the loan principal to shorten the term, if you can.)
If you want to be mortgage-free sooner: Shorten the term to 15 or 20 years, which could lead to both savings on interest and more budget flexibility in retirement.
If you don't plan to move any time soon: Switching from an adjustable to a fixed-rate mortgage could help you save long term (because these rates probably won't get much lower).
You should only consider refinancing if you plan to be in the home long enough to get your closing costs back. Do the math:
Total costs ÷ Monthly savings = Total number of months to recover savings
(Note: If you're shortening the mortgage length, then don't use this formula and use a refinance break-even calculator instead.)
Now, before you apply, remember:
1. Check your credit reports (at all three credit rating companies) for any potential inaccuracies.
2. Be careful about your credit standing. (For instance, opening a new credit card could affect your score.)
3. With both requests and defaults on the rise, lenders are getting picky, tightening standards. So while average rates are at record lows, some borrowers are actually ending up paying more or don't qualify at all. (That means those who are self-employed or have a fluctuating income are likely to be at a disadvantage.)
Consider using digital systems that check your assets and salary. Be sure to scan and upload your documents, so you have quick access to them and don't lose anything. You can also consider requesting a virtual appraisal. Then to preserve your lender relationship and fast-track the refinancing process, follow these six simple steps (and, yep, they apply to most relationships):
1. Eventually, you have to stop swiping: Yes, you may find an even better rate somewhere out there, but while you're searching, you could miss that great deal right in front of you.
2. Communication is key: Don't let voice mails or emails (even those that wind up in spam) go unanswered. If you value the lender relationship, then show them by providing what they ask for promptly. Otherwise, you could lose your spot to someone else who seems more interested (and actually calls them back).
3. Be a sharer: Over-document your backstory. Explain income gaps (like parental leaves and vacations) with hospital bills, baby pictures, a note from your employer, etc. And do it before they ask.
4. Explain the red flags: Don't assume that the person appraising your house knows your neighborhood. Brainstorm with your lender or mortgage broker about the red flags that could affect your valuation, and make copies of comps that your appraiser could miss. Also, if you remodeled, be sure to show off before and after pictures that you slide into a single folder with those comps.
5. Don't mess up a good thing once you have it: Don't open up any new credit cards, auto loans etc. Lenders often double-check the credit report: you don't want to set off alarm bells. Extra questions could slow down the process.
6. Mistakes will be made — make sure you can prove it's not your fault: Things may drag on long past that lock period that keeps your interest rate the same no matter market changes for a set period of time (sometimes 90 days or longer). You're not going to be in that honeymoon stage forever: there's more time for you to make a mistake. If it's your fault, you could get stuck with extra charge fees or a raised interest rate. (And those mistakes can be costly!) At the start, get your lender to agree in writing to extending the rate lock if it's their fault. And then make sure it's never your fault. Keep a record of text messages, email time-stamps and phone logs. Make a spreadsheet and include screenshots, so if there's a question you can prove your innocence quickly.
Read More Is Now the Time to Refinance Your Mortgage?
What about sick leave?
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act required some businesses to give employees paid sick leave. It also expanded family and medical leave. But all that expired at the end of 2020 .
If you didn't use your sick leave, your employer may still provide it — but that's completely up to them. (What you were previously entitled to can be found right here .) That said, the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 provides businesses with an incentive to continue providing such paid leave, by extending employer tax credits (a full reimbursement) for the voluntary benefit until March 31, 2021. So if you ask your employer for the leave, be sure to let them know that it could help you both. Employers should consult the I.R.S. with questions about these tax refunds. And here's a good place to start .
And if you are self-employed , there's good news! You can also still claim your tax credit for a given number of sick days or time taken off (only for certain reasons) to care for children or family members. And you can take that time through March 2021. Additionally, you may compute your credit using either your 2019 or 2020 income — whichever helps you most.
Read More What About Paid Leave in 2021?
How do I get a new job right now?
This is going to be a slog.
And if you've been laid off , you may feel particularly disinclined to muck around in it. You'll likely need to start looking, but you also need to take care of your mental health surrounding the job loss. (For many of us, work is about more than money, although money is obviously a pretty big part of it.)
1. Go ahead and grieve that lost job — even a job you didn't particularly enjoy at the time. You may now be stressed financially, stressed because you feel as though your identity has been taken from you, stressed because you can't see what comes next — maybe all of the above. If you have the luxury of taking some time before jumping right back in, then do that. But for most people looking to get a job as quickly as possible, it's going to be about giving yourself that daily grace in all parts of your life, and maybe especially in your job search.
2. Feel the feelings: Don't dwell on them but also don't wall them off. “Think of your emotions as data, as information,” suggested Laura Huang, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “Rather than blindly being led by them, interrogate them. Ask yourself why you feel shame or self-doubt. Learn from it. Use your emotions to your benefit.”
3. You are the author of your own story: It's all about framing. Don't fall into negative thinking, furthering the mental harm . About 40 percent of American workers have lost their job at least once — and that figure was from before the pandemic. So if you're telling yourself you're a loser because you lost your job during one of the worst crises in American history, by that methodology, practically half the American work force were already epic losers who couldn't even keep a job in the "normal" times. You see where I'm going with this, I hope. (We're not all losers.)
You are likely just as competent as your colleagues that are still employed. It feels personal, but it probably isn't. This time, it's not them, it's not you, it's just this crazy pandemic that is strangling everything and everyone.
4. So, control the narrative: When the chips are down, people tend to believe the worst in themselves — and in others. When talking about losing your job, be sure you use the right words. If you were "laid off" because your company wasn't doing well, that's very different than being "fired" for cause. Don't give yourself or others the wrong impression (even subconsciously) about what happened.
5. In the meantime, find something else that fulfills you and can carry you through the hard times. Reorganize the house, start reading through that pile of magazines in the corner, try your hand at writing that short story you've always imagined.
6. When you do start looking for a job, value your time as much as your employer should have done. Sure you have some extra time on your hands, but use it to your advantage — don't waste it, says Latesha Byrd, a career and executive coach. Scrolling through listings and spewing out generic applications isn't going to tell employers who you are and it's not going to get you a job. Plus, you're already worn a little thin, no need to waste whatever energy you're currently running on. You could better spend that time creating a personal website, bolstering your social media presence or reaching out to folks you already know in your field of interest.
7. Its all about harnessing clarity, confidence and control, says Ms. Byrd. Think critically about your skills, values and passions and determine how those fit into a job and workplace. Then, pep yourself up by focusing on what you bring to the table (as well as your past accomplishments). Oh, and lose the self-doubt. (As my mother would say: it doesn't become you.) To the extent you can, exert control over what's in your power: Don't turn your application in right before deadline, don't be late for that Zoom interview, etc. And show people how to see you (by presenting yourself that way): Write a witty cover letter, or if you're good on social media, pull that into your application. (But just to be super clear: we're not suggesting you pull an Elle Woods and put your résumé on scented paper.)
8. If you don't have to, don't jump at the first job just because it was offered to you . (We know, this is a priviledged perspective, and if you have to take the job, then by all means take it.) But this is particularly important if you're looking at a job you'd like to stay in for a while (especially if it's within the industry you're trying to make your career): be sure that you weigh the pros of a quick fix compared to the long term. If, for instance, you accept a lower salary, you'll have a hard time pulling yourself up later.
And no matter what, be clear with the potential employer about what you want out of the job. Maybe with the kids at home, you're not looking for a vertical move and while your résumé shows you could do more you actually prefer to do less. (Don't say that exactly, warns opinion writer Roxane Gay), but let them know what you want and why you feel you're best for a supporting role. Or, if you want that vertical position, then by all means, raise that hand.
9. But, also manage your expectations. Finding a job is going to be greatly dependent on the industry you're looking to (re)join, as well as the risks you're willing to assume and how far down the ladder (within or between industries) you're willing to fall. Lots of industries are laying off people for the foreseeable future, while others are hiring in droves.
As of January, the economy had 9.1 million fewer jobs than a year earlier. That 6.1 percent shortfall is consistent with a severe recession . (Even excluding the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sectors , which account for 3.6 million of the total lost jobs, employment is down 3.7 percent, even then consistent with a moderate recession.) These numbers signal a stalling economy (even a reversal in some industries), with segments of the economy that aren't directly hit by the pandemic still feeling those effects.
After five months of slowed hiring, in December 2020, employers sliced payrolls by 140,000 (the first dip since mass layoffs last spring), according to data from the Labor Department. And the losses were felt disproportionately among low-wage workers, often Black and Latina women. And by the end of the year, nearly four million Americans were experiencing long-term unemployment , being without a job for more than six months. Of course, the true problem is much larger than four million Americans, because that number vastly undercounts the people who are without work but not currently looking. (It's a dark world out there and can be overwhelming just to start, not to mention all the added stressors of teaching the kids from home.)
And even after that, close to a million unemployment claims were filed each week for several weeks in January .
Plus, some industries which shed workers for safety reasons at the start of the pandemic, have turned to automated services instead, meaning the jobs aren't there when the workers return for them.
No matter who you are, or what you were doing before, you’re probably going to need to be flexible.
Taking a lower-wage service job — grocery stores, pizza delivery — might also work, but you'll need to balance financial needs with health concerns, because essential workers are at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
Or if you have the skill set and are looking for a temporary job with purpose, you could follow in the footsteps of these British workers , who took temp jobs as coronavirus testers, contact-tracing callers and hospital housekeeping workers.
And a note for those who feel like their career was cut off before it even began (yes, we're looking at you, new graduates), keep in mind that people in their early 20s especially are entering a terrible job market. Manage your expectations and know that there will be time down the line to get things right.
Plus, there's lots of advice on the job search on TikTok . Check out a few, including: how to write a résumé that's not too little or too much but just right and what to do when a potential employer ghosts you .
And for all of us: the vaccine rollout is key to pulling the labor market up. The faster we all get vaccinated, the faster many of us can re-enter the work force safely. In the meantime, there's some good news: while the United States has invested much less in its work force than countries like Canada, Germany and Scandinavian countries, which spend three, six and 12 times as much (as a percentage of economic activity) on government employment, training and other labor services, the United States could finally turn that around . Imparting new skills in our workers is something that even has bipartisan support in Congress .
Read More So You Lost Your Job, Don't Spiral: You're Still Amazing — Here's a Few Reminders
OK, I have a new job. How do I start it?
Congratulations! In ordinary circumstances, starting a new job is an act of showcasing both professional expertise and social prowess. But onboarding virtually, especially during a pandemic, can feel distant and impersonal. And you may feel a little weird — even guilty — that your initial relief and excitement in getting the job has been tainted by disconnect now that you have it.
Embrace the weirdness, if you can. Expect your new colleagues to see your bedroom or home office immediately, or maybe your partner or pet lurking in the background. That’s OK. They’ll be forgiving (we hope). And remember, you can still be social: Zoom coffees are totally kosher.
Now that we've gotten that behind us, how do you prepare for the new job? Since you’ll be learning about your new role and your team through a computer screen, it’s important to give the technology you’ll be using a test run before your first day. Make sure you’re up-to-date on the company’s preferred communication tools, which may include Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other digital-collaboration products. (Just ask for a list upfront.)
Also, ask your boss and co-workers directly how they like to communicate. "You have to ask your boss, 'How do you want me to communicate with you? Do you want voice, phone, text, email and how often is good?'" said Lisa Jacobson , a career consultant.
And if none of the above applies becuase you’re starting a new in-person job, prioritize safety conversations first. It’s good to know where the company stands with pandemic safety guidelines, and it’s respectful to ask detailed questions. It’s also easier to establish your boundaries ahead of time, rather than having to wedge them into conversation a few weeks down the line.
Read More How to Start a New Job During a Pandemic
What’s going on with work visas?
President Biden has already begun dismantling some of his predecessor's "America First" immigration policies through a slew of presidential orders intended to welcome back refugees, foreign workers and asylum applicants — but the effects will not be immediate, and the president has not yet lifted the immigration ban that a federal judge halted in October.
As of the end of 2020, more than 380,000 immigrant visa applicants were awaiting their consular interview, the final step in the immigration process — and a backlog that would normally take as much as a year to go through. Of course, these are not normal times. Between former President Trump's immigration ban and staffing shortages at U.S. consulates across the globe, as well as pandemic-related logistical challenges, the backlog could weigh down the system for years.
In the first months of the pandemic, President Trump temporarily suspended new work visas and barred hundreds of thousands of foreigners from seeking employment in the United States, part of a broad effort to limit the entry of immigrants into the country. Very few people were still allowed in.
Claiming that he was trying to preserve jobs for Americans, Mr. Trump blocked visas for a wide variety of jobs, including those for computer programmers and other skilled workers who enter the country under the H-1B visa, as well as those for seasonal workers in the hospitality industry.
That temporary suspension of work visas was opposed by many businesses — including tech companies in Silicon Valley and manufacturers — whose leaders said it would block their ability to recruit workers for jobs that Americans are not willing or able to perform. Most foreign doctors willing to help an ailing America, could not even get into the country.
But in October, Judge Jeffrey S. White of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California temporarily blocked further implementation of the order , stating in part: “The proclamation completely disregards both economic reality and the pre-existing statutory framework. Furthermore, without any consideration of the impact on American firms and their business planning, the proclamation changes the scope of immigration policy in the United States.”
Despite the judge's ruling, the entry ban has continued under President Biden. In February, his senior administration officials declined to provide a timeline for lifting the ban. Until then, consulates cannot resume visa processing, and the backlog only grows. The State Department’s own assessments of consular operations suggest they won't be able to handle the overflow. And staff shortages, hiring limits and a budget shortfall will only perpetuate the problem. Additionally, the new administration has still not determined how to adjudicate visas in places with high Covid-19 case counts. Plus, the immigration process still includes in-person interviews in which the applicant's body language and word choice is analyzed to assess potential risks to national security.
U.S. consulates typically issue about 500,000 immigrant visas each year — most to spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. But even just concentrating on the tiny subset of people still now immigrating into the U.S., State Department data shows that the processing time is a third the rate as before the pandemic. Now losing out on massive visa processing fees, State Department officials expected a loss of $1.4 billion in 2020, with continued losses through at least 2022. And staffing shortages couldn't be immediately fixed, even with federal funding aimed at doing so.
If you are looking to get your own visa processed or to help a friend or family member with the process, you should reach out to an immigration lawyer and your employer to determine potential legal recourse. Some lawyers are working on such cases for free.
Read More On Dismantling President Trump’s ‘America First’ Immigration Agenda
Is flying safe?
A plane is a different beast, but just like everywhere else, you should be masking up and distancing to the extent it’s possible.
The days of few people on planes are becoming a fantasy of the past, with a record number of people back in the air in January — meaning your risk is going up. According to a study by scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “When a plane exceeds 60 percent load factors (percent of seats occupied), it is no longer possible to rely on physical distancing alone to mitigate the risk of virus transmission.”
It might not seem like a big deal, but having that middle seat open is still a really good idea. After the pandemic hit, three of the four biggest airlines in the country — American, Delta and Southwest — vowed to block the sale of middle seats to provide more social distancing in the air. (United Airlines was the sole holdout.) American Airlines and Southwest have since brought back the middle seat, but Delta is keeping them empty through March 30, 2021.
And homemade masks, bandanas, neck gaiters, etc. are not enough. You should wear a surgical- or medical-grade mask at the airport and on the plane, said David Freedman, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (He also suggested that airlines provide these to travelers.) And take the mask off only when you absolutely have to.
Ideally, airlines should serve food at staggered times to ensure people aren’t demasking all at once. But, regardless, you can take some protective measures yourself: Wait until your neighbor is finished eating before cracking into your peanuts. (And be sure to sanitize before, too.)
If this is starting to sound like a hassle — it is. But there is some good news: The air in the plane cabin is filtered quite well thanks to high-efficiency particulate air filters on board, which traps air particles inside. And although viruses like Covid-19 are smaller than the filters, they still often cluster on larger droplets of trapped moisture.
Plus, air circulation is better on a plane than in your apartment or office building, with most planes recycling a quarter to almost one-third of cabin air. That recycled air passes through HEPA filters, trapping virus particles, while the rest of the air is evacuated overboard every few minutes, meaning you’re breathing in new cabin air every two to five minutes, depending on plane size. (Of note: when a plane is grounded, the air circulation may be significantly less, so researchers urge airlines to use the airplane auxiliary power unit even when not in flight to increase filtration.)
Now, ideally, you won’t have to go to the bathroom on the plane. (Even in non-pandemic times that's always the hope.) Remember " toilet plume ?” (If you’re eating, put your fork down for this one.) Since Covid-19 can be found in human waste, flushing can release those particles in the air. So, if you do have to go, be sure not to touch any surfaces (that’s what toilet tissue is for, anyway) … and wait at least 30 seconds after the last passenger has left the bathroom. And wash up after!
All this goes to say that despite some risk, with good air filtration, masking up and social distancing, you’re not that likely to catch Covid-19 while coasting at 10,000 feet. (But it’s hard to put a number on it, according to epidemiologists and aviation experts, because people aren’t tested just as soon as they deboard.)
And planes definitely aren’t Covid-proof (you’re only as protected as you and your fellow passengers are compliant with Covid-courtesy, and that’s not always even enough). An 18-hour flight from Dubai to Auckland, New Zealand, in September lead to an outbreak . A study has tracked a chain of infection from one passenger to four others during that flight.
And, of course, there’s more to flying than the actual flying part — there’s also boarding and deplaning, not to mention the time you’re spending in the airport. Keep space between passengers when boarding the plane and when putting up and pulling down your carry-on luggage. After all the extra precautions, there’s no need to put everyone at risk just to get off the plane a few minutes sooner. And, of course, be sure to keep your mask on at all times.
Read More What You Need to Know About Flying Right Now
Can I travel within the United States?
It's really better not to. In general, travel increases your chance of getting and spreading the virus, as you are bound to encounter more people than if you remained at home. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19," the C.D.C. says.
But if you must leave, be sure you're up on the latest restrictions at home — and wherever you're going. Many states have travel restrictions, and lots of them are taking active measures to enforce those restrictions, like issuing fines or asking visitors to quarantine. The patchwork of policies can be confusing, so here’s a regularly updated list of changing statewide restrictions . (And be sure to keep an eye out in the days leading up to the trip and until you're back home, so you don't get caught in the crosshairs.)
If you're working at the office (same for kids back in the classroom), you should also reach out to your employer to determine their travel guidelines, if you're not already familiar. (They could be more restrictive.) You may be able to use paid sick leave for post-travel quarantine. But also check your eligibility for two weeks of paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (although that is best used if you actually get sick). Thirteen states and Washington, D.C. , have laws requiring paid sick leave for eligible employees, but check to be sure quarantine qualifies for paid leave under the applicable law. If you're not able to take time off afterward, you might want to reconsider taking that trip.
If you can, drive. If you have to fly, be careful about picking your airline . But know that airlines are taking real steps to keep planes clean and limit your risk. (And see the question above for information on flight capacity to help determine which airline you choose.)
And no matter where you go within the United States, the C.D.C. now requires you to wear a mask — punishable by “criminal penalties,” according to an 11-page order issued by the agency in February. The rule applies to all transportation hubs, which the C.D.C. defines to include any: “airport, bus terminal, marina, seaport or other port, subway station, terminal, train station, U.S. port of entry or any other location that provides transportation.” Transit operators are charged with enforcing the national mask-wearing mandate, which a spokesperson for the C.D.C. said in reality is a largely voluntary measure.
Getting tested before and after travel is always a good idea — and some states require it. Check out the Department of Health and Human Services's list of testing sites in each state . (And be sure to scroll up to our questions on quarantining and getting tested: "What are my chances of getting sick? ", "If I am exposed to the virus, do I need to quarantine? What if I've done something high-risk for exposure like flying or participating in a protest?" and " How do I get tested? How long do tests take to come back?")
You may soon need a negative Covid-19 test to board any domestic flight, anyway, says Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg . (Since January, the C.D.C. has required international travelers coming into the U.S. to come bearing negative results. The upped precautions are a result of concerns about more contagious variants of the virus coming in from countries including Britain and South Africa. And those concerns have merit: B.1.1.7, which was first found in Britain, is spreading rapidly through the United States, according to a recent study.)
If someone gets Covid-19 while traveling, you're going to be stressed, so the more you have planned in advance the better. Would you be able to extend reservations, change transportation, etc.? There is talk that airlines may extend flexible cancellation policies at least until the industry recovers to 2019 levels. (And the industry group Airlines for America doesn’t think that will happen before 2023 or 2024.) But, of course, even now, check with your airline and be sure to check that fine print.
Read More Taking a Trip? Be Ready to Quarantine
I’m American. Where am I allowed to travel?
That depends on where you want to go — the American passport doesn't carry the privilege of times of old .
Many countries around the world, including the United States, have imposed travel restrictions to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Airport closures, the suspension of all incoming and outgoing flights, and nationwide lockdowns are just some of the measures countries have adopted in an effort to help contain the pandemic. (Even domestic travel has its snags. (See the question above for more tips for traveling through the U.S.)
Many countries, including much of Europe, still remain off-limits to American visitors because of the high rate of coronavirus within the United States. Even so, more than six dozen others have started to welcome U.S. citizens. We consistently update this list of international destinations that allow U.S. citizens to enter , though there are some restrictions.
To determine the coronavirus risk in a particular country, visit the C.D.C. website for a four-tier ranking system providing some guidance, along with information on entry requirements and restrictions detailed by country. And go to the U.S. Department of Transportation website for recommendations for safer and smoother air travel.
Down the road, you may need a vaccine passport , or digital documentation proving that you have been vaccinated or have tested negative for Covid-19. Such documentation would be useful to getting things back to normal, with participation allowed at certain larger events or for entry into other countries, based on proof of inoculation. This wouldn't be the first time that such documentation was required for travel. (Think of the vaccine requirements for yellow fever, rubella and cholera.) Plus, if you've traveled internationally since the pandemic, you may have already had to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test — many countries are requiring proof ahead of entry , so this would make that process a whole lot easier. And lots of work is being done to make sure such universally accepted documents are accessible to the masses while still protecting your privacy.
But if you really want to get away, remember that by curbing your travel now you can get back out into the world (without a mask!) that much sooner, if you'll just keep your suitcases tucked away a bit longer. Consider instead making a quick escape with this virtual trip around the world, traveling to this year's " 52 Places to Love in 2021 ." Sail along the Arctic Circle , watch the sunrise on a mountain high above href="https://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2021/travel-places-to-visit-vacation/ladakh.html">Ladakh , hike the colorful rock formations of Kaliya Dhrow , shop in the art villages of Haiti and relax in the steaming Japanese bathhouses of Hokkaido — all the while exploring the beauty of the world through the memories of our very own readers, without ever leaving home.
Read More Should I Travel this Year?
Flights to some tourist destinations are cheap. But is it ethical?
Questions about the morality of traveling are not new. For years, people have raised concerns about climate change and traveling to countries with oppressive governments . Certain travel activities, like riding elephants , also raise eyebrows.
But with the temptation of cheap flights , the pandemic has put the morality of traveling in a whole new context. On the one hand, the economies of many vacation destinations often depend on tourism. Around the world, those in the industry have been similarly hit by travel restrictions , with workers now both worrying about their health if they go to work as well as how to continue supporting their families if they don't.
On the flip side, many countries have weak health systems, and traveling there could put the people who live there in grave danger. When cruisers were shut out of much of the Caribbean this spring and took safe harbor in the U.S. Virgin Islands , one of the only places to accept them, locals worried that their infinitesimal health care structure would be overwhelmed, as their case numbers began to creep up.
As with everything these days, assess the risks and be extra careful about safety guidelines — and if you're American, be sure to check out the question above to make sure, before you book that trip, that you're even allowed inside the country once you get there.
Read More Reopenings Mark a New Phase: Global ‘Trial-and-Error’ Played Out in Lives
What are other strategies for getting away?
Even domestic travel is hard right now: Some states have imposed travel restrictions on out-of-town folks, and the list changes every day. Although driving restrictions aren't generally as tight as they were in the early months of the pandemic, the day before you go, you should still check restrictions (no matter your method of travel). And it may be less stressful to just stay close to home for now.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. You could buy or rent a van or a boat . (Both industries are booming.) Or go on a solitary hike in the country. Some national parks may be crowded, but you could take a road trip to an alternative destination . Nature can be healing, especially these days.
Read More Life on the Road in Pandemic America
My trip was canceled. How do I get a refund?
The refund game has changed a lot over the past year — and often in your favor. (Just be sure to check the fine print.)
If your flight is canceled, you're entitled to a refund, period. (Although if you booked with an agency , it may be more complicated.) Other travelers hoping to rebook have taken vouchers for trips at future dates, but if you want a refund, here's how to get it:
1. Send a few emails to establish a paper trail. Be polite, understanding and as specific as possible, while remaining firm.
2. Sometimes the social team is more helpful than customer service, so try Twitter and Instagram, too. (You can send direct messages or kindly flood them with comments.)
3. If that doesn't work, file a complaint with the Department of Transportation , including documentation of your failed correspondence. Then let the company know you filed a complaint. (The department's policy may entitle you to a cash refund.)
From January to October 2020, the 11 largest airlines in the U.S. gave out $11.75 billion in cash refunds — an 86 percent year-over-year increase — according to the industry group, Airlines for America. And airlines may even extend flexible cancellation policies at least until the industry recovers to 2019 levels. ( Airlines for America doesn’t think that will happen before 2023 or 2024.)
As for cruises, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted the no-sail order in October, but most cruise companies have yet to take up sail. So unless you planned way ahead (or were very optimistic), you're probably not still canceling cruises. However, if you need to cancel and did not purchase directly through the cruiseline, remember, that some charter companies have made commitments to other companies and may be stuck.
For other services, like an Airbnb, you may be able to simply move the dates and keep the trip — for a safer date in the near future, of course.
Sarah Firshein, a travel writer for The Times, has been writing helpful columns on how to get your refund. Are you having a hard time getting a refund from a … Travel company? Hotel? Tour? Airline? Anything? If you’re stuck, shoot us a note: [email protected].
Read More Who Owes You a Refund? Should You Even Ask?
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Environmental Impact: Concept, Consequences, Measurement ☆
Environments on Earth are always changing, and living systems evolve within them. For most of their history, human beings did the same. But in the last two centuries, humans have become the planet’s dominant species, changing and often degrading Earth’s environments and living systems, including human cultures, in unprecedented ways. Contemporary worldviews that have severed ancient connections between people and the environments that shaped us – plus our consumption and population growth – deepened this degradation. Understanding, measuring, and managing today’s human environmental impacts – the most important consequence of which is the impoverishment of living systems – is humanity’s greatest challenge for the 21st century.
One Species’ Impact
All organisms change their environment as they live, grow, and reproduce. Over millennia, organisms evolve to contend with changes in their environment. Those that do not adapt go extinct. Those that survive are molded by natural selection as the environment changes. Even unusual or seemingly catastrophic events, like volcanic eruptions, are an integral part of the ecological contexts to which organisms adapt over long time spans.
Some organisms, like beavers and elephants, change their surroundings so much that they have been called ecosystem engineers. Beaver dams alter the flow of rivers, increase dissolved oxygen in downstream waters, create wetlands, and modify streamside zones. African elephants convert wooded savanna to open grassland by toppling trees as they browse. In evolutionary terms, changes like these brought about by living things, including ecosystem engineers, have been slow and incremental. Ecosystem engineers and their effects have long been part of evolving ecological systems.
People, in contrast, have become ecosystem engineers on a whole new scale in time and space. Human effects since the Industrial Revolution – including many that may be invisible to a casual observer – are recent and outside the evolutionary experience of most organisms. Moreover, such effects unfold faster and on a scale far greater than any effects of past ecosystem engineers. As a result, over the past two centuries – barely more than two human lifetimes – humans have disrupted living and nonliving systems everywhere. Understanding the nature and consequences of humans’ environmental impacts – and managing these impacts to protect the well-being of human society and other life on Earth – is humanity’s greatest challenge.
Human Environmental Impact Through Time
The human evolutionary line began in Africa about 7 million years ago (Ma). It took some 5 or 6 million years (My) for protohumans to spread from Africa to Asia and then to Europe. These early humans, like other primates, made their living by seeking food and shelter from their environment, gathering plant foods, and hunting easy-to-kill prey. Sometimes they also experienced threats from their environment, including accidents, droughts, vector-borne diseases, and attacks from predators. At this stage, with relatively low population densities and limited technologies, humans were not ecosystem engineers.
By some 50,000 years ago, however, humans had learned to use fire and to cook their food; they had developed complex tools, weapons, and language and created art. On local scales, these modern humans were very much ecosystem engineers. Sometimes their enhanced abilities to make a living outstripped their local environment’s capacity to provide that living, and they disrupted local ecological systems. On several continents, for example, humans hunted large mammals to the point where many, such as the marsupial lion of Australia, went extinct. As humans became more efficient at exploiting their local environments, they spread farther. By 13,000 years ago, modern humans had spread to all continents and many islands across the globe. Then, about 10,000 years ago, people began to domesticate plants and animals. Instead of searching for food, they began to produce food.
Food production changed the course of human and environmental history. Domestication of plants and animals enabled people to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. As detailed by geographer and ecologist Diamond, 1997 , Diamond, 2002 , populations grew as agriculture developed, because larger sedentary populations both demanded and enabled more food production. Local ecological disruptions became more numerous and widespread and more intense. With animal domestication, contagious diseases of pets and livestock adapted to new, human hosts. Diseases spread more quickly in crowded conditions; inadequate sanitation compounded the effects. From agriculture, civilization followed and, with it, cities, writing, advanced technology, and political empires. In just 10,000 years, these developments led to some 7.5 billion people on Earth, industrial societies, and a global economy founded on complicated technologies and fossil fuels. Humans have emerged as ecosystem engineers on a global scale. The ecological disruptions we cause are no longer just local or regional but global, and we have become the principal threat to the environment.
Yet despite today’s advanced technologies, people depend as much on their environments as other organisms do. History, not just ecology, has been very clear on this point. From the Old Kingdom of Egypt more than 4000 years ago to the culture that created the huge stone monoliths on Easter Island between AD 1000 and 1550 to the 1930s Dust Bowl on the Great Plains of North America, civilizations or ways of life have prospered and failed by using and (mostly unwittingly) abusing natural resources.
In Old Kingdom Egypt, the resource was the valley of the Nile, richly fertilized with sediment at each river flooding, laced with canals and side streams, blessed with a luxuriant delta. Agriculture flourished and populations swelled, until unusually severe droughts brought on the civilization’s collapse. On Easter Island, the resource was trees, which gave Polynesians colonizing the island the means to build shelter, canoes for fishing the open waters around the island, and log rollers for moving the ceremonial stone monuments the island is famous for. Deforestation not only eliminated the people’s source of wood, but also further deprived the already poor soil of nutrients and made it impossible to sustain the agriculture that had sustained the island’s civilization. On the dry Great Plains of North America, settlers were convinced that rain would follow the plow, and so they plowed homestead after homestead, only to watch their homesteads’ soils literally blow away in the wind.
In these cases and many others, human civilizations damaged their environments, and their actions also worsened the effects on their civilizations of climatic or other natural cycles. In each case, short-term success compromised a culture’s long-term stability: The culture of Old Kingdom Egypt enabled its people to prosper on the Nile’s natural bounty, but prolonged, unprecedented drought brought starvation and political disorder. Easter Islanders thrived and populated the island until its resources were exhausted. Dust Bowl farmers lived out their culture’s view of dominating and exploiting land to the fullest. The inevitable outcome in all three cases was a catastrophe for the immediate environment and the people it supported – not only because the people were unprepared to cope with dramatic natural changes in their environments but because their own actions magnified the disastrous effects of those changes.
In the 21st century, humans are ecosystem engineers on a planetwide scale, threatening the life-sustaining capacity of all of Earth’s environmental “spheres”:
- • Geosphere (lithosphere): Earth’s crust and upper mantle, containing nonrenewable fossil fuels, minerals, and nutrients that plants require . The activities of plants, animals, and microorganisms weather mineral soils and rocks, create organic soils, and alter erosion and sedimentation rates. People mine minerals, metals, and gems; extract fossil fuels including coal, oil, and natural gas; and increase erosion and sedimentation by removing or altering natural plant cover through agriculture, logging, and urbanization.
- • Atmosphere: the thin envelope of gases encircling the planet . Living systems modify the atmosphere, its temperature, and the amount of water it contains by continually generating oxygen and consuming carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and by affecting the amount and forms of other gases. People release toxic chemicals into the air and alter the climate by raising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, through industrialized agriculture; deforestation; and the burning of fossil fuels in motor vehicles, ships, trains, planes, and power plants.
- • Hydrosphere: Earth’s atmospheric water vapor; its liquid surface and underground water; its mountain snow and glaciers; and its polar ice caps, oceanic icebergs, and terrestrial permafrost . Living systems alter the water cycle by modifying the Earth’s temperature and the amount of water plants send into the atmosphere through a process called evapotranspiration. People build dams, irrigation canals, drinking-water delivery systems, and wastewater treatment plants. They use water to generate electricity; they mine groundwater from dwindling underground aquifers for farming as well as drinking; they alter the flows of surface waters for everything from transportation to flood control; they drain wetlands to gain land area and abate waterborne diseases; they even inject vast quantities of water underground to extract natural gas, contaminating groundwater and triggering earthquakes. Moreover, modern humans’ effects on global climate are disrupting the entire planetary water cycle.
- • Biosphere: the totality of life on Earth, the parts of the world where life exists . Life emerged on Earth 3.9 billion years ago and has sustained itself through changes in form, diversity, and detail since then. No planet yet discovered supports complex life as we know it on Earth. As predators, people have decimated or eliminated wild animal populations worldwide. As domesticators of animals and plants, people have massively reshaped landscapes by cutting forests, burning and plowing grasslands, building cities, desertifying vast areas, and overharvesting fish and shellfish. Human actions have precipitated a spasm of extinctions that today rivals five previous mass extinctions set off by astronomical or geological forces, each of which eliminated more than 70% of species then existing.
People themselves may be thought of as a sphere within the greater biosphere: the ethnosphere , or the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. Observes anthropologist Davis (2009, p. 2) , who coined and defined the term in 2002, just as the greater biosphere is being severely eroded, so too is the ethnosphere, and at a much faster pace.
Today, the scientific consensus is that, for the first time in Earth’s history, one species – Homo sapiens – rivals astronomical and geological forces in its impact on life on Earth. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
The first step in dealing with the present impact of human activity is to correctly identify the nature of humanity’s relationship with the environment and how human actions affect that relationship. Many people still see the environment as something people must overcome, or they regard environmental needs as something that ought to be balanced against human needs (eg, jobs vs. the environment). Most people still regard the environment as a provider of commodities or a receptacle for waste.
When asked to name humanity’s primary environmental problems, people typically think of running out of nonrenewable raw materials and energy or about water and air pollution. Environmental research and development institutions focus on ways technology can help solve each problem, such as fuel cells to supply clean, potentially renewable energy or scrubbers to curb smokestack pollution. Even when people worry about biodiversity loss, they are concerned primarily with stopping the extinction of species, rather than with understanding the underlying losses leading up to species extinctions or the broader biological crisis that extinctions signal.
These perspectives miss a crucial point: the reason pollution, energy use, extinction, and dozens of other human impacts matter is their impact on life. Ecosystems, particularly their living components, have always provided the capital to fuel human economies. When populations were small, humans making a living from nature’s wealth caused no more disruption than other species. But with upward of 7.5 billion people occupying or using resources from every place on Earth, humans are overwhelming the ability of other life-forms to make a living and depleting the planet’s natural wealth. One species is compromising Earth’s ability to support the living systems that evolved on the planet over millions of years. The systematic reduction in Earth’s capacity to support life – which Woodwell (1990) termed biotic impoverishment – is thus the most important human-caused environmental impact. At best, the ethics of this impact are questionable; at worst, it is jeopardizing our own survival.
The connection between biotic impoverishment and extinction is intuitively obvious. By overharvesting fish, overcutting forests, overgrazing grasslands, or paving over land for cities, we are clearly killing other organisms outright or eliminating their habitats, thereby driving species to extinction and impoverishing the diversity of life. But biotic impoverishment takes many forms besides extinction. It encompasses three categories of human impacts on the biosphere: (1) indirect depletion of living systems through alterations in physical and chemical environments, (2) direct depletion of nonhuman life, and (3) direct degradation of human life ( Table 1 ; Karr and Chu, 1995 ). Identifying and understanding the biological significance of our actions – their effects on living systems, including our own social and economic systems – are the keys to developing effective ways to manage our impacts.
The many faces of biotic impoverishment a
Indirect Biotic Depletion
People affect virtually all the physical and chemical systems life depends on: water, soils, air, and the biogeochemical cycles linking them. Some human-driven physical and chemical changes have no repercussions on the biota; others do, becoming agents of biotic impoverishment.
Degradation of water
People probably spend more energy, money, and time trying to control the movement and availability of water than to manage any other natural resource. In the process, we contaminate water, move water across and out of natural basins, deplete surface and groundwater; modify the timing and amount of flow in rivers, straighten or build dikes to constrain rivers, and alter natural flood patterns. We change the amount, timing, and chemistry of fresh water reaching coastal regions, and we dry up wetlands, lakes, and inland seas. Our demands are outrunning supplies of this nonrenewable resource, and the scale of our transformations risks altering the planetary water cycle.
Physical alterations of the Earth’s waters, combined with massive industrial, agricultural, and residential pollution, have taken a heavy toll on aquatic life. By 2015 almost one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs had been destroyed, more than a third were under threat, and less than half were relatively healthy. Globally, the number of oceanic dead zones, where little or no dissolved oxygen exists, tripled during the last 30 years of the 20th century. The biota of freshwater systems has fared no better. A 4-year survey of the freshwater fishes inhabiting Malaysian rivers in the late 1980s found only 46% of 266 known Malaysian species. Some 40% of North America’s freshwater fishes are at risk of extinction; two-thirds of freshwater mussels and crayfishes and one-third of amphibians that depend on aquatic habitats in the United States are rare or imperiled.
Humans use at least 54% of the Earth’s accessible water runoff, a figure that is likely to grow to 70% by 2025. By then, more than a third of the world’s population could suffer shortages of fresh water for drinking and irrigation. Groundwater aquifers in many of the world’s most important crop-producing regions are being drained faster than they can be replenished: a study published in 2010 found that the rate of groundwater depletion worldwide had more than doubled from 1960 to 2000. Natural flood regimes, as in the Nile River basin, no longer spread nutrient-rich silt across floodplains to nourish agriculture. Indeed, the High Dam at Aswan traps so much silt behind it that the Nile delta, essential to Egypt’s present-day economy, is sinking into the Mediterranean. Whole inland seas, such as the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, are drying up because the streams feeding them contain so little water. In addition to eliminating habitat for resident organisms, the sea’s drying is bringing diseases to surrounding human populations. Indeed, diseases caused by waterborne pathogens are making a comeback even in industrialized nations.
In the past five or six decades, the number of large dams on the world’s rivers grew more than seven times, to more than 40,000 today. The mammoth Three Gorges Dam across China’s Yangtze River, completed in 2006, created a 660-km-long serpentine lake behind it. The dam displaced more than 1 million people and may force the relocation of another 4 million from the reservoir region, which, at 58,000 km 2 , is larger than Switzerland. The dam has greatly altered ecosystems on the Yangtze’s middle reaches, compounding perils already faced by prized and endemic fishes and aquatic mammals. The sheer weight of the water and silt behind the concrete dam raises the risk of landslides and strains the region’s geological structure, while water released from the dam eats away at downstream banks and scours the bottom. And by slowing the flow of the Yangtze and nearby tributaries, the dam blocks the river’s ability to flush out and detoxify pollutants from upstream industries.
Hardly just dirt, soil is a living system that makes it possible for raw elements from air, water, and bedrock to be physically and chemically assembled, disassembled, and reassembled with the aid of living macro- and microorganisms into life above ground. Accumulated over thousands of years, soil cannot be renewed in any time frame useful to humans alive today, or even to their great-grandchildren.
Humans degrade soils when they compact it, erode it, disrupt its organic and inorganic structure, raise its salinity, and cause desertification. Urbanization, logging, mining, overgrazing, alterations in soil moisture, air pollution, fires, chemical pollution, and leaching out of minerals all damage or destroy soils. Thanks to removal of vegetative cover, mining, agriculture, and other activities, the world’s topsoils are eroded by wind and water ten to hundreds of times faster than they are renewed (at roughly 10 t ha −1 year −1 ).
Soils constitute the foundation of human agriculture, yet agriculture, including livestock raising, is the worst culprit in degrading soils. Agricultural practices have eroded or degraded more than 40% of present cropland. Over the last half century, some 24,000 villages in northern and western China have been overrun by the drifting sands of desertification. Besides topsoil erosion, the damage includes salting and saturation of poorly managed irrigated lands; compaction by heavy machinery and the hooves of livestock; and pollution from excessive fertilizers, animal wastes, and pesticides.
Living, dead, and decomposing organic matter is the key to soil structure and fertility. Soil depleted of organic matter is less permeable to water and air and thus less able to support either aboveground plants or soil organisms. The linkages between soil’s inorganic components and the soil biota – naturalist Wilson’s (1987) “little things that run the world” – are what give soil its life-sustaining capacity. Echoing Wilson, Montgomery and Biklé (2016, p. 88 ) make it abundantly clear in The Hidden Half of Nature that “soil fertility springs from biology – all of the interactions between fungi, plants, and other soil organisms,” most of them invisible. Clear-cut logging, for example, which destroys the soil biota – especially the close associations among fungi and plant roots – unleashes a whole series of impoverishing biotic effects both below and above ground.
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring alerted the world to the pervasiveness of synthetic chemicals produced since World War II. As many as 100,000 synthetic chemicals are in use today. True to one company’s slogan, many of these have brought “better living through chemistry,” providing new fabrics and lighter manufacturing materials, antibiotics, and life-saving drugs.
But industrial nations have carelessly pumped chemicals into every medium. Chemicals – as varied as pesticides, heavy metals, prescription drugs flowing out of sewage plants, and cancer-causing by-products of countless manufacturing processes – now lace the world’s water, soil, and air and the bodies of all living things, including people. Chemicals directly poison organisms; they accumulate in physical surroundings and are passed through and, in many cases, concentrated within portions of the food web. Chemicals cause cancer, interfere with hormonal systems, provoke asthma, and impair the functioning of immune systems. They have intergenerational effects, such as intellectual impairment in children whose mothers have eaten contaminated fish. What’s more, over half a century of pesticide and antibiotic overuse has bred resistance to these chemicals among insects, plants, and microbes, giving rise to new and reemerging illnesses.
Many chemicals travel oceanic and atmospheric currents to sites far from their source. Sulfur emissions from the US Midwest, for example, fall to earth again as acid rain in Europe, killing forests and so acidifying streams and lakes that they, too, effectively die. China’s burning of soft coal sends air pollution all the way to northwestern North America; the heavy haze hanging over China’s chief farming regions may be cutting agricultural production by a third. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), once widely used as refrigerants, have damaged the atmospheric ozone layer, which moderates how much ultraviolet radiation reaches the Earth, and opened ozone holes over the Arctic and Antarctic.
Even more alarming is an unprecedented acidification of the oceans that has only recently attracted the attention of major scientific research consortiums. Acid added to the world ocean by human activity has lowered the ocean’s pH; it is lower now than it has been in 20 My, which translates into a 30% increase in sea-surface acidity since industrialization began. The future of marine life looks bleak in an ocean acidifying at this speed and intensity. As the concentration of hydrogen ions rises, calcium carbonate begins to dissolve out of the shells or skeletons of organisms such as tropical corals, microscopic foraminifera, and mollusks. Further, as hydrogen ions combine with the calcium carbonate building blocks the organisms need, it becomes harder for them to extract this compound from the water and build shells in the first place.
Although many of the most obviously deadly chemicals were banned in the 1970s, they continue to impoverish the biota. Polychlorinated biphenyls – stable, nonflammable compounds once used in electrical transformers and many other industrial and household applications – remain in the environment for long periods, cycling among air, water, and soils and persisting in the food web. They are found, far from their sources, in polar bears and arctic villagers; they are implicated in reproductive disorders, particularly in such animals as marine mammals, whose long lives, thick fat layers where chemicals concentrate, and position as top predators make them especially vulnerable.
The agricultural pesticide DDT, sprayed with abandon in the 1940s and 1950s, even directly on children, had severely thinned wild birds’ eggshells by the time it was banned in the United States. Populations of birds such as the brown pelican and bald eagle had dropped precipitously by the 1970s, although they have recovered enough for the species to be taken off the US endangered species list (the bald eagle in 2007 and the brown pelican in 2009). Reproduction of central California populations of the California condor, in contrast, continues to be threatened by DDT breakdown products, which, decades after the pesticide was banned, are still found in the sea lion carcasses the birds sometimes feed on.
Carson’s book revealed the real danger of chemical pollutants: they have not simply perturbed the chemistry of water, soil, and air but harmed the biota as well. The list of chemicals’ effects on living things is so long that chemical pollution equals humans’ environmental impact in most people’s minds, but it is only one form of biotic impoverishment.
Altered biogeochemical cycles
All the substances found in living things – such as water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur – cycle through ecosystems in biogeochemical cycles. Human activities modify or have the potential to modify all these cycles. Sometimes the results stem from changing the amount or the precise chemistry of the cycled substance; in other cases, humans change biogeochemical cycles by changing the biota itself.
Freshwater use, dams, and other engineering ventures affect the amount and rate of river flow to the oceans and increase evaporation rates, directly affecting the water cycle and indirectly impoverishing aquatic life. Direct human modifications of living systems also alter the water cycle. In South Africa, European settlers supplemented the treeless native scrub, or fynbos, with trees like pines and Australian acacias from similar Mediterranean climates. But because these trees are larger and thirstier than the native scrub, regional water tables have fallen sharply.
Human activity has disrupted the global nitrogen cycle by greatly increasing the amount of nitrogen fixed from the atmosphere (combined into compounds usable by living things). The increase comes mostly from deliberate addition of nitrogen to soils as fertilizer but also as a by-product of the burning of fossil fuels. Agriculture, livestock raising, and residential yard maintenance chronically add tons of excess nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, to soils and water.
The additions are often invisible; their biological impacts are often dramatic. Increased nutrients in coastal waters, for example, trigger blooms of toxic dinoflagellates – the algae that cause red tides, fish kills, and tumors and other diseases in varied sea creatures. When huge blooms of algae die, they fall to the seafloor, where their decomposition robs the water of oxygen so that fishes and other marine organisms can no longer live there. With nitrogen concentrations in the Mississippi River two to three times as high as they were 50-plus years ago, a gigantic dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. In summer 2010 this dead zone covered 20,000 km 2 , and every year thereafter it has been more than twice the target size set by the scientists who have studied this phenomenon for the past 30 years.
The burning of fossil fuels is transforming the carbon cycle, primarily by raising the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. With other greenhouse gases, such as methane and oxides of nitrogen, carbon dioxide helps keep Earth’s surface at a livable temperature and drives plant photosynthesis. But since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen nearly 40% and are now disrupting the planet’s climate. In addition, the effects of catastrophic oil spills like the one that followed the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico – and the effects of the chemicals used to disperse the resulting plumes of oil – have reverberated for decades.
Global climate change
In its 2014 report, written and reviewed by more than 3800 scientists from the world’s 195 countries, the typically cautious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) stated, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” Reflecting worldwide scientific consensus, the report says, “Human influence on the climate system is clear,” and recent human-caused “emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history” (p. 2). “The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.” Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are the highest they have been “in at least the last 800,000 years,” and their effects are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of observed global warming” (p. 4). The 20th century in the Northern Hemisphere was the warmest of the past millennium. All but 1 of the first 15 years of the 21st century were globally the warmest in history, and 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded.
Higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, and higher global temperatures set in motion a whole series of effects. Where other nutrients are not limiting, rising carbon dioxide concentrations may enhance plant photosynthesis and growth. With higher temperatures, spring arrives one or more weeks earlier in the Northern Hemisphere. Rising temperatures are shifting the ranges of many plants and animals – both wild and domestic – potentially rearranging the composition and distribution of the world’s biomes, as well as those of agricultural systems. The resulting displacements will have far-reaching implications not only for the displaced plants and animals but also for the goods and services people depend on from these living systems.
In addition, as shown in a study by Gleckler et al . (2016) , the amount of heat energy absorbed by the oceans since 1865 – a total of about 300 ZJ, or 300×10 21 J – doubled in just the 18 years from 1997 to 2015. Moreover, polar glaciers and ice sheets are receding. The Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and arctic sea ice melted at a near-record pace in 2010. With the sun heating newly open waters, winter refreezing takes longer, and the resulting thinner ice melts more easily the following summer. Rising global sea levels already threaten low-lying island nations. Large-scale circulation of global air masses is also changing and, with it, large-scale cycles in ocean currents, including the periodic warming and cooling in the tropical Pacific Ocean known as El Niño and La Niña, respectively.
All these shifts are affecting the distribution, timing, and amount of rain and snow, making the weather seem more unpredictable than ever. Unusually warm or cold winters, massive hurricanes like those that devastated the US Gulf Coast in 2005, severe droughts and flooding, and weather-related damage to human life and property are all predicted to increase with global climate change. In fact, according to a 2015 report from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (affiliated with the World Health Organization), the frequency of climate-related events from 2000 to 2014 increased by 44% in comparison with the two decades from 1994 through 2013, even while the frequency of geophysical disasters remained broadly constant. Worldwide damage due to natural disasters from 1994 through 2013 – of which more than two-thirds stemmed from floods, storms, and other climate-related events – totaled at least $2.6 trillion.
Direct Depletion of Nonhuman Life
From their beginnings as hunter-gatherers, humans have become highly efficient, machine-aided ecosystem engineers and predators. We transform the land so it produces what we need or want; we harvest the oceans in addition to reaping our own fields; we cover the land, even agricultural land, with sprawling cities. All these activities directly affect the ability of other life-forms to survive and reproduce. We deplete nonhuman life by eliminating some forms and favoring others; the result is a loss of genetic, population, species, and higher-order taxonomic diversity.
We are irreversibly homogenizing life on Earth, in effect exercising an unnatural selection that is erasing the diversity generated by millions of years of evolution by natural selection. One species is now determining which other species will survive, reproduce, and thereby contribute the raw material for future evolution.
Overharvest of renewable resources
In the 1930s, so many sardines were harvested from the waters off Monterey’s Cannery Row in California that the population collapsed, taking other sea creatures and people’s livelihoods with it. After rebounding somewhat in the first decade of the 2000s, the species has still not recovered fully. According to the US National Marine Fisheries Service, nearly 80% of commercially valuable fishes of known status were overfished or fished to their full potential by 1993. Atlantic commercial fish species at their lowest levels in history include tuna, marlin, cod, and swordfish. Overfishing not only depletes target species but restructures entire marine food webs.
Marine mammals, including whales, seals, sea lions, manatees, and sea otters, were so badly depleted by human hunters that one species, Steller’s sea cow, went extinct; many other species almost disappeared. In the 19th century, Russian fur traders wiped out sea otters along the central California coast. With the otters gone, their principal prey, purple sea urchins, overran the offshore forests of giant kelp, decimating the kelp fronds and the habitat they provided for countless other marine creatures, including commercially harvested fishes. Thanks to five decades of protection, marine mammal populations were slowly recovering – only to face food shortages as regional marine food webs unravel because of fishing, changing oceanic conditions, and contamination.
Timber harvest has stripped land of vegetation, from the Amazonian rainforest to mountainsides on all continents, diminishing and fragmenting habitat for innumerable forest and stream organisms, eroding soils, worsening floods, and contributing significantly to global carbon dioxide emissions. In the Northern Hemisphere, 10% or less remains of old-growth temperate rainforests. The uniform stands of trees usually replanted after logging do not replace the diversity lost with native forest, any more than monocultures of corn replace the diversity within native tallgrass prairies.
Habitat fragmentation and destruction
A great deal of human ecosystem engineering not only alters or damages the habitats of other living things but also often destroys those habitats. Satellite-mounted remote-sensing instruments have revealed transformations of terrestrial landscapes on a scale unimaginable in centuries past. Together, cropland and pastures occupy 40% of Earth’s land surface. Estimates of the share of land wholly transformed or degraded by humans hover around 50%. Our roads, farms, cities, feedlots, and ranches either fragment or destroy the habitats of most large carnivorous mammals. Mining and oil drilling damage soil, remove vegetation, and pollute freshwater and marine areas. Grazing compacts soil and sends silt and manure into streams, where they harm stream life.
Landscapes that have not been entirely converted to human use have been cut into fragments. In Song of the Dodo , writer Quammen (1996) likens our actions to starting with a fine Persian carpet and then slicing it neatly into 36 equal pieces; even if we had the same square footage, we would not have 36 nice Persian rugs – only ragged, nonfunctional fragments. And in fact, we do not even have the original square footage because we have destroyed an enormous fraction of it.
Such habitat destruction is not limited to terrestrial environments. Human channelization of rivers may remove whole segments of riverbed. In the Kissimmee River of the US state of Florida, for example, channelization in the 1960s transformed 165 km of free-flowing river into 90 km of canal, effectively removing 35 km of river channel and drastically altering the orphaned river meanders left behind.
Wetlands worldwide continue to disappear, drained to create shoreline communities for people and filled to increase cropland. The lower 48 United States lost 53% of their wetlands between the 1700s and mid-1980s. Such losses destroy major fish and shellfish nurseries, natural flood and pollution control, and habitat for countless plants and animals.
The mosaic of habitats in, on, or near the seafloor – home to 98% of all marine species – is also being decimated. Like clear-cutting of an old-growth forest, the use of large, heavy trawls dragged along the sea bottom to catch groundfish and other species flattens and simplifies complex, structured habitats such as gravels, coral reefs, crevices, and boulders and drastically reduces biodiversity. Studies reported on by the National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences have shown that a single tow can injure or destroy upward of two-thirds of certain bottom-dwelling species, which may still not have recovered after a year or more of no trawling.
Habitat fragmentation and destruction, whether on land or in freshwater and marine environments, may lead directly to extinction or isolate organisms in ways that make them extremely vulnerable to natural disturbances, climate change, or further human disturbance.
“The one process ongoing…that will take millions of years to correct,” Wilson (1994, p. 355) admonishes us, “is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.” Both deliberately and inadvertently, humans are rearranging Earth’s living components, reducing diversity and homogenizing biotas around the world. The present continuing loss of genetic diversity, of populations, and of species vastly exceeds background rates. At the same time, our global economy is transporting species worldwide at unprecedented scales.
The globe is now experiencing its sixth mass extinction, the largest since the dinosaurs vanished 65 Ma; present extinction rates are thought to be on the order of 100–1000 times those before people dominated Earth. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) , a 5-year project begun in 2001 to assess the world’s ecosystems, an estimated 10–15% of the world’s species will be committed to extinction by 2035. Approximately 20% of all vertebrates, including 33% of sharks and rays, are at risk of extinction.
At least one of every eight plant species is also threatened with extinction. Although mammals and birds typically receive the most attention, massive extinctions of plants, which form the basis of the biosphere’s food webs, undermine life-support foundations. Mutualistic relationships between animals and plants, particularly evident in tropical forests, mean that extinctions in one group have cascading effects in other groups. Plants reliant on animals for pollination or seed dispersal, for example, are themselves threatened by the extinction of animal species they depend on. Not surprisingly, some scientists view extinction as the worst biological tragedy, but extinction is just another symptom of global biotic impoverishment.
Ever since they began to spread over the globe, people have transported other organisms with them, sometimes for food, sometimes for esthetic reasons, and most often accidentally. With the mobility of modern societies and today’s especially speedy globalization of trade, the introduction of alien species has reached epidemic proportions, causing some scientists to label it biological pollution. Aliens are everywhere: in North America, zebra mussels and tamarisks, or saltcedar; in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea sea jelly and the common aquarium alga Caulerpa taxifolia ; and in the Black Sea, Leidy’s comb jelly of northeastern America, to name just a few.
The costs of such invasions, in both economic and ecological terms, are high. In the United States, for example, annual economic losses due to damage by invasive species or the costs of controlling them exceed $137 billion per year – $40 billion more than the nation’s losses from weather-related damage in 2005, when massive Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Usually, aliens thrive and spread at the expense of native species, often causing extinctions. On many islands, more than half the plant species are not native, and in many continental areas the figure reaches 20% or more. Introduced species are fast catching up with habitat fragmentation and destruction as the major engines of ecological deterioration.
In addition, people have been modifying their crop plants and domesticated animals for 10,000 years or so – selecting seeds or individuals and breeding and cross-breeding them. The goal was something better, bigger, tastier, hardier, or all of the above. Success was sometimes elusive, but crop and livestock homogenization resulted, as did a loss of biodiversity among plant and animal foods. Of the myriad strains of potatoes domesticated by South American cultures, for example, only one was accepted and cultivated when potatoes first reached Europe. The new crop made it possible to feed more people from an equivalent area of land and initially staved off malnutrition. But the strain succumbed to a fungal potato blight in the 1800s. Had more than one strain been cultivated, the tragic Irish potato famines might have been averted. Today, as Sethi (2015) notes in Bread, Wine, Chocolate, we not only run the risk of losing the diversity enabling crops and livestock to resist pests, drought, disease, and inexorable changes in their environment, but we also risk losing the foods we love.
Although people have been breeding organisms for thousands of years, in the last few decades of the 20th century, they began to manipulate genes directly. Using tools of molecular biotechnology, scientists have cloned sheep and cows from adult body cells. New gene-editing technologies, called gene drives, have opened the potential to transform or eliminate entire species in the wild. US farmers routinely plant their fields with corn whose genetic material incorporates a bacterial gene resistant to certain pathogens. More than 40 genetically altered crops have been approved for sale to US farmers since 1992, with genes borrowed from bacteria, viruses, and insects. The United States accounts for nearly two-thirds of biotechnology crops planted globally. Worldwide in 2013, 174 million hectares in 24 countries on six continents were planted with genetically modified crops, as compared with 1.7 million hectares in 6 countries in 1996 – a 100-fold areal expansion in less than two decades.
Biotechnologists focus on the potential of this new-millennium green revolution to feed the growing world population, which has added more than 1 billion people in the past decade alone. But other scientists worry about unknown human and ecological health risks. These concerns have stirred deep scientific and public debate, especially in Europe, akin to the debate over pesticides in Rachel Carson’s time.
One worrisome practice is plant genetic engineers’ technique of attaching the genes they want to introduce into plants to an antibiotic-resistant gene. They can then easily select plants that have acquired the desired genes by treating them with the antibiotic, which kills any nonresistant plants. Critics worry that the antibiotic-resistant genes could spread to human pathogens and worsen an already growing antibiotic-resistance problem. Another concern arises from allergies humans might have or develop in response to genetically modified foods.
Although supporters of genetic engineering believe that genetically altered crops pose few ecological risks, ecologists have raised a variety of concerns. Studies in the late 1990s indicated that pollen from genetically engineered Bt corn can kill monarch butterfly caterpillars. Bt is a strain of bacterium that has been used since the 1980s as a pesticidal spray; its genes have also been inserted directly into corn and other crops. Ecologists have long worried that genetically engineered plants could escape from fields and crossbreed with wild relatives. Studies in radishes, sorghum, canola, and sunflowers found that genes from an engineered plant could jump to wild relatives through interbreeding. The fear is that a gene conferring insect or herbicide resistance might spread through wild plants, creating invasive superweeds that could potentially lower crop yields and further disturb natural ecosystems.
In fact, herbicide-resistant turf grass tested in Oregon in 2006 did escape and spread; transgenic canola has also been appearing throughout the US state of North Dakota, which has tens of thousands of hectares in conventional and genetically modified canola. According to the scientists who discovered the transgenic escapees growing in North Dakota – far from any canola field – the plants are likely to be cross-pollinating in the wild and swapping introduced genes; the plants’ novel gene combinations indicate that the transgenic traits are stable and evolving outside of cultivation.
Genetically engineered crops do confer some economic and environmental benefits: for farmers, higher yields, lower costs, savings in management time, and gains in flexibility; for the environment, indirect benefits from using fewer pesticides and herbicides. But it is still an open question whether such benefits outweigh potential ecological risks or whether the public will embrace having genetically modified foods as dietary staples.
Direct Degradation of Human Life
Human biotic impacts are not confined to other species; human cultures themselves have suffered from the widening circles of indirect and direct effects people have imposed on the rest of nature. Over the past hundred years, human technology has worked both ways with regard to public health, for example. Wonder drugs controlled common pathogens at the same time that natural selection strengthened those pathogens’ ability to resist the drugs. Reservoirs in the tropics made water supplies more reliable for people but also created ideal environments for human parasites. Industrialization exposed society to a remarkable array of toxic substances.
Although man’s inhumanity to man has been both fact and subject of discourse for thousands of years, the discussions have mostly been removed from any environmental context. Few people today regard social ills as environmental impacts or humans as part of a biota. But diminished societal well-being – whether manifest in high death rates or poor quality of life – shares many of its roots with diminished nonhuman life as a form of biotic impoverishment.
Emerging and reemerging diseases
The intersection of the environment and human health is the core of the discipline known as environmental health. Among the environmental challenges to public health are direct effects of toxic chemicals; occupational health threats, including exposures to hazardous materials on the job; sanitation; and disposal of hazardous wastes.
Exploitation of nonrenewable natural resources – including coal mining, petroleum extraction and refining, and rock quarrying or other mining operations – often chronically impairs workers’ health and shortens their lives. Farmworkers around the world suffer long-term ills from high exposures to pesticides and herbicides. Partly because of increased air pollution, asthma rates are rising, especially in big cities. Synthetic volatile solvents are used in products from shoes to semiconductors, producing lung diseases and toxic wastes. Nuclear weapons production starting in World War II, and associated contamination, have been linked to a variety of illnesses, including syndromes neither recognized nor understood at the time and whose causes were not diagnosed until decades afterward. The grayish metal beryllium, for example, was used in weapons production and was found decades later to scar the lungs of workers and people living near toxic waste sites.
Disease has challenged people throughout history. Infectious diseases – a significant fraction of which originated in wildlife or domestic animals – have played an especially significant role in human evolution and cultural development over the past 10,000 years. “Diseases represent evolution in progress,” explains Diamond (1997) , as microbes adapt from one host to another, one transmission vector to another. Quammen (2012, p. 20) , writing in Spillover , puts it this way: “Infectious disease is a kind of natural mortar binding one creature to another…within the elaborate biophysical edifices we call ecosystems.” Advances in 20th-century medicine, particularly immunization and sanitation, brought major successes in eradicating infectious diseases such as smallpox, polio, and many waterborne illnesses. But toward the century’s end, emerging and reemerging afflictions were again reaching pandemic proportions. Infectious diseases thought to be on the wane – including tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, diphtheria, leptospirosis, encephalitis, and dengue fever – began a resurgence.
Even more troubling, seemingly new plagues – Ebola virus, hantavirus, HIV/AIDS, West Nile virus, the tick-borne bacterium causing Lyme disease, and the viruses behind chikungunya and Zika virus disease – are also spreading. Several of these come from wild animal hosts and pass to humans as people encroach further upon previously undisturbed regions. Quammen (2012) examines a number of such zoonoses – diseases arising when a pathogen leaps from a nonhuman animal to a person and sickens or kills that person – and highlights the complex connections between biodiversity and new zoonotic diseases. Biodiversity loss often increases disease transmission, as in Lyme disease and West Nile fever, but diverse ecosystems also serve as sources of pathogens. Overall, however, a number of studies since 2000 indicate that preserving intact ecosystems and their endemic biodiversity tends to hold down infection rates.
Human migrations – including their modern incarnation through air travel – also accelerate pathogen traffic and launch global pandemics, such as the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the 2009 swine flu outbreak caused by the H1N1 virus. Even something as simple and apparently benign as lighting can become an indirect agent of disease. Artificial lighting, especially in the tropics, for example, can alter human and insect behavior in ways that speed transmission of insect-borne diseases, such as Chagas’s disease, malaria, and leishmaniasis.
In addition, especially in highly developed countries, diseases attributable to affluence, overconsumption, and stress are taking a toll. Over the 20th century in the United States, observe Montgomery and Biklé (2016, p. 189) , chronic diseases that lack an infectious agent “overtook infectious diseases as the leading cause of death.” Heart disease is the States’ number one cause of death; overnutrition, obesity, and diabetes stemming from sedentary habits, particularly among children, are chronic and rising. One estimate put the share of US children considered overweight or obese at one in three. This rise in obesity rates has been stunningly rapid. As recently as 1980, just 15% of adults were obese; by 2008, 34% were obese. Two-thirds of Americans are now considered either overweight or obese. Even more startling, a new trend – unique to the United States – has emerged over the past decade. Economists Case and Deaton (2015) found rising death rates among poorly educated middle-aged white males from suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and liver diseases.
Still, note Montgomery and Biklé, of an estimated 10 30 microbes on Earth, only a few are human pathogens. In contrast, some 1 million kinds of nonpathogenic microbes live in and on our bodies, collectively forming humanity’s microbiome. Varied microbial communities inhabit every person’s skin, eyes, mouth, intestines, and so on. These communities differ as much from one another as a tropical forest differs from a desert. Our microbial allies help regulate our major physiological systems, including the immune system. Recent genetic research, which identifies specific microbes and helps reveal the roles they play, has implicated disturbances of the human microbiome in diseases ranging from infection by the bacterium Clostridium difficile to autoimmune ills such as Crohn’s disease. Perturbations of intestinal microbial communities may even influence obesity.
Loss of cultural diversity
Although not conventionally regarded as elements of biodiversity, human languages, customs, agricultural systems, technologies, and political systems have evolved out of specific regional environments. Like other organisms’ adaptive traits and behaviors, these elements of human culture constitute unique natural histories adapted, as are other natural histories, to the biogeographical context in which they arose. Yet modern technology, transportation, and trade have pushed the world into a globalized culture, thereby reducing human biological and cultural diversity.
Linguists, for example, are predicting that at least half of the 7000 languages spoken today will become extinct in the 21st century. With the spread of Euro-American culture, unique indigenous human cultures, with their knowledge of local medicines and geographically specialized economies, are disappearing even more rapidly than the natural systems that nurtured them. This loss of human biodiversity is as much a cause for concern as the loss of nonhuman biodiversity.
Reduced quality of life
The effects of environmental degradation on human quality of life are another symptom of biotic impoverishment. Food availability, which depends on environmental conditions, is a basic determinant of quality of life. Yet according to the World Health Organization, nearly half the world’s population suffers from one of two forms of poor nutrition: undernutrition or overnutrition. A big belly is now a symptom shared by malnourished children, who lack calories and protein, and overweight residents of the developed world, who suffer clogged arteries and heart disease from eating too much.
Independent of race or economic class, declining quality of life in today’s world is manifest in symptoms such as cancers in the United States caused by environmental contaminants and the high disease rates in the former Soviet Bloc after decades of unregulated pollution. Even with explicit legal requirements that industries release information on their toxic emissions, many people throughout the world still lack both the information and the decision-making power that would give them any control over the quality of their lives.
Aggrieved about the degraded environment and resulting quality of life in his homeland, Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa issued a statement shortly before he was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995, saying, “The environment is man’s first right. Without a safe environment, man cannot exist to claim other rights, be they political, social, or economic.” Kenyan Maathai (2009, p. 249) , 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has also written, “[I]f we destroy it, we will undermine our own ways of life and ultimately kill ourselves. This is why the environment needs to be at the center of domestic and international policy and practice. If it is not, we don’t stand a chance of alleviating poverty in any significant way.”
Having ignored this kind of advice for decades, nations are seeing a new kind of refugee attempting to escape environmental degradation and desperate living conditions; the number of international environmental refugees exceeded the number of political refugees around the world for the first time in 1999. Environmental refugees flee homelands devastated by flooding from dam building, extraction of mineral resources, desertification, and unjust policies of national and international institutions. Such degradation preempts many fundamental human rights, including the rights to health, livelihood, culture, privacy, and property.
People have long recognized that human activities that degrade environmental conditions threaten not only the entire biosphere but also human quality of life. As early as 4500 years ago in Mesopotamia and South Asia, writings revealed an awareness of biodiversity, of natural order among living things, and of consequences of disrupting the biosphere. Throughout history, even as civilization grew increasingly divorced from its natural underpinnings, writers, thinkers, activists, and people from all walks of life have continued to see and extol the benefits of nature to humans’ quality of life.
Contemporary society still has the chance to relearn how important the environment is to quality of life. It is encouraging that the United Steelworkers of America in 1990 released a report recognizing that protecting steelworker jobs could not be done by ignoring environmental problems and that the destruction of the environment may pose the greatest threat to their children’s future. It is also encouraging that in 2007 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a political figure and a group of scientists for their work on climate change.
Making a living from nature’s wealth has consistently opened gaps between haves and have-nots, between those who bear the brunt of environmental damage to their homeplaces and those who do not, and between the rights of people alive now and those of future generations; these disparities too are part of biotic impoverishment. Inequitable access to “man’s first right” – a healthy local environment – has come to be known as environmental injustice.
Environmental injustices, such as institutional racism, occur in industrial and nonindustrial nations. Injustice can be overt, as when land-use planners site landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste facilities in minority communities, or when environmental agencies levy fines for hazardous waste violations that are lower in minority communities than in white communities. Less overt, but no less unjust is the harm done to one community when unsound environmental practices benefit another. Clear-cut logging in the highlands of northwestern North America, for example, benefits logging communities while damaging the livelihoods of lowland fishing communities subjected to debris flows, sedimentation, and downstream flooding.
Institutional racism and environmental injustice are usually acknowledged only after the fact, if at all. For example, in the US city of Flint, Michigan, the 2010 population was more than 60% black and Latino, and the 2014 median household income was 16% less than for the state as a whole. To save money, the struggling city in 2014 switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. But instead of saving money, the corrosive new water source leached lead out of the city’s aging water pipes. Despite increasing evidence of serious health effects after the switch – including potentially lifelong brain damage among the city’s children – Michigan’s governor and other state officials for months assured citizens the water was safe. In a report issued in March 2016, an independent panel appointed by the governor stated that the facts “lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice” and that “Flint residents, who are majority black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.”
The plight of the working poor and disparities between rich and poor are themselves examples of biotic impoverishment within human society. According to the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, in 1994 the collective wealth of the world’s 358 billionaires equaled the combined income of the poorest 2.4 billion people. In 2010, Forbes Magazine put the number of billionaires at 1011, with a total worth of $3.6 trillion. By 2015, the number of billionaires had climbed to 1826, and their total worth had practically doubled, to $7.05 trillion – more than twice the gross domestic product (GDP) of Germany, Europe’s most prosperous country.
In the United States during the last decade of the 20th century, the incomes of poor and middle-class families stagnated or fell, despite a booming stock market. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute reported that between 1988 and 1998, earnings of the poorest fifth of American families rose less than 1%, while earnings of the richest fifth jumped 15%. By the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, the disparity in wealth among Americans had become the widest among industrialized nations, with the wealthiest 3% of the population holding 54% of the wealth. The wealthiest Americans continue to prosper, even during and after the global recession of 2008, while the less well-off keep losing ground.
But perhaps the grossest example of human and environmental domination leading to continued injustice is the creation of a so-called third world to supply raw materials and labor to the dominant European civilization after 1500 and the resulting schism between today’s developed and developing nations. Developing regions throughout the world held tremendous stores of natural wealth, some of it – like petroleum – having obvious monetary value in the dominant economies and some having a value invisible to those economies – like vast intact ecosystems. A 2010 United Nations study carried out under the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity Initiative estimated that even today, Earth’s ecosystems account for roughly half to 90% of the source of livelihoods for rural and forest-dwelling peoples; the study calls this value the GDP of the poor.
Dominant European civilizations unabashedly exploited this natural wealth and colonized or enslaved the people in whose homelands the wealth was found. But the dominant civilizations also exported their ways of thinking and their economic models to the developing world, not only colonizing places but also effecting what Maathai called a colonization of the mind. Although dominant 21st-century society tends to dismiss ancient wisdom as irrelevant in the modern world, perhaps the cruelest impoverishment of all is the cultural and spiritual deracination experienced by exploited peoples worldwide.
Exploitation of poor nations and their citizens by richer, consumer countries – and in many cases by the same governments that fought for independence from the colonists while adopting the colonists’ attitudes and economic models – persists today in agriculture, wild materials harvesting, and textile and other manufacturing sweatshops. In the mid-1990s, industrial countries consumed 86% of the globe’s aluminum, 81% of its paper, 80% of its iron and steel, 75% of its energy, and 61% of its meat; they are thus responsible for most of the environmental degradation associated with producing these goods. Most of the actual degradation, however, still takes place in developing nations.
As a result, continuing environmental and social injustice, perpetrated by outsiders and insiders alike, pervades developing nations. Such impoverishment can take the form of wrenching physical dislocation like the massive displacements enforced by China’s Three Gorges Dam. It can appear as environmental devastation of homelands and murder of the people who fought to keep their lands, as in the Nigerian government–backed exploitation of Ogoniland’s oil reserves by the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation. After Saro-Wiwa’s execution, the Ogoni were left, without a voice, to deal with a scarred and oil-polluted landscape.
Poverty still plagues women and children, despite great advances in the welfare of both groups over the past century. Children from impoverished communities, even in affluent nations, suffer from the lethargy and impaired physical and intellectual development known as failure to thrive. Poverty forces many children to work the land or in industrial sweatshops; lack of education prevents them from attaining their intellectual potential. This impoverishment in the lives of women and children is as much a symptom of biotic impoverishment as are deforestation, invasive alien organisms, or species extinctions.
Little by little, community-based conservation and development initiatives are being mounted by local citizens to combat this impoverishment: Witness Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, which began with tree planting to restore community landscapes and offer livelihoods for residents, and the rise of ecotourism and microlending (small loans made to individuals, especially women, to start independent businesses) as ways to bring monetary benefits directly to local people without further damaging their environments. Ultimately, one could see all efforts to protect the ethnosphere and biosphere as a fight for the rights of future generations to an environment that can support them.
Only during the last two decades of the 20th century did environmental issues find a place on international diplomatic agendas, as scholars began calling attention to – and governments began to see – irreversible connections between environmental degradation and national security. British scholar Myers (1993) , noting that environmental problems were likely to become predominant causes of conflict in the decades ahead, was one of the first to define a new concept of environmental security. National security threatened by unprecedented environmental changes irrespective of political boundaries will require unprecedented responses altogether different from military actions, he warned. Nations cannot deploy their armies to hold back advancing deserts, rising seas, or the greenhouse effect. Increasingly, governments have begun to acknowledge such threats. In just one recent example, US diplomatic, defense, and intelligence agencies have repeatedly cited climate change as an urgent and growing threat to national security.
Canadian scholar Homer-Dixon (1999) showed that environmental scarcities – whether created by ecological constraints or sociopolitical factors including growing populations, depletion of renewable resources such as fish or timber, and environmental injustice perpetrated by one segment of a population on another – were fast becoming a permanent, independent cause of civil strife and ethnic violence. He found that such scarcity was helping to drive societies into a self-reinforcing spiral of dysfunction and violence, including terrorism. Environmental and economic injustices worldwide leave no country immune to this type of threat.
Typically, diplomacy has stalled in conflicts over natural resources: arguments over water rights have more than once held up Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements; fights over fish erupted between Canada and the United States, Spain, and Portugal. In contrast, in adopting the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and industry successfully worked together to safeguard part of the environmental commons. The treaty requires signatory nations to decrease their use of CFCs and other ozone-destroying chemicals and has been, according to former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, perhaps the most successful international agreement to date.
If scientists have learned anything about the factors leading to biotic impoverishment, they have learned that the factors’ cumulative effects can take on surprising dimensions. As scholars like Fagan (1999) and Diamond (2005) have detailed, the multiple stresses of global climatic cycles such as El Niño, natural events like droughts or floods, resource depletion, and social upheaval have shaped the fates of civilizations.
Societies as far-flung as ancient Egypt, Peru, the American Southwest, and Easter Island prospered and collapsed because of unwise management of their environments. The city of Ubar, built on desert sands in what is now southern Oman, vanished into the sinkhole created by drawing too much water out of its great well. In modern Sahelian Africa, a combination of well digging and improved medical care and sanitation led to a threefold population increase. The combined effects of higher population density and a sedentary way of life exceeded local areas’ capacity to sustain people and their livestock, especially in the face of high taxes levied by colonial governments. As a result, impoverished societies took the place of nomadic cultures that had evolved and thrived within the desert’s realities.
During the first decades of the 21st century, numerous natural disasters befell nations around the world: wildfires in Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Russia, and the United States; flooding in the British Isles, China, India, Romania, and West Africa; devastating hurricanes and typhoons in the Caribbean, Philippines, Taiwan, and southeastern United States; catastrophic landslides and floods in China, Guatemala, Pakistan, and Portugal; and destructive earthquakes in Chile, China, Haiti, Indonesia, Japan, and Pakistan. Neither the rains nor the earthquakes were caused by human activity, but the cumulative effects of human land uses and management practices – from dikes separating the Mississippi from its floodplain to deforestation in Haiti – made the losses of human life and property much worse than they might have been otherwise.
Root Causes of Human Impact
The ultimate cause of humans’ massive environmental impact is our individual and collective reproductive and consumptive behavior, which has given us spectacular success as a species. But the very things that have enabled people to thrive in nearly every environment have magnified our impacts on those environments, and the technological and political steps we take to mitigate our impacts often aggravate them. Too many of us simply take too much from the natural world and ask it to absorb too much waste.
Fragmented Worldviews, Fragmented Worlds
For most of human history, people remained tied to their natural surroundings. Even as agriculture, writing, and technology advanced, barriers of geography, language, and culture kept people a diverse lot, each group depending on mostly local and regional knowledge about where and when to find resources necessary for survival. Their worldviews, and resulting economies, reflected this dependency.
For example, in northwestern North America starting about 3000 years ago, a native economy centered on the abundance of Pacific salmon. At its core was the concept of the gift and a belief system that treated all parts of the Earth – animate and inanimate – as equal members of a community. In this and other ancient gift economies, a gift was not a possession that could be owned; rather, it had to be passed on, creating a cycle of obligatory returns. Individuals or tribes gained prestige through the size of their gifts, not the amount of wealth they accumulated.
This system coevolved with the migratory habits of the salmon, which moved en masse upriver to spawn each year. Because the Indians viewed salmon and themselves as equals in a shared community, killing salmon represented a gift of food from salmon to people. Fishers were obligated to treat salmon with respect or risk losing this vital gift. The exchange of gifts between salmon and humans – food for respectful treatment – minimized waste and overharvest and ensured a continuous supply of food. Further, the perennial trading of gifts among the people effectively redistributed the wealth brought each year by fluctuating populations of migrating fish, leveling out the boom-and-bust cycles that usually accompany reliance on an uncertain resource.
In modern times, the gift economy, along with the egalitarian worldview that accompanied it, has been eclipsed by a redistributive economy tied not to an exchange of gifts with nature but to the exploitation of nature and to technologies enhancing that exploitation. Instead of viewing natural resources as joint members in a shared community, people came to view them as commodities. Natural resources fell under the heading of “land” in an economic trinity comprising three factors of production: land, labor, and capital. Land and resources, including crops, were seen as expendable or easily substitutable forms of capital whose value was determined solely by their value in the human marketplace.
In 1776 Adam Smith published his famous Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , in which he argued that society is merely the sum of its individuals, that social good is the sum of individual wants, and that the market (a so-called invisible hand) automatically guides individual behavior to common good. Crucial to his theories were division of labor and the idea that all factors of production were freely mobile. His mechanistic views created an economic rationale for no longer regarding individuals as members of a community linked by ethical, social, and ecological bonds.
About the same time, fueling and fueled by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the study of the natural world was morphing into modern physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. Before the mid-19th century, those who studied the natural world – early 19th-century German biogeographer Baron Alexander von Humboldt and his disciple Charles Darwin among them – took an integrated view of science and nature, including people. Both scientists regarded understanding the complex interdependencies among living things as the noblest and most important result of scientific inquiry.
But this integrated natural philosophy was soon supplanted by more atomistic views, which fit better with industrialization. Mass production of new machines relied on division of labor and interchangeable parts. Like automobiles on an assembly line, natural phenomena were broken down into their supposed component parts in a reductionism that has dominated science ever since. Rushing to gain in-depth, specialized knowledge, science and society lost sight of the need to tie this knowledge together. Disciplinary specialization replaced integrative scholarship.
Neoclassical economics, which arose around 1870, ushered in the economic worldview that rules today. A good’s value was no longer tied to the labor required to make it but derived instead from its scarcity. A good’s price was determined only by the interaction of supply and demand. As part of “land,” natural resources therefore became part of the human economy, rather than the material foundation making the human economy possible. Because of its doctrine of infinite substitutability, neoclassical economics rejects any limits on growth; forgotten are classical economic thinkers and contemporaries of von Humboldt, including Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill, who saw limits to growth of the human population and material well-being.
Consequently, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise to dominance of economic indicators that fostered the economic invisibility of nature – misleading society about the relevance of Earth’s living systems to human well-being. Among the worst indicators are gross national product (GNP) and its cousin, GDP. GNP measures the value of goods and services generated by a nation’s citizens or companies, regardless of their location around the globe. GDP, in contrast, measures the value of goods and services produced within a country’s borders, regardless of who or what generates those goods and services.
In effect, both GNP and GDP measure money changing hands, no matter what the money pays for; they make no distinction between what is desirable and undesirable, between costs and benefits. Both indicators ignore important aspects of the economy like unpaid work or nonmonetary contributions to human fulfillment – parenting, volunteering, checking books out of the library. Worse, the indicators also omit social and environmental costs, such as pollution, illness, or resource depletion; they only add and do not subtract. GDP math adds in the value of paid daycare or a hospital stay and ignores the value of unpaid parenting or care given at home by family or friends. It adds in the value of timber sold but fails to subtract the losses in biodiversity, watershed protection, or climate regulation when a forest is cut.
Over the past few decades, efforts have been made to create less blinkered economic indicators. Social scientists Herman Daly and John Cobb in 1989 developed an index of sustainable economic welfare, which adjusts the United States’ GNP by adding in environmental good things and subtracting environmental bad things. Public expenditures on education, for example, are weighted as “goods,” while costs of pollution cleanup, depletion of natural resources, and treating environment-related illnesses are counted as “bads.” Unlike the soaring GDP of recent decades, this index of sustainable economic welfare remained nearly unchanged over the same period.
Still other work aims to reveal nature’s worth in monetary terms by assigning dollar values to ecological goods and services. A 1997 study by ecologist David Pimentel and colleagues calculated separate values for specific biological services, such as soil formation, crop breeding, or pollination. By summing these figures, these researchers estimated the total economic benefits of biodiversity for the United States at $319 billion – 5% of US GDP at the time – and for the world at $2928 billion. A 2000 analysis by Pimentel and colleagues reported that the approximately 50,000 nonnative species in the United States cause major environmental damage and reparation costs amounting to $137 billion a year.
As part of the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, several studies translated the value of the world’s ecosystems into dollar values. One report estimated the worth of crucial ecosystem services delivered to humans by living systems at $21 trillion to $72 trillion per year – comparable to a world gross national income of $58 trillion in 2008. Another study reported that as many as 500 million people worldwide depend on coral reefs – valued between $30 billion and $172 billion a year – for fisheries, tourism, and protection from ocean storms and high waves, services threatened by warmer and more acidic seas.
Although a monetary approach does not create a comprehensive indicator of environmental condition, it certainly points out that ecological values ignored by the global economy are enormous. Consequently, several countries and a growing number of global financial institutions, such as the World Bank, have begun to include natural capital in their economic accounting systems. More than 30 countries have begun natural capital accounting using a standard methodology adopted by the UN Statistical Commission in 2012, and many financial institutions around the world have pledged to consider natural capital in private-sector accounting and decision making.
Too Many Consuming Too Much
From the appearance of H. sapiens about 200,000 years ago, it took the human population until 1804 to reach its first billion, 123 years to double to 2 billion, and 33 years to achieve 3 billion. Human population doubled again from 3 billion to 6 billion in about 40 years – before most post–World War II baby boomers reached retirement age. Even with fertility rates declining in developed countries, China, and some developing countries where women are gaining education and economic power, and with pandemics like AIDS claiming more lives, the US Census Bureau predicts that world population will reach 9 billion by 2044.
People appropriate about 40% of global plant production, 54% of Earth’s freshwater runoff, and enough of the ocean’s bounty to have depleted 63% of assessed marine fish stocks. In energy terms, one person’s food consumption amounts to 2500–3000 cal a day, about the same as that of a common dolphin. But with all the other energy and materials humans use, global per capita energy and material consumption has soared even faster than population growth over the past 50 years. Now, instead of coevolving with a natural economy, global society is consuming the foundations of that economy, impoverishing Earth’s living systems and undermining the foundations of its own existence ( Fig. 1 ; Karr, 2008 ).
Relationships among the natural, social, and economic systems on Earth. Human economies may be thought of as icing atop a two-layer cake. The economic icing is eroding the human social and natural layers beneath it, threatening the foundation and sustainability of all three systems.
Measuring Environmental Impacts
For most of the 20th century, environmental measurements, or indicators, tracked primarily two classes of information: counts of activities directed at environmental protection and the supply of products to people. Regulatory agencies are typically preoccupied with legislation, permitting, or enforcement, such as the numbers of environmental laws passed, permits issued, enforcement actions taken, or treatment plants constructed. Resource protection agencies concentrate on resource harvest and allocation. Water managers, for example, measure water quantity; they allocate water to domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses but seldom make it a priority to reserve supplies for sustaining aquatic life, to protect scenic and recreational values, or simply to maintain the water cycle. Foresters, farmers, and fishers count board-feet of timber, bushels of grain, and tons of fish harvested. Governmental and nongovernmental organizations charged with protecting biological resources keep counts of threatened and endangered species.
As in the parable of the three blind men and the elephant – each of whom thinks the elephant looks like the one body part he can touch – these or similar indicators measure only one aspect of environmental quality. Counting bureaucratic achievements focuses on activities rather than on information about real ecological status and trends. Measurements of resource supply keep track of commodity production, not necessarily a system’s capacity to continue supplying that commodity. And measuring only what we remove from natural systems – as if we were taking out the interest on a savings account – overlooks the fact that we are usually depleting principal as well.
Even biologists’ counts of threatened and endangered species, which would seem to measure biotic impoverishment directly, still focus narrowly on biological parts, not ecological wholes. Enumerating threatened and endangered species is just like counting any other commodity. It brings our attention to a system already in trouble, perhaps too late. And it subtly reinforces our view that we know which parts of the biota are most important.
Society needs to rethink its use of available environmental indicators, and it needs to develop new indicators that represent current conditions and trends in the systems humans depend on ( Table 2 ). It particularly needs objective measures more directly tied to the condition, or health, of the environment so that people can judge whether their activities are compromising that condition.
Plausible indicators of environmental quality a
Such measures should be quantitative, yet easy to understand and communicate; they should be cost-effective and applicable in many circumstances. Unlike narrow criteria tracking only administrative, commodity, or endangered species numbers, they should give reliable signals about status and trends in ecological systems. Ideally, effective indicators should describe the present condition of a place, aid in diagnosing the underlying causes of that condition, and make predictions about future trends. They should reveal not only risks from present activities but also potential benefits from alternative management decisions.
Most important, these indicators should, either singly or in combination, give information explicitly about living systems. Measurements of physical or chemical factors can sometimes act as surrogates for direct biological measurements, but only when the connection between those measures and living systems is clearly understood. Too often we make assumptions that turn out to be wrong and fail to protect living systems – for example, when water managers assume that chemically clean water equals a healthy aquatic biota. Without a full spectrum of indicators – and without coupling them to direct measures of biological condition – only a partial view of the degree of biotic impoverishment can emerge.
General Sustainability Indexes
As environmental concerns have become more urgent – and governmental and nongovernmental organizations have struggled to define and implement the concept of sustainable development – the effort has grown to create indicator systems that explicitly direct the public’s and policymakers’ attention to the value of living things. Moving well past solely economic indexes like GDP, several indexes have been developed to integrate ecological, social, and economic well-being.
The index of environmental trends for nine industrialized countries, developed by the nonprofit National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives, incorporated ratings of air, land, and water quality; chemical and waste generation; and energy use since 1970. By its 1995 rankings, environmental quality in the United States had gone down by 22% since 1970, while Denmark had declined by 11%.
In 2000, world leaders, supported by the United Nations Development Programme, defined a set of eight millennium development goals to be attained by 2015, which combine poverty, education, employment, and environmental sustainability. They include human rights and health goals – such as universal primary education, gender equality, and combating AIDS and other diseases – as well as goals to promote environmental sustainability. Since the program began, the agency reported in 2015, global poverty has been halved, with fewer than 850 million people – but 40% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa – still living in extreme poverty. By 2015, about 91% of the world’s population had access to improved drinking water sources (piped or not coming from unprotected wells, springs, or surface water), and remarkable progress had been made in fighting malaria and tuberculosis and in reducing the proportion of slum dwellers in the metropolises of the developing world. But environmental sustainability remains under severe threat, as global carbon emissions escalate, forests are felled, and fish stocks are overexploited. Nonhuman species are hurtling toward extinction faster than ever, and health and education among poor people, and gender equality everywhere, still lag.
The environmental performance index was developed and first released in 2006 by Yale and Columbia universities to complement the United Nations’ millennium development goals. It ranks how well countries do in protecting human health from environmental harm and in protecting ecosystems. The 2016 index ranks 180 countries on more than 20 performance indicators in 9 categories reflecting the twin goals of environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Environmental health is measured by such indicators as child mortality, air quality, and access to drinking water and sanitation; ecosystem vitality by metrics including trends in carbon emissions, protection of varied biotic systems, and wastewater treatment, among others. Top-performing nations for 2016 included Finland, Sweden, and Slovenia. The United States ranked 26th, having risen from 61st in 2010 but still well below much of Europe and Singapore.
A resource-accounting approach pioneered in the 1990s by geographers Wackernagel and Rees (1996) translates humans’ impact on nature, particularly resource consumption, into an ecological footprint. This accounting estimates the area required by a city, town, nation, or other human community to produce consumed resources and absorb generated wastes; it then compares the physical area occupied by that city or country with the area required to meet its needs. The 29 largest cities of Baltic Europe, for example, appropriate areas of forest, agricultural, marine, and wetland ecosystems that are at least 565–1130 times larger than the areas of the cities themselves.
According to the Global Footprint Network, national ecological footprints in 2010 ranged from a high of 10.7 ha per person for the United Arab Emirates to 0.4 ha per person for Timor-Leste and 0.6 for Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The United States’ ecological footprint – 8.0 ha per person – tied for fourth among 152 nations with populations of at least 1 million. One hundred four of these nations operate under ecological deficits; that is, their consumption exceeds the biological capacity of their lands and waters to furnish needed resources and absorb their wastes. At their present rates of consumption, these nations are therefore overexploiting either their own resources or those of other nations.
By ecological footprint accounting, raising 7.5 billion people on Earth to living standards – and thus ecological footprints – equal to those in the United States would require at least three more planets than the only one we have. Clearly, humans are consuming more resources, and discarding more waste, than Earth’s living systems can produce or absorb in a given time period. This gap is the global sustainability gap that lies before us.
Measuring the State of Living Systems
Most environmental indexes and accounting systems are still human centered; they do not measure the condition of the biota itself. We may know that biodiversity’s services are worth huge sums of money and that our hometown’s ecological footprint is much bigger than the town’s physical footprint, but how do we know whether specific activities damage living systems or that other activities benefit them? How do we know if aggregate human activity is diminishing life on Earth? To answer this question, we need measures that directly assess the condition of the biota.
Biological assessment directly measures the attributes of living systems to determine the condition of a specific landscape. The very presence of thriving living systems – sea otters and kelp forests off the central California coast; salmon, orcas, and herring in Pacific Northwest waters; monk seals in the Mediterranean Sea – says that the conditions those organisms need to survive are also present. A biota is thus the most direct and integrative indicator of local, regional, or global biological condition. Biological assessments give us a way to evaluate whether monetary valuations, sustainability indexes, and ecological footprints are telling the truth about human impact on the biota. Biological assessments permit a new level of integration because living systems, including human cultures, register the accumulated effects of all forms of degradation caused by human actions.
Direct, comprehensive biological monitoring and assessment began in the last decades of the 20th century, when Karr, 1981 , Karr, 2006 devised the index of biological integrity (IBI) to assess the health of streams in the US Midwest. Over the next three decades, indexes built on IBI’s principles were developed for other regions and other environments, including lakes, wetlands, coastal marine habitats, and terrestrial areas. IBI combines several indicators into a multimetric index, an approach it shares with economic indexes like the consumer price index or the index of leading economic indicators. Instead of prices of diverse consumer goods, however, IBI measures attributes of the flora and fauna living at a place. To date, the principles underpinning IBI have helped scientists, resource managers, and citizen volunteers understand, protect, and restore living systems in at least 70 countries worldwide.
The most widely used indexes for assessing rivers examine fishes and benthic (bottom-dwelling) invertebrates. These groups are abundant and easily sampled, and the species living in a water body represent a diversity of anatomical, ecological, and behavioral adaptations. As humans alter watersheds and waters, changes occur in taxonomic richness (biodiversity), species composition (which species are present), individual health, and feeding and reproductive relationships. The specific measurements for streams and rivers ( Table 3 ) are sensitive to a broad range of human effects in waterways, such as sedimentation, nutrient enrichment, toxic chemicals, physical habitat destruction, and altered flows. The resulting index thus combines, and reflects, responses to human activities from a whole biological community – its parts, such as species, and its processes, such as food web dynamics.
Biological attributes in two indexes of biological integrity for streams and rivers
Sampling the inhabitants of a stream tells us much about that stream and its landscape. Biological diversity is higher upstream of wastewater treatment plants than downstream, for example, whereas year-to-year variation at the same location is low ( Fig. 2 ). Biological sampling also reveals differences between urban and rural streams. For instance, samples of invertebrates from one of the best streams in rural King County, in the US state of Washington, contain 27 kinds, or taxa, of invertebrates; similar samples from an urban stream in the city of Seattle contain only 7. The rural stream has 18 taxa of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies; the urban stream, only 2 or 3. When these and other metrics are combined in an index based on invertebrates, the resulting benthic IBI (B-IBI) numerically ranks the condition, or health, of a stream ( Table 4 ).
(a) Biodiversity is higher at sites upstream of wastewater treatment outfalls than downstream. At Tickle Creek near Portland, Oregon (United States), taxa richness differed little between years but differed dramatically between sites upstream of a wastewater outfall and sites downstream. (b) Taxa richness also differed between two creeks with wastewater outfalls (Tickle and North Fork Deep) and one creek without an outfall (Foster). All three streams flowed through watersheds with similar land uses.
Biological responses to different land uses
A benthic IBI can also be used to compare sites in different regions. Areas in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park where human visitors are rare have near-maximum B-IBIs. Streams with moderate recreation taking place in their watersheds have B-IBIs that are not significantly lower than those without human presence, but places where recreation is heavy are clearly damaged. Urban streams in the nearby town of Jackson are even more degraded but not as bad as urban streams in Seattle.
Nation-specific biological assessments also can be and are being done. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, in 2006 performed a nationwide survey of stream condition using an IBI-like multimetric index. The survey found that 28% of US stream miles were in good condition in comparison with least-disturbed reference sites in their regions, 25% were in fair condition, and 42% were in poor condition (5% were not assessed). The agency has been expanding this effort to include other water resource types, including coastal waters, coral reefs, lakes, large rivers, and wetlands.
Since 2000, the Heinz Center (2008) has published two editions of its report on the state of US ecosystems, which seeks to capture a view of the large-scale patterns, conditions, and trends across the United States. The center defined and compiled a select set of indicators – specific variables tracking ecosystem extent and pattern, chemical and physical characteristics, biological components, and goods and services derived from the natural world – for six key ecosystems: coasts and oceans, farmlands, forests, fresh waters, grasslands and shrublands, and urban and suburban landscapes.
Among the many conclusions of the 2008 report were that the acreage burned every year by wildfires was increasing; nonnative fishes had invaded nearly every watershed in the lower 48 states; and chemical contaminants were found in virtually all streams and most groundwater wells, often at levels above those set to protect human health or wildlife. On the plus side, ecosystems were increasing their storage of carbon, soil quality was improving, and crop yields had grown significantly.
The massive international UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment remains the gold standard for synthesizing ecological conditions at a variety of scales. From 2001 through 2005, the project examined the full range of global ecosystems – from those relatively undisturbed, such as natural forests, to landscapes with mixed patterns of human use to ecosystems intensively managed and modified by humans, such as agricultural land and urban areas – and communicated its findings in terms of the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being.
The resulting set of reports drew attention to the many kinds of services people rely on from ecosystems, specifically, supporting services, such as photosynthesis, soil formation, and waste absorption; regulating services, such as climate and flood control and maintenance of water quality; provisioning services, such as food, wood, and nature’s pharmacopoeia; and cultural services from scientific to spiritual. In addition, the reports explicitly tied the status of diverse ecosystems and their service-providing capacity to human needs as varied as food and health, personal safety and security, and social cohesion. Even while recognizing that the human species is buffered against ecological changes by culture and technology, the reports highlighted our fundamental dependence on the flow of ecosystem services and our direct responsibility for the many faces of biotic impoverishment.
Among other findings, the assessment found that 60% of the services coming from ecosystems are being degraded, to the detriment of efforts to stem poverty, hunger, and disease among the poor everywhere. Declines are not limited to coral reefs and tropical forests, which have been on the public’s radar for some time; they are pervasive in grasslands, deserts, mountains, and other landscapes as well. A leading cause of declines in renewable natural resources is government subsidies that offer incentives to overharvest. The degradation of ecosystem services could grow worse during the first half of the 21st century, blocking achievement of the United Nations’ eight millennium development goals.
The core message embodied in ecological, especially biological, assessments is that preventing harmful environmental impacts goes beyond narrow protection of clean water or clear skies, even beyond protecting single desired species. Certain species may be valuable for commerce or sport, but these species do not exist in isolation. We cannot predict which organisms are vital for the survival of commercial species or species we want for other reasons. Failing to protect all organisms – from microbes and fungi to plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates – ignores the key contributions of these groups to healthy biotic communities. No matter how important a particular species is to people, it cannot persist outside the biological context that sustains it. Direct biological assessment objectively measures this context.
Recognizing and Managing Environmental Impacts
Every animal is alert to dangers in its environment. A microscopic protist gliding through water responds to light, temperature, and chemicals in its path, turning away at the first sign of something noxious. A bird looking for food must decide when to pursue prey and when not, because pursuit might expose it to predators. The bird might risk pursuit when hungry but not when it has young to protect. Animals that assess risks properly and adjust their behavior are more likely to survive; in nature, flawed risk assessment often means death or end of a genetic line.
People, too, are natural risk assessors. Each person chooses whether to smoke or drink, fly or go by train, drive a car or ride a motorcycle and at what speeds. Each decision is the result of a partially objective, partially subjective internal calculus that weighs benefits and risks against one another.
Risk is a combination of two factors: the numerical probability that an adverse event will occur and the consequences of the adverse event. People may not always have the right signals about these two factors, however, and may base their risk calculus on the wrong clues. City dwellers in the United States generally feel that it is safer to drive home on a Saturday night than to fly in an airplane, for example. Even though the numerical odds of an accident are much higher on the highway than in the air, people fear more the consequences of an airplane falling out of the sky.
Society also strives to reduce its collective exposure to risks. Governments routinely use military power to defend their sovereignty and, albeit more reluctantly, regulatory power to reduce workplace risks and risks associated with consumer products like cars. But people and their governments have been much less successful in defining and reducing a broad range of ecological risks, largely because they have denied that the threats are real.
Policies and plans generated by economists, technologists, engineers, and even ecologists typically assume that lost and damaged components of living systems are unimportant or can be repaired or replaced. Widespread ecological degradation has resulted directly from the failure of modern society to properly assess the ecological risks it faces. Like the fate of Old Kingdom Egypt or Easter Island, our civilization’s future depends on our ability to recognize this deficiency and correct it.
Risk assessment as formally practiced by various government agencies began as a way to evaluate the effects of toxic substances on human health, usually the effects of single substances, such as pollutants or drugs, from single sources, such as a chemical plant. During the 1990s, the focus widened to encompass mixtures of substances and also ecological risks. For example, ecological risk assessment by the US Environmental Protection Agency (1998) started by asking five questions: Is there a problem? What is the nature of the problem? What are the exposure and ecological effects? (A hazard to which no one or nothing is exposed is not considered to pose any risk.) How can we summarize and explain the problem to affected parties, both at-risk populations and those whose activities would be curtailed? How can we manage the risks?
Even though these were good questions, ecological risk management has made no visible headway in stemming biotic impoverishment. Its central failing comes from an inability to correctly answer the second question, What is the nature of the problem? Our present political, social, and economic systems simply do not give us the right signals about what is at risk. None of society’s most familiar indicators – whether GDP or number of threatened and endangered species – measure the consequences, or risks, of losing living systems.
If biotic impoverishment is the problem, then it only makes sense to direct environmental policy toward protecting the integrity of biotic systems. Integrity implies a wholeness or unimpaired condition. In present biological usage, integrity refers to the condition at sites with little or no influence from human activity; the organisms there are the products of natural evolutionary and biogeographic processes in the absence of people. Tying the concept of integrity to an evolutionary framework lays down a benchmark against which to evaluate sites that people have altered.
Directing policy toward protecting biological integrity – as called for in the United States’ Clean Water Act, Canada’s National Park Act, and the European Union’s Water Framework Directive, among others – does not, however, mean that people must cease all activity that interferes with some “pristine” Earthly biota. The demands of feeding, clothing, and housing billions of people mean that few places on Earth will maintain a biota with evolutionary and biogeographic integrity. Rather, because people depend on living systems, it is in our interest to manage our activities so they do not compromise a place’s capacity to support those activities in the future; that capacity can be called ecological health.
Ecological health describes the preferred state of sites heavily used for human purposes: cities, croplands, tree farms, water bodies stocked for fish, and the like. At these places, it is impractical to set a goal of integrity in an evolutionary sense, but we should avoid practices that damage these places or places elsewhere to the point that we can no longer receive the intended benefits indefinitely. For example, agricultural practices that leave behind saline soils, depress regional water tables, and erode fertile topsoil faster than it can be renewed destroy the land’s biological capacity for agriculture. Moreover, they can degrade places downstream and downwind – locally, regionally, and across an ocean or continent. Such practices are unhealthy in both ecological and economic terms.
Biological integrity as a policy goal redirects our focus away from maximizing goods and services for the human economy and toward ways to manage our economy within the bounds set by the natural economy. It begins to turn our attention away from questions such as, How much stress can landscapes and ecosystems absorb? to ones such as, How can responsible human actions protect and restore ecosystems? In contrast to risk assessment, striving to protect biological integrity would lead us away from technological fixes for environmental problems and toward practices that prevent ecological degradation and encourage ecological restoration.
Leopold (1949, pp. 224–225) , in A Sand County Almanac, was the first to invoke the concept of integrity in an ecological sense: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Managing for biological integrity requires the kind of ethical commitment inherent in Leopold’s words. We are called to restrain consumerism and limit population size, to embrace less-selfish attitudes toward land stewardship, and to understand that the biosphere matters. Instead of calling on human technical and spiritual wellsprings to manage resources, we have to call on them for managing human affairs.
We have to set goals and craft indicators, as the United Nations and others are doing. These goals and indicators must conform to the biophysical realities at work in the world and acknowledge humans’ propensity to put narrow self-interest above all else. We have to find and use appropriate measurements for all the factors contributing to biotic impoverishment, be they climate change, overharvesting, agriculture, or environmental injustice. Measurement of environmental impact founded on the evolutionary idea of integrity means directly assessing biotic condition and comparing that condition with what might be expected in a place with little or no human influence. We can then make an informed choice: continue with activities that degrade biotic condition or create alternatives that do not harm living systems.
Modern institutions are capable of recognizing ecological threats and responding to them in time, as they did with the Montreal Protocol. A decade after the agreement’s adoption, satellite measurements in the stratosphere indicated that ozone-depleting pollutants were in fact declining. Given this success, some policy experts have hoped the ozone treaty can also help slow global warming. Specifically, negotiators at the 2015 annual meeting of signatory parties agreed to develop an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The amendment’s goal is to phase out the production and use of industrial chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons, which have thousands of times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Even though the ozone treaty was not designed to fight climate change, policymakers say that it can and should be used to achieve broader environmental objectives.
In another hopeful move, the world’s 195 nations signed in Paris in December 2015 the most ambitious climate accord to date. The agreement commits them to taking concrete measures to cut carbon emissions and pursue efforts to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. Developed countries are to bear the brunt of mobilizing the financing to put such measures in place. The accord is widely viewed as a landmark, although the commitments are largely voluntary, and the results remain to be seen.
Reuniting the Fragments
Early in the 20th century, two sciences of “home maintenance” began to flourish: the young science of ecology (from the Greek oikos , meaning home) and a maturing neoclassical economics (also from oikos ). Ecology arose to document and understand the interactions between organisms and their living and nonliving surroundings – in essence, how organisms make a living in the natural economy. In fact, Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term in the 1860s, defined ecology in an 1870 article as the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature. Neoclassical economics, in contrast, reinforced humans’ self-appointed dominion over nature’s wealth. It brought unparalleled gains in societal welfare in some places, but it also divorced the human economy from the natural one on which it stands (see Fig. 1 ).
In his Short History of Progress , Wright (2004, p. 8) recounts tales of “progress traps” that humanity has fallen into; each time history repeats itself, he reminds us, the price goes up. By now it is clear to economists and ecologists alike that human progress has reached scales unprecedented in the history of life. We have altered Earth’s physical and chemical environments, changed the planet’s water and nutrient cycles, and perturbed its climate. We have unleashed the greatest mass extinction in 65 My and distorted the structure and function of nonhuman and human communities worldwide. In trying to make our own living, we have jeopardized Earth’s capacity to sustain other species and our own species as well. We are losing life on Earth – the bio in biosphere.
Confronted with these unprecedented losses, we need to understand – not deny – the ecological consequences of what we do. We urgently need a new craft of home maintenance, one that sees the human species’ role as ecosystem engineer for what it has become – the global agent of change. Despite uncertainty, we need to act to prevent environmental harm and to reconnect human with natural economies. By using indicators that measure what matters for sustaining living systems, we can make nature visible again and shed new light on the value of the ancient heritage we share with the larger biosphere. We can reunite the fragments of our worldview and re-create ethical, social, and ecological bonds that were put aside two centuries ago in the name of progress. And we can reengineer our own social, political, and economic institutions instead of ecosystems. This we must do – now – before we impoverish the biosphere and risk our own survival for all time.
Ellen W. Chu is an ecologist and science editor in Port Townsend, WA, United States. She taught scientific writing at MIT, was editor-in-chief of Bioscience , and worked for the University of Washington and the US Government Accountability Office on natural resource and health policy.
James R. Karr is an ecologist and professor emeritus, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States. He also taught at Purdue, Illinois, and Virginia Tech and was deputy director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. His work has centered on tropical ecology, ornithology, water resource ecology, and environmental policy.
☆ Change History : January 2016. E.W. Chu and J.R. Karr edited entire article, including Abstract and Glossary; updated the Sections “Human and Environmental Impact Through Time,” “Degradation of Water,” “Soil Depletion,” “Altered Biogeochemical Cycles,” “Global Climate Change,” “Biotic Homogenization,” “Genetic Engineering,” “Emerging and Reemerging Diseases,” “Environmental Injustice,” “Political Instability,” “Fragmented Worldviews, Fragmented Worlds,” “General Sustainability Indexes,” “Measuring the State of Living Systems,” “Recognizing and Managing Environmental Impacts,” and “References”, and added list of “Relevant Websites.”
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Appendix D: Recommendations
The Philippines’ Dilemma: How to Manage Tensions in the South China Sea
The maritime dispute between China and the Philippines is simmering against the backdrop of strategic competition between Beijing and Washington. To keep tensions below boiling point, Manila should push for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as well as greater regional cooperation.
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What’s new? Five years after President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China, tensions between Manila and Beijing are rising again in the South China Sea, compounded by increasing Sino-U.S. competition. The maritime disputes with China and other claimant states persist with little prospect for resolution.
Why does it matter? Armed conflict directly involving the Philippines is unlikely. But there is growing potential for incidents at sea to escalate . Despite President Duterte’s China-friendly stance, Manila continues to struggle with Beijing’s continuous efforts to assert sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
What should be done? The Philippines should push for a substantive and effective Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China, while continuing to pursue bilateral talks with Beijing on maritime disputes. Manila should also try to boost regional cooperation on issues of common concern, such as fisheries management and law enforcement.
The Philippines is a key player in the South China Sea territorial disputes, which are getting sharper due to China’s growing assertiveness and the claimant states’ competition over resources. Rather than appealing to international law as a bulwark against China’s claims, President Rodrigo Duterte has instead pursued a more pragmatic approach that avoids confronting China in the hope of reaping economic benefits. But five years on, it appears that his pivot may not have entirely paid off. The simmering maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing is increasingly linked to geopolitical competition between China, on one hand, and the U.S. and its allies, on the other. Given the growing risk of escalatory incidents at sea, Manila should push for a substantive and effective Code of Conduct between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to manage maritime tensions while keeping open a diplomatic channel with Beijing to reduce misunderstandings. It should also strive to foster regional cooperation, for example on the question of fisheries management.
Eager to loosen ties with the U.S. and broaden his strategic options, Duterte has throughout his presidency minimised the issue of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea and instead sought economic benefits from China. Consistent with this approach, he downplayed Manila’s victory in a 2016 arbitration, awarded by a tribunal established under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which refuted Beijing’s extensive claims of sovereignty and “historic rights” over the Sea. Manila has since pursued a flexible strategy, often perceived by local and international observers alike as erratic, aiming to strengthen ties with Beijing for the sake of economic growth. By proceeding cautiously, the Philippines hoped to prevent the maritime dispute from damaging its bilateral relationship with the region’s dominant economic and military power.
Five years into Duterte’s presidency, however, irritants remain. China’s ships prowl the Philippine exclusive economic zone without interruption, and Filipino boats often cannot reach traditional fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal due to Chinese harassment. Tangible economic benefits from overtures to Beijing, especially promised infrastructure projects, have fallen short of expectations and major gains are not expected before Duterte’s term ends in 2022. Many in the Philippines are increasingly sceptical of rapprochement with China if it entails giving up claims to various disputed maritime features.
Since late 2019, Manila has been less willing to ignore Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. It has sent diplomatic protest notes to China in response to perceived territorial violations in the Sea. More consequentially, Duterte has reversed his abrupt February 2020 cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., which allows the U.S. to station military personnel in the Philippines and conduct joint exercises with Manila. In June 2020, Duterte suspended the cancellation. The U.S. subsequently began terming China’s claims in the Sea “unlawful”, reaffirmed its alliance with the Philippines and confirmed that the Mutual Defence Treaty between Manila and Washington encompasses attacks on Philippine forces or vessels in the Sea. A March 2021 quarrel around Whitsun Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, which saw Chinese ships mass by the hundreds, led to another wave of anti-China sentiment in the Philippines and appears to have further strained relations. On 30 July 2021, Duterte unfroze the Visiting Forces Agreement, thus bringing it formally back into force.
Developing a coherent vision for the South China Sea while managing a treaty alliance with the U.S. and episodic tensions with neighbours, one of which is a rising great power, is particularly challenging. On one hand, Manila is tied to Washington by an alliance and longstanding cultural affinities. On the other, geography and economic imperatives impel the archipelago to find a modus vivendi with Beijing. At the same time, the Philippines must all the while maintain constructive relations with other South East Asian claimants. In addition, conflicting interests among and within the bureaucratic establishment and the military, as well as the interplay of elite positioning and Philippine public opinion, often result in apparent contradictions in government policy.
Manila, facing deadlock in a dispute it cannot resolve alone, should try to foster cooperation by discussing issues of common interest – such as fisheries management, law enforcement challenges and scientific research on environmental problems – in formal and informal interactions with neighbouring countries. Partnerships with other littoral states on joint management of resources could serve as a stepping stone for broader cooperation. In the interest of peace and stability in the South China Sea, Manila should both double down on its efforts to advance Code of Conduct negotiations and keep up bilateral dialogue with Beijing to sort out misunderstandings and manage disagreements. It should, for instance, negotiate rules of access to Scarborough Shoal, long a source of friction with China. It should also strengthen risk management mechanisms in case tensions between claimant states or the U.S. and China increase. None of these steps will resolve the increasingly entrenched maritime dispute, but they could help keep the risk low that incidents at sea will escalate toward conflict.
Manila/Brussels, 2 December 2021
To access this timeline of The Recent History of the South China Sea as a separate article page, please click here .
In the South China Sea, the Philippines is party to a long-running quarrel that is a source of friction, and could even trigger an open confrontation, between China and the United States. [fn] For background, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°275, Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters , 26 January 2016 ; N°267, Stirring Up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm , 7 May 2015 ; N°229, Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses , 24 July 2012; and N°223, Stirring Up the South China Sea (I) , 23 April 2012. Hide Footnote The dispute – to which Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam are also party – is driven by competing claims to land features and the maritime entitlements they generate, including overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZ). [fn] The EEZ of a coastal state, in which the state is entitled to the marine and undersea resources, stretches 200 nautical miles (nm) from its baseline, itself determined by the low-tide coastline (or, in some cases, by offshore features). A coastal state can claim full sovereignty over land, sea and air only within a zone extending 12nm offshore. For more details, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°315, Competing Visions of International Order in the South China Sea , 29 November 2021, pp. 2-3. Hide Footnote The Philippine claim focuses on the Spratly Islands and the maritime space around them, including Scarborough Shoal, a small ring of rocks and reefs more than 200km west of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest and most populous island. [fn] The Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal are commonly referred to as part of the South China Sea. Around June 2011, however, the Philippines began using the term West Philippine Sea for the area in its official communications. President Benigno Aquino III officially renamed the body of water through Administrative Order 29 of 5 September 2012, issued after a standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines claims specific islands and areas of the sea rather than the Spratlys as a whole. Hide Footnote
Manila’s claim to the Spratlys goes back at least half a century. It conflicts with China’s narrative of its own historic rights, expressed in the so-called nine-dash line, a boundary drawn on Chinese maps in 2009, but without clear historic or legal grounds, definition or delineation, and that lays claim to some 85 per cent of the South China Sea. The other littoral states are likewise affected, with Vietnam more emphatic than the rest in defending its interests against China. Both Beijing and Hanoi dispute Manila’s claims, as do, to a lesser degree, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. [fn] Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, but it remains an important player as maritime zones generated by its Natuna Islands appear to overlap with China’s claims. Hide Footnote
The Philippines’ location accounts for both the U.S. and the Chinese strategic interest in the archipelago. Midway between mainland South East Asia and Indonesia, the region’s other archipelago, the country is composed of 7,641 islands and has the world’s fifth-longest coastline, with most of its provinces bordering the sea. [fn] Control over the South China Sea implies dominance over the Malacca and Sunda Straits, both crucial chokepoints for global trade, as well as the Sulu and Taiwan Straits. Hide Footnote Its proximity to the Taiwan Strait puts it close to a “powder keg of conflict”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, retired diplomat, 23 July 2020. Some of the Philippine outposts in the Spratlys are also close to Itu Aba, the largest natural land feature in the archipelago, which is occupied by Taiwan and is the forwardmost of Taipei’s defences. Ralph Jennings, “Wary of Beijing, Taiwan doubles down on South China Sea island”, Voice of America, 29 March 2021. Hide Footnote It also stands between a segment of China’s coast and access to the Pacific Ocean, thereby constituting a crucial part of what is often referred to as the “first island chain” that delimits China’s near sea. [fn] The first island chain refers to a chain of archipelagos stretching from Indonesia through Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. The concept has been known in both U.S. and Chinese strategic circles for decades, defined as a natural barrier that is disadvantageous for China since it contains Beijing’s maritime power and access to the Pacific while serving as a forward defence perimeter for U.S. forces in Asia. Hide Footnote
The Philippines is thus a key player in the geopolitical contest playing out in the region. For Beijing, it could either become a stepping stone toward regional hegemony or an obstacle to such ambitions. Likewise, for Washington, it could continue to facilitate the U.S. forward presence in the South China Sea or become a stumbling block for its Indo-Pacific strategy. All these scenarios entail political costs and benefits for Manila. As Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin has said: “No other country feels the significant impact of the rivalry between the two superpowers more than the Philippines, the U.S. being its only defence treaty ally and China its biggest neighbour and top economic partner – with the U.S. second”. [fn] Recto Mercene, “Locsin: PHL to keep strong ties with both US and China”, Business Mirror , 27 October 2020. Hide Footnote
This report provides a view of the Philippine perspective on developments in the South China Sea since 2016, against the backdrop of China’s geopolitical ascendancy, heightened U.S.-China tensions and Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. [fn] This report uses English-language terms for features in the South China Sea. Hide Footnote It is published along with a report on Vietnamese perspectives on the South China Sea dispute, and an overview detailing the rising frictions between the U.S. and China as they relate to the Sea. [fn] See Crisis Group Report, Competing Visions of International Order in the South China Sea , op. cit.; and Crisis Group Asia Report, Vietnam Tacks Between Cooperation and Struggle in the South China Sea , forthcoming. Hide Footnote It is based on more than 140 interviews and online discussions in Manila with current and former government officials, diplomats, academics, analysts and military officers, many of whom requested anonymity. Research was largely conducted remotely given travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, though the report includes input from a local researcher who visited Masinloc, the Philippine town closest to Scarborough Shoal.
II. Reefs and Ruptures
A. the philippine claim over time.
The Philippines’ efforts to assert its claims in the South China Sea date back to the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986. [fn] In 1956, a Filipino adventurer, Tomas Cloma, sailed out to the Spratlys seeking his fortune and laid claim to 33 features that he called Freedomland. Authorities arrested Cloma in 1974. Manila then asked him to formally transfer ownership of the features to the government, after which it asserted its sovereignty there. Hide Footnote Marcos sent the military in two waves (from 1970 to 1971, and from 1977 to 1980) to occupy several features in the Spratly archipelago. [fn] Marites Danguilan Vitug, Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China (Manila, 2018), p. 10. In 1975, Vietnam occupied Southwest Cay, a feature where the Philippines had previously stationed an “on-and-off detachment”. Ibid., p.12. Hide Footnote In 1972, the Marcos government officially incorporated the islets into the Philippines’ westernmost Palawan province as the Kalayaan Island Group. [fn] In 1976, Manila created the Western Command, a military district covering the Spratlys. Hide Footnote In 1978, it formally created both a separate Kalayaan municipality in Palawan province and a Philippine exclusive economic zone. [fn] See Presidential Decree No. 1599 , 1978. Although the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was signed in 1982, UN members had been negotiating over the EEZ concept for years before the close of talks. Hide Footnote As a result, Manila has controlled nine of the Spratlys’ land features since the late 1970s. [fn] These are: Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin), Thitu (Pagasa) Island, Nanshan (Lawak) Island, Northeast Cay (Parola Island), Flat (Patag) Island, Loaita (Kota) Island, Commodore (Rizal) Reef, West York (Likas) Island and Loaita Cay (Panata Island). Other Spratly features are controlled by Taiwan, China, Vietnam and Malaysia. Hide Footnote It remained on the sidelines when armed conflict erupted between Vietnam and China around the Paracel Islands in 1988. At the time, the Philippines was less concerned with China occupying features in the Spratlys (in 1988 and 1989) and Beijing’s heightened naval patrols than with Vietnam’s presence in the contested waters around them. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, military officer, 10 November 2020. Hide Footnote
China’s 1995 seizure of Mischief Reef, in the middle of the Spratlys, marked a major shift in the contest for control of those features. Seeing an opportunity after a Philippines Senate vote in 1991 compelled the U.S. to withdraw from its Philippine bases, China built light structures on the reef. [fn] In addition, China maintained a naval presence and constructed navigational aid facilities and a military observation post on the reef. Vitug, Rock Solid , op. cit., pp. 29-30. Hide Footnote The construction was a “shock” to the Philippines, deeply affecting its sense of security, particularly after Chinese troops occupied the new structures. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, academic, 6 August 2020. It was the first time that China had acted against the territorial entitlements of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member. Despite Manila’s lobbying, its fellow members issued only a muted statement on the incident. Hide Footnote Despite the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defence Treaty, Washington remained neutral in Manila’s ensuing quarrel with Beijing and gave its ally no clear assurances of support. [fn] Longstanding U.S. policy was that the Mutual Defence Treaty did not cover contested territories in the South China Sea. Hide Footnote Questions accordingly arose among Philippine policymakers and diplomats about the utility of the strategic alliance with the U.S. [fn] “The Treaty was always subject to interpretation”. Crisis Group online interview, former Philippine diplomat, 3 August 2020. Hide Footnote
In August 1995, Beijing and Manila signed a bilateral Code of Conduct to curb tensions in the aftermath of the Mischief Reef incident, though any respite was short-lived. The Chinese naval presence in the disputed areas and bellicose rhetoric from both sides continued to exacerbate tensions and soon highlighted the agreement’s ineffectiveness. In 1997, fishermen from both countries squabbled around Scarborough Shoal. [fn] Scarborough Shoal, known in the Philippines as Bajo de Masinloc, is 220km or 120nm from the Philippine province of Zambales. Hide Footnote President Fidel Ramos’ government responded by seeking a closer partnership with Vietnam and launching a modernisation of the Philippine armed forces. This effort was, however, beset with difficulties due to mismanagement and the impact of the Asian financial crisis on government finances. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, defence analyst, 30 June 2020. Hide Footnote The dispute continued with ebbs and flows from 1998 to 2010, during the presidencies of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. [fn] Appendix B describes the various Philippine presidents’ policies in more detail. Hide Footnote
It was Benigno Aquino’s presidency (2010-2016), however, that significantly changed the dispute’s dynamics, particularly after another Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012. Following an altercation between Chinese and Filipino fishermen in the area, the Philippine navy dispatched a ship to arrest the Chinese as poachers. Although Manila later replaced the vessel with a coast guard ship, Beijing retaliated by deploying more naval assets, leading to a month-long standoff. [fn] At the height of the standoff, China banned Philippine banana imports and encouraged its companies to reduce investment in the archipelago. Hide Footnote The U.S. tried to broker a simultaneous withdrawal by both sides, but the verbal agreement Washington struck with a Chinese representative fell through. [fn] Crisis Group Report, Stirring Up the South China Sea (III) , op. cit., p. 16. Hide Footnote While both countries did call their vessels home, the Chinese quickly returned and have occupied the shoal ever since. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, journalist, 24 September 2020. Some observers have suggested that the U.S. did not consider intervening directly in the standoff as it was not an armed conflict and posed no direct threat to U.S. ships. See Humphrey Hawksley, Asian Waters (New York, 2018), p.71. Hide Footnote The incident once again raised uneasy questions in Manila about Washington’s stance despite the Philippines’ status as a U.S. treaty ally. Manila also unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. for a guarantee of assistance if China used force. [fn] Crisis Group Report, Stirring Up the South China Sea (II) , op. cit., p.9. During the standoff, the U.S. also failed to clarify whether the Mutual Defence Treaty covered the South China Sea. In a speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the alliance in September 2021, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recounted that during the standoff, the U.S. “ruled out any robust intervention to assist the Philippines”. “The U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty at 70”, Center for Strategic and International Studies (webinar), 8 September 2021. Hide Footnote
As a former Philippine official summed up the doubts: “Our position turned from what we thought was strategic clarity, as a partner and ally, to strategic ambiguity”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 1 November 2020. Hide Footnote
B. The 2016 Arbitration Award
As direct negotiation with China on the maritime dispute led nowhere, Aquino pursued the legal option, filing a case challenging China’s territorial claims under Annex VII of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). [fn] The tribunal acknowledged the Philippine effort to seek a resolution through dialogue. “We tried to talk”, a diplomat said. Crisis Group online interview, 18 September 2020. Hide Footnote The Permanent Court of Arbitration hosted the proceedings. Manila resorted to the international tribunal to resolve questions of interpretation bearing on Beijing’s maritime claims, including the validity of claims rooted in historic rights as manifested by the nine-dash line. The Philippine decision to take the legal route reportedly “was like a shock” for Beijing. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, academic, 23 August 2020. ASEAN and most of its member states were conspicuously silent on the arbitration. Though Hanoi supported Manila’s submission, the Philippines was otherwise on its own. Hide Footnote China cancelled several high-level events and summits and issued a travel advisory that diminished tourism in the Philippines. Overall, Beijing’s response was “very disproportionate”, according to a former Philippine official. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 25 September 2020. Hide Footnote
On 12 July 2016, the Court finally delivered a ruling in the Philippines’ favour. The central finding was that China’s nine-dash line and assertion of “historic rights” have no basis in international law. [fn] As China did not participate in the arbitration, it avoided having to clarify the nine-dash line’s path. Although Vietnam claims the entire Spratlys, it did not object to the award. Hide Footnote The Court declared Scarborough Shoal a traditional fishing ground of Chinese (including from Taiwan), Philippine and Vietnamese fishermen, and ruled that China had violated international law by denying Filipinos access to the area. Importantly, the Court also ruled that no feature in the Spratlys could be legally classified as an island capable of generating an EEZ or a continental shelf. [fn] Crisis Group Report, Competing Visions of International Order in the South China Sea , op. cit., pp. 2-3. Hide Footnote Instead, all features were found to be “rocks” or “low-tide elevations” under UNCLOS. [fn] An important merit of the arbitration was the definition of what constitutes an “island” under international law, particularly the necessity of sustaining human habitation. Hide Footnote A ruling on sovereignty over the Spratlys and their associated maritime zones was, however, outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction. Likewise, territorial sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal remains ambiguous, as both Chinese and Philippine claims persist. [fn] A coastal state’s rights over its EEZ and continental shelf are “sovereign rights” that are not equivalent to sovereignty. Sovereign rights are recognised for the purpose of exploration and exploitation of the living and non-living resources in these areas. Crisis Group correspondence, legal scholar, 9 October 2020. Hide Footnote
Though the ruling did not generate an explicit jurisprudential precedent, as it only binds the Philippines and China, “the practical reality is that the pronouncement of the arbitral tribunal will be difficult to disregard, let alone challenge in any future litigation or negotiated agreement in respect of the South China Sea”. [fn] Crisis Group email correspondence, legal scholar, 25 September 2020. A Philippine government official said: “We do not have control any more, since international law now owns the arbitration. The genie is out of the bottle”. Crisis Group online interview, 18 September 2020. Hide Footnote The award spawned an immense body of literature and became an important reference point in international law.
But while Manila won the legal argument, the Aquino administration appeared to have given little if any thought to the possibility that China might refuse to enforce a ruling that went against its interests. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, South China Sea expert, 14 August 2020. Hide Footnote Beijing did just that, declaring the award “null and void”. An Aquino-era diplomat recalled: “It was a victory in the legal sense. But the question was: how do we implement it?” [fn] Crisis Group online interview, former diplomat, 11 September 2020. Hide Footnote Moreover, as the Philippines had acted independently of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which did not support the case for fear of antagonising China, Manila “bore the brunt” of Beijing’s ire. [fn] Crisis Group correspondence, legal scholar, 25 September 2020. ASEAN’s lukewarm support for the Philippines at the time frustrated Manila. Later, Vietnam and Malaysia observed the proceedings. Hanoi submitted a document to the tribunal in late 2014 reiterating its claims and formally opposing the nine-dash line. Hide Footnote Although the Philippines tried to drum up international support for the arbitration in the run-up to the decision, most foreign governments did little to support the ruling beyond lauding the victory of international law. [fn] Australia and Japan gave strong messages of support, but the European Union, for example, was cautious in its phrasing, providing a “soft” statement, according to former Philippine officials. Crisis Group online interview, 4 November 2020. See also Robin Emmott, “EU's statement on South China Sea reflects divisions”, Reuters, 15 July 2016. Hide Footnote Part of the reason lay in the fact that President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016; his administration was much more cautious in encouraging international support and using the victory against China.
III. Enter Duterte
A. the pivot to china.
That Rodrigo Duterte would adopt an idiosyncratic foreign policy was clear from the start of his term in 2016. Inheriting Aquino’s arbitration victory, the Duterte administration noted the achievement but remained ambivalent about pressing its advantage, taking the view that triumphalism would anger Beijing. [fn] Crisis Group Commentary, “ South China Sea Ruling Sweeps Away Diplomatic Ambiguities ”, 19 July 2016. Hide Footnote Some observers agreed it was necessary to shift away from Aquino’s uncompromising stance. “Toning down the rhetoric and calibrating the response was good”, one said. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Richard Javad Heydarian, academic, 24 September 2020. Hide Footnote But Duterte’s decision not to use the ruling at all led to missed opportunities at generating more robust international support. Instead, Manila gained only sympathy. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, journalist, 24 September 2020. Crisis Group correspondence, legal scholar, 25 September 2020. Hide Footnote
Duterte’s approach owed as much to his lack of foreign policy experience and parochial political style as to his personal dislike of the U.S. Facing U.S. and EU criticism in his administration’s first months on account of his brutal campaign to curb drug trafficking, Duterte moved closer to Beijing. [fn] Many Chinese publications stress that Beijing and Manila “reached consensus on shelving the decision of the South China Sea arbitration”. See, for example, Wu Shicun, “Preventing Confrontation and Conflict in the South China Sea”, China International Strategy Review , vol. 2 (2020), pp. 36-47. Hide Footnote In August 2016, he sent former President Fidel Ramos as special envoy to Hong Kong to set a less confrontational course in the South China Sea dispute. [fn] The Philippine delegation’s counterparts in Beijing were Wu Shicun, president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, and Fu Ying, China’s former vice foreign minister. Hide Footnote Ramos secured a non-binding communiqué emphasising cooperation and peaceful dispute resolution, with references to equal access for both countries’ fishermen to Scarborough Shoal, prospective cooperation on environmental protection and a long-term vision of demilitarisation in the Sea. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, former Philippine official, 2 November 2020. Ramos supported Aquino’s push for the arbitration, but emphasised as early as January 2013 the need to engage China diplomatically as “it was creating facts on the ground.” See Vitug, Rock Solid , op. cit., p. 162. Hide Footnote
Notwithstanding the rapprochement with Beijing and his distaste for the U.S., Duterte did not neglect other bilateral ties. He maintained a strong relationship with Japan, a traditional partner in development cooperation, the Philippines’ largest source of foreign direct investment and a supporter of the peace process in the Bangsamoro, the southern region where the government has fought a series of insurgencies. [fn] For background on this peace process, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°313, Southern Philippines: Keeping Normalisation on Track in the Bangsamoro , 15 April 2021; N°306, Southern Philippines: Tackling Clan Politics in the Bangsamoro , 14 April 2020; and N°301, The Philippines: Militancy and the New Bangsamoro , 27 June 2019. Hide Footnote Under Duterte, Tokyo committed to developing the Philippines’ maritime capabilities, particularly its coast guard. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, Japanese officials, Manila, 21 October 2019. Hide Footnote The president also courted Russia, reflecting his desire to bolster ties with powers beyond the U.S. and China, but with limited success. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, defence analyst, 30 June 2020; retired diplomat, 23 July 2020. Hide Footnote
A side effect of these new foreign policy initiatives was a slowdown of multilateral efforts in dealing with the South China Sea, particularly the ASEAN-China negotiations over a Code of Conduct to better manage maritime tensions among littoral states. [fn] The idea of a multilateral Code of Conduct stems from developing a clearer and more precise instrument than the 2002 non-binding Declaration between China and the Philippines, which was fairly general. Consultations on the Code have been going on since 2013. Hide Footnote “Duterte spoiled the process”, said a commentator, referring to Manila’s predominantly bilateral engagement with Beijing at the expense of a proactive multilateral approach. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, academic, 9 September 2020. Hide Footnote For Duterte, combining a quest for closer ties with multiple international actors and detente with Beijing was a way to achieve a “safe middle ground” through balancing and accommodation. [fn] Aileen Baviera, “Debating the National Interest in Philippine Relations with China: Economic, Security and Socio-cultural Dimensions”, National Security Review (2017), p. 158. Hide Footnote Distracted by internal challenges, not least the battle in Marawi (a city in the Bangsamoro) that pitted government forces against Islamist militants for five months in 2017, the Philippines did not use its ASEAN chairmanship that year to advance the South China Sea agenda. Hoping to avoid the outright confrontation with Beijing that had occurred under Aquino, Duterte put the thorny issue of territorial disputes on the back burner.
B. A Quiet Sea?
The first months of Duterte’s presidency saw improvements in relations between Beijing and Manila, even though the broader dispute in the South China Sea simmered. China did not occupy further Philippine-claimed features or cause standoffs with coast guard or navy ships, direct confrontations between Philippine and Chinese vessels declined, and Filipinos were even briefly able to fish around Scarborough Shoal thanks to the informal agreement Ramos had secured during his visit to Beijing. [fn] Part of the de-escalation stemmed from a recalibration of maritime forces. While President Duterte continued to support the coast guard build-up that started under Aquino, he encouraged the Philippine navy to be lenient with Chinese fishermen fishing illegally and not to board their boats. See “Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War”, RAND Corporation, 2019, p. 114. Hide Footnote Manila faced issues with another claimant state in 2017, however, after a navy ship used force against a Vietnamese boat in Philippine coastal waters, resulting in the death of two fishermen and the arrest of several more, and leading to a diplomatic crisis with Hanoi. [fn] “Philippines assures Vietnam of ‘fair’ probe into fishermen’s deaths”, Rappler.com, 25 September 2017. Hide Footnote
But even under Duterte, China’s grey zone operations – calibrated actions at sea short of live-fire attacks but intended to coerce opponents – have remained the most serious challenge to Philippine maritime sovereignty. Despite the president’s cooperative stand, Beijing has maintained a consistent maritime presence in the Spratlys and at Scarborough Shoal. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, think-tank analyst, 22 September 2020. Hide Footnote Around Thitu Island, the largest Spratly feature Manila controls, Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats – some if not most of which analysts believe to be part of China’s maritime militia – engaged Filipino fishermen in standoffs from 2017 onward. [fn] Officially named the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, this force consists of fishing boats that are supported by the Chinese government with funding and operational guidance, under the navy’s supervision. The maritime militia is particularly known for using grey zone tactics, which involve the use of water cannons, ramming and intimidation of other claimants’ vessels. Nathan Swire, “Water wars”, Lawfare (blog), 5 March 2019. Hide Footnote At Scarborough Shoal, power dynamics are even more uneven: China’s coast guard regulates access to the shoal, often chasing Filipino fishermen away. Manila has dealt with these issues quietly, tackling violations of the informal agreement negotiated by Ramos through diplomatic means. As in the cases described below, it has regularly filed diplomatic protests following such incidents, to which Beijing has often reacted by making minor concessions, halting some of its provocative actions, but not all.
The foreign and defence ministries have often sought to counterbalance Duterte’s stark pro-Beijing stance, and the Philippines has also taken incremental steps to strengthen its maritime position, irritating China. For example, it started repairing facilities at Thitu Island in 2018, after attempting to build new ones in nearby Sandy Cay a year earlier, an initiative that backfired by attracting Chinese vessels that have since remained in the area. [fn] Aquino had refrained from ordering reinforcement or repair of Philippine facilities on the island, assuming that China would use such works against the Philippines. Under Duterte, construction started with repair of a beach ramp. Hide Footnote
The July 2019 Reed Bank incident, in which a Chinese coast guard ship rammed a Philippine fishing vessel, also strained bilateral relations. With the Chinese vessel leaving the scene, the Filipino crew would have perished had Vietnamese fishermen not rescued them. After a joint investigation, Beijing offered a muted apology, but the incident fanned anti-China sentiment in Philippine public opinion. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, diplomat, 29 July 2020; foreign policy expert, 21 October 2019. Hide Footnote In the following months, the relationship soured. When Duterte visited China in September 2019, he raised the 2016 arbitral ruling directly with President Xi Jinping for the first time; he came back without making progress on securing promised Chinese investments, leading observers to speculate that both leaders had left the meeting disappointed. [fn] Crisis Group interview, 24 July 2020. Hide Footnote A few months after the Reed Bank incident, other littoral states also began to adopt more assertive positions toward China. [fn] Crisis Group Report, Competing Visions of International Order in the South China Sea , op. cit. Hide Footnote
Duterte again proved unpredictable when in February 2020 he suddenly ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., apparently in retaliation for the cancellation of a U.S. visa for Ronald dela Rosa, one of his main political allies and a supporter of his anti-drug campaign. Had it been implemented, the termination, which was to take effect after six months, would have created substantive difficulties for U.S. forces present in the Philippines. [fn] “Philippines’ Duterte tells US he is scrapping troop agreement”, The Guardian , 11 February 2020. The Visiting Forces Agreement is a document laying out details of the Mutual Defence Treaty, stipulating rights and obligations for U.S. service personnel in the Philippines and rules for U.S. access to the country for military exercises and other activities. Without the Agreement, it would be “cumbersome” to make the alliance operational. Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, 21 October 2020. Hide Footnote Chinese experts interpreted the episode as a blow to Washington’s efforts to contain Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. [fn] Li Kaisheng, “Manila’s termination of military pact will upset US meddling in South China Sea”, Global Times , 13 February 2020. Hide Footnote
Overall, Duterte’s economic pivot to China has had mixed results. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, economic experts, August and November 2020. Hide Footnote Philippine-Chinese trade ties have grown under his presidency. [fn] So has foreign direct investment, but at a rate lower than in other South East Asian countries. Crisis Group online interview, economist, 28 October 2020. Hide Footnote But China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which both governments billed as a link to Duterte’s flagship Build, Build, Build program, has not lived up to the initial fanfare. [fn] The Build, Build, Build program is an economic initiative launched under Duterte that aims to boost infrastructure across the Philippines. Hide Footnote The large infrastructure that was envisioned remains unbuilt. As of June 2021, only a handful of smaller BRI projects are under way. [fn] “Chinese investments in the Philippines”, Rappler.com, 15 September 2020. Crisis Group online interviews, academics, 6 and 19 August 2020. Hide Footnote An analyst explained: “Both China and the Philippines oversold their partnership, raising expectations for the Philippine public that were unfulfilled”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Alvin Camba, assistant professor, University of Denver, 13 August 2020. Hide Footnote
C. Geopolitics Come Back to the Fore
In the last two years, the geopolitics of the South China Sea dispute have become more pronounced as Beijing has pressed its claims more vigorously and ties between Manila and Washington have strengthened, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond its devastating health effects on the Philippines’ population, the pandemic also dealt a major blow to the economy, directly affecting the armed forces’ modernisation program. [fn] Michael Toole, “The Philippines passes the 2 million mark as COVID-19 cases surge in Southeast Asia”, The Conversation, 9 September 2021. Hide Footnote Although initial assessments indicated that Manila would proceed with “game changing” acquisitions such as submarines, cruise missiles and more advanced aircraft and ships, procurement has slowed as the government redirects funds to address the pandemic’s effects. [fn] Crisis Group correspondence, sources close to the process, 31 May 2021. Hide Footnote Military modernisation, while supported by the opposition, seems unlikely to make headway before the end of Duterte’s term. [fn] Apart from two Korean-built missile frigates purchased in early 2021, the items that the armed forces are procuring are primarily for counter-insurgency purposes. Hide Footnote
Meanwhile, Manila felt compelled to respond to assertive actions Beijing was taking in the South China Sea. In February 2020, the foreign ministry filed a diplomatic protest after the navy reported that a Chinese warship had shown “hostile intent” by aiming its gun control radar at a Philippine vessel. [fn] Anna Bajo, “Wescom confirms China’s ‘harassment’ vs. Philippine navy vessel in February”, GMA News, 23 April 2020. Hide Footnote In the following months, it also protested the Chinese navy’s confiscation of gear from fishermen around Masinloc, close to Scarborough Shoal, and Beijing’s announcement of new administrative units in the South China Sea. [fn] On 12 April 2020, the State Council of China announced the creation of two new districts under Sansha City prefecture, located on Woody Island in the Paracels. Hide Footnote
More consequentially, on 2 June 2020, the Philippines suspended the Visiting Forces Agreement’s cancellation that it had announced a few months earlier, citing “political and other developments in the region”. [fn] Tweet by Teodoro Locsin, @teddyboylocsin, 6:55pm, 2 June 2020. Hide Footnote The reversal was a clear sign that, while the top leadership emphasised the independence of Manila’s foreign policy, the security apparatus continued to value collaboration with the U.S., particularly as concerns about China’s grey zone infractions raised the spectre of yet more assertive actions by Beijing. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, former military regional commander, 9 September 2020. In mid-July, for instance, the Philippine military renamed its top rank designations in accordance with the U.S. system. Hide Footnote Statements by Philippine officials implied a correlation between the decision and Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea over the preceding month. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 28 July 2020. See also Sofia Tomacruz, “Duterte halted VFA termination due to South China Sea tensions”, Rappler.com, 22 June 2020; and Darryl Esguerra, “PH envoy to US: COVID-19, South China Sea ‘developments’, reasons not to end VFA”, Inquirer , 3 June 2020. Hide Footnote
Shortly after it had suspended the Agreement’s cancellation, Manila welcomed a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo that clarified the U.S. position on the South China Sea. Notably, the statement affirmed the 2016 arbitration award and expressed support for “Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources”, with specific reference to the Philippines, including Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals. [fn] “ U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea ”, U.S. Mission to ASEAN, 13 July 2020. Hide Footnote The thaw in U.S-Philippine relations benefited not only from the personal chemistry between Duterte and U.S. President Donald Trump, and concerns about China’s maritime actions, but also from U.S. assistance to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the islands. [fn] Crisis Group interview, Philippine official, 15 November 2020. Hide Footnote
Beijing, meanwhile, took a public relations hit in April 2020, when the Chinese embassy in Manila released a song, along with a music video, as a tribute to front-line workers trying to contain the pandemic in both countries. Filipinos criticised the song on social media for its reference to what the Chinese embassy called cooperation between “friendly neighbours across the sea”, saying China’s behaviour in the dispute belied this rhetoric. [fn] Glee Jalea, “Chinese embassy’s ‘Iisang Dagat’ tribute sparks outrage online”, CNN Philippines, 26 April 2020. Hide Footnote
Beijing’s continued activities also prompted Duterte to temper his hitherto starkly pro-Chinese public statements and instead stress Manila’s distinct position in the South China Sea dispute. [fn] In the last year of Duterte’s term, Manila remains too distracted by the pandemic and other challenges, such as natural disasters and internal conflicts, to formally overhaul its foreign policy. Manila’s unresolved dilemmas were epitomised in the wavering course regarding the anti-COVID-19 vaccination campaign, when Duterte seemed to bet on China and Russia as suppliers. The public and politicians are critical of the Sinovac deal and its perceived low effectiveness, even as Chinese (and Russian) vaccines kept the campaign afloat until the U.S. increased its vaccine shipments. “Roque turns around on finality of Sinovac deal”, Verafiles, 30 January 2021. Hide Footnote In particular, the president highlighted the arbitration award for the first time in front of an international audience at the UN General Assembly in September 2020, saying – without mentioning China – the Philippines “firmly rejects attempts to undermine it”. [fn] Statement of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte during the General Debate of the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly, 22 September 2020. Hide Footnote This unexpected shift led some analysts to believe that Duterte might recommit to the U.S. alliance. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, defence specialist, 2 September 2020. Hide Footnote Another sign of improvement in relations with the U.S. was Manila’s extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement (which it had previously slated for abrogation) for another six months on 11 November 2020 and then a third period on 14 June 2021. [fn] No major changes in the text seemed imminent and both sides were mulling over the inclusion of “implementing guidelines” to clarify ambiguous matters. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 29 May 2021. Hide Footnote On 30 July, Duterte formally restored the pact after U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Manila. [fn] Manila and Washington are working on a “supplementary” agreement that is likely to tackle matters of criminal jurisdiction in cases where U.S. servicemen violate Philippine laws. Michael Punongbayan, “VFA addendum to cover US soldiers’ custody”, Philippine Star , 5 August 2021. In the run-up to the announcement, the U.S. also increased its arms sales to the Philippines. “U.S. Military Delivers Php183 Million in New Weapons and Equipment to AFP”, U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, 22 June 2021. On 24 June, the U.S. State Department approved $2.5 billion in sales of F-16 fighter aircraft, missiles and related equipment. Nick Aspinwall, “US clears F-16 sale to Philippines as South China Sea tensions brew”, The Diplomat , 30 June 2021. Hide Footnote
Relations with Washington keep warming with U.S. President Joe Biden in office, as the new administration does not seem to irritate the unpredictable Duterte. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the alliance with the Philippines, reiterating U.S. support in case of armed confrontation in the South China Sea. [fn] Sofia Tomacruz, “New US top diplomat calls Locsin, vows support vs. China ‘pressure’”, Rappler.com, 28 January 2021. Hide Footnote Manila’s foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin, reciprocated with optimistic remarks about the alliance. [fn] Tweet by Teodoro Locsin, @teddyboylocsin, 8:05am, 28 January 2021. Hide Footnote Joint military exercises have resumed, and the alliance received a further boost when the U.S. Marine Corps commandant, General David Berger, visited Manila in September. [fn] “US Marine Corps chief meets with Philippine counterparts in first visit since 2017”, Philippine Star , 13 September 2021. Hide Footnote
Meanwhile, Manila continues to push back against Beijing. The most prominent assertion of maritime rights in the Duterte era stemmed from Manila’s outspoken criticism of China in the wake of an incident at Whitsun Reef in March 2021. Hundreds of Chinese vessels, including maritime militia boats, massed at this outlier of the Union Banks in the Spratlys. [fn] Researchers identified at least fourteen vessels as belonging to the maritime militia. See “Caught on Camera: Two Dozen Militia Boats at Whitsun Reef Identified”, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 21 April 2021; and Ryan Martinson, “No Ordinary Boats: Cracking the Code on China’s Spratly Maritime Militias”, Center for International Maritime Security, 17 May 2021. Hide Footnote Photos leaked by Philippine authorities provoked widespread public condemnation of the Chinese presence in the Philippines’ claimed EEZ. [fn] Philippine policymakers and commentators looked at Beijing’s move as another step in its protracted strategy to dominate the waters around the Spratlys and the South China Sea as a whole, as well as a test of the Biden administration’s intentions vis-à-vis the dispute. Crisis Group correspondence, South China Sea expert, 21 April 2021. Hide Footnote Manila filed a flurry of diplomatic protests and initiated navy and coast guard patrols and drills in the area. [fn] Philippine patrols coincided with entry of the U.S. Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group into the South China Sea on 4 April, a move that “certainly helped” push the Chinese vessels away from Whitsun Reef, even though the U.S. deployment may not have been a direct consequence of the Reef events. Crisis Group online interviews, 25 April and 5 May 2021. Hide Footnote In early April, Beijing shifted its vessels from Whitsun Reef to other features – a tactical victory for the Philippines, according to some officials, who argue that a “mix of diplomacy and deterrence” mitigated the situation to Manila’s satisfaction. [fn] Crisis Group communication, Philippine navy officer, 3 May 2021. Crisis Group interview, Philippine official, 25 April 2021. China’s vessels roamed the eastern portion of the Spratlys after the incident, approaching other Philippine features and Palawan Island. Frances Mangosing, “Chinese militia vessels spotted at Sabina Shoal off Puerto Princesa”, Inquirer , 5 May 2021. Hide Footnote “China was caught off guard by the backlash”, said a military officer. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 30 April 2021. Hide Footnote Some observers fear the standoff at Whitsun Reef may be a preview of things to come, with Beijing further asserting itself as the 2022 Philippine presidential election draws near. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 18 June 2021. The next presidential election is due in May 2022. Crisis Group interview, Philippine official, 30 May 2021. Hide Footnote
Given the warming ties between Manila and Washington, however, China may mull over options besides escalation, even if irritants persist. A recent editorial in the Global Times stated that Duterte had “promised not to harm China’s interest in geopolitics” during a call with Xi Jinping. [fn] “Duterte vows not to harm China’s interest during phone conversation with President Xi”, Global Times , 27 August 2021. Hide Footnote Given the source, which is an official Chinese mouthpiece, this report may indicate that Beijing prefers to avoid further confrontation. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Philippine official, 10 October 2021. Hide Footnote Nonetheless, another incident occurred at Second Thomas Shoal on 16 November 2021, when two Chinese coast guard ships blocked Philippine boats resupplying a naval detachment at the BRP Sierra Madre , a ship grounded at the shoal in 1999 and manned by Philippine marines. [fn] On President Joseph Estrada’s watch, the Philippines grounded this old U.S. landing craft, which Washington had transferred to the Philippine navy, and stationed a small detachment of marines on board. Regarding the Chinese action, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that after the Philippine boats “trespassed”, the Chinese coast guard vessels “performed their official duties” and “upheld China’s territorial sovereignty”. “China and Philippines communicating on boat trespassing; sea area remains peaceful: FM”, Global Times , 18 November 2021. Hide Footnote Washington released a statement in support of Manila and again reaffirmed the Mutual Defence Treaty’s vital role for the alliance. [fn] “ On the Situation in the South China Sea ”, press statement, U.S. Department of State, 19 November 2021. Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany and Japan also issued statements of support to the Philippines. Hide Footnote Talks between Beijing and Manila eventually calmed tensions and, after a few days, the Philippine resupply mission resumed. [fn] Crisis Group telephone interview, Philippine official, 21 November 2021. Duterte raised the incident with Xi during the ASEAN-China summit held just a few days after the episode. Mara Cepeda, “In ASEAN summit with China, Duterte ‘abhors’ water cannon attack on PH vessels”, Rappler.com, 22 November 2021. Martin Sadongdong, “Military watchful as resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal resumes”, Manila Bulletin , 22 November 2021. Hide Footnote
IV. Manila’s Approach to Foreign Policy under Duterte: Pillars and Tensions
The Philippines’ strategy toward the South China Sea and other external challenges has in recent years been shaped first and foremost by President Duterte, but other entities, interests and individuals both in and out of government have played important roles, at times appearing to temper the president’s impulsive moves, and balancing some of his efforts to pivot toward Beijing and away from Washington. This has contributed to occasional contradictions in Manila’s South China Sea policy.
A. The President
As the head of state, the Philippine president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the country’s main foreign policy decision-maker, supported by his inner circle and advisers. The principle that the Philippines must have an independent foreign policy is enshrined in the Philippine constitution, but the meaning of that requirement is unclear, and each leader interprets it subjectively. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, former diplomat, 11 September 2020. Hide Footnote Therefore, as an academic pointed out, “the South China Sea policy changes with every president”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, academic, 7 September 2020. Hide Footnote
Duterte’s foreign policy style is highly personalised, with key messages set by the president and his top advisers, none of whom are experts on foreign policy. [fn] Crisis Group interview, Manila, 17 October 2020. Hide Footnote There is no apparent effort to reconcile varying – sometimes even contradictory – ideas within the administration on the South China Sea dispute. The president’s approach is transactional and instinctive – as made evident by his overture to Beijing and brief flirtation with Moscow – and, throughout his presidency, he has seemingly more often reacted to events or acted out of impulse than pursued an articulated strategy. Government departments and agencies interpret his statements, and the handful of policy documents his term has produced, with a level of flexibility, leaving them room for manoeuvre. [fn] Duterte’s statements have occasionally been quite blunt and undiplomatic, leaving officials scrambling to assert that the president had actually meant to say something else. He once announced a “separation” from the U.S. and said the Philippines would be “massacred” if it went to war with China. Hide Footnote
Beijing, for its part, considers Duterte to be its main interlocutor. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Chinese academic, 25 August 2020. An editorial in the Global Times raised the following point: “It is also worth noting that the Philippine president’s stance is in stark contrast to that of his foreign secretary”. Wang Wenwen, “Leaning on Washington leads to trouble on maritime affairs”, Global Times , 27 August 2020. Hide Footnote Its outreach to Duterte is its biggest asset in its Philippines policy but also its biggest weakness, as it has failed to invest in institutional linkages beyond the president, who is now less than a year away from leaving office. “China does not trust the Philippines strategically”, said an observer. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Philippine academic, 6 August 2020. Hide Footnote
B. The Diplomats
Former journalist and speechwriter Teodoro Locsin became foreign secretary in October 2018. [fn] Locsin’s term followed short stints by Perfecto Yasay and Alan Peter Cayetano. Hide Footnote Driven by a strong desire to balance the Philippines’ national interest and territorial sovereignty with geopolitical pragmatism, Locsin’s policy has been more assertive toward China than that of his recent predecessors. His loyalty to the president has provided him with some room for manoeuvre.
Locsin’s push for extending the Visiting Forces Agreement past its scheduled cancellation, for example, put him at odds with the president at first, but he eventually prevailed when Duterte agreed to change course. [fn] “Asia Society: Philippines”, Asia Society (webinar), 26 October 2020. Hide Footnote Under Locsin’s leadership, the foreign ministry has filed diplomatic protests with Beijing whenever it is faced with perceived territorial violations in the South China Sea. [fn] “Diplomacy works quietly; protests are one tool”, said a diplomat formerly posted to the Philippines. Crisis Group online interview, 12 August 2020. As of 30 September 2021, the department had filed 211 such protests since Duterte took office, including 153 in 2021 alone. Joyce Rocamora, “72% of PRRD admin’s diplomatic protests vs. China filed in 2021”, Philippine News Agency, 22 October 2021. Hide Footnote At the same time, it has engaged China both multilaterally in the ASEAN Code of Conduct negotiations and one on one through channels such as the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism, a confidence-building measure between the two states launched in 2017 as a result of Duterte’s rapprochement with Beijing.
In 2021, Manila’s complaints about Chinese actions grew more vocal. In January, Secretary Locsin filed a protest after Beijing passed a law giving its coast guard authority to fire at vessels in areas it claims, even if they are in disputed waters. [fn] Christia Ramos, “Philippines protests new China coast guard law”, Inquirer , 27 January 2021. Hide Footnote Locsin then showed particularly strong resolve during the Whitsun Reef incident by publicly criticising Beijing and filing numerous protests. [fn] “Locsin issues expletive-laced tweet over China sea dispute”, Rappler.com, 3 May 2021. Hide Footnote
Lastly, the foreign ministry under Locsin succeeded in settling a longstanding maritime boundary disagreement with Indonesia in 2019 and explored a similar opening with Palau as well as closer cooperation with Vietnam in 2020. [fn] Sofia Tomacruz, “Beyond West Philippine Sea, diplomats defend waters behind the scenes”, Rappler.com, 18 October 2020. Manila and Jakarta have also launched efforts to delineate their continental shelf boundaries. Joyce Rocamora, “PH, Indonesia prepare for delimitation of sea boundaries”, Philippine News Agency, 2 November 2021. Hide Footnote
C. The Military
Traditionally pro-U.S., the Philippine armed forces have sought a delicate balance between Duterte’s sometimes accommodationist rhetoric toward China and their own felt need to protect Philippine sovereignty. [fn] Crisis Group interview, Philippine official, 15 November 2020. On the military’s pro-U.S. stance, see Gregory Winger, “Alliance Embeddedness: Rodrigo Duterte and the Resilience of the US-Philippine Alliance”, Foreign Policy Analysis , vol. 17, no. 3 (2021). Hide Footnote The military is central to Duterte’s domestic agenda of counter-insurgency aimed at defeating communist rebels and stabilising Mindanao. The national defence department thus has enjoyed some leverage in shaping Manila’s relations with Washington and Beijing and its South China Sea strategy. National Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s rhetoric has been assertive, at times proposing clarifications and interpretations of presidential statements that downplayed Beijing’s maritime actions. While maintaining Duterte’s overall objective of pursuing a policy of “friend to all, enemy to none”, Lorenzana has continued to pay particular attention to longstanding Philippine-U.S. ties. [fn] Lorenzana interpreted the Mutual Defence Treaty differently from Secretary Locsin, highlighting the possibility of the Philippines being entangled by the alliance should a U.S.-China clash occur. “It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want”. Quoted in Paterno R. Esmaquel II, “Lorenzana-Locsin clash over Mutual Defence Treaty heats up”, Rappler.com, 5 March 2019. Hide Footnote
The armed forces are well aware of Manila’s dilemma in needing both to assert sovereign rights and nurture the relationship with China. “We are trying to show the flag as much as possible and conduct maritime patrols”, said a former military officer who is now a civilian official. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 9 September 2020. Hide Footnote Defence officials tend to steer clear of controversial issues to avoid contradicting the commander-in-chief, but many feel the assertion of maritime rights does not really clash with the president’s approach to China policy. An officer said of Duterte: “He is hedging”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, military officer, 30 April 2021. Hide Footnote
Against this backdrop, the military is increasingly less hesitant to follow up words with action. [fn] Frances Mangosing, “AFP eyes logistics hub in Pagasa island for uninterrupted WPS patrols”, Inquirer , 4 May 2021. Hide Footnote In response to the Whitsun Reef incident, for example, the Philippine navy repeatedly dispatched vessels to conduct patrols. [fn] Andrea Calonzo, “Philippines sends more ships to reef targeted by China”, Bloomberg, 13 April 2021. Between 1 March and 25 May, Philippine vessels patrolled the contested areas at least 57 times, according to data from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Hide Footnote The Western and Northern Commands, which respectively cover Palawan Island and Luzon and are jointly responsible for the West Philippine Sea, are developing greater capabilities as part of the armed forces’ overall modernisation. [fn] Crisis Group interview, military officer, 17 October 2020. These regional units consist of all three services – army, navy and air force – and are directly under the command of the armed forces chief. Hide Footnote For now, however, the shift to external defence as a strategic objective is aspirational, as domestic counter-insurgency remains paramount in the government’s view. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Lieutentant General Cirilito Sobejana, former chief of the Philippine army, 17 September 2020. Hide Footnote
D. Other Security Actors
Headed by the chief of the National Security Council, former armed forces chief Hermogenes Esperon, the Task Force on the West Philippine Sea deals with maritime disputes, strategies related to the Philippine claims and their impact on relations with China and other claimants. While the Task Force tried, with some success, to play a coordinating role under Aquino, it has been less active under President Duterte. [fn] Crisis Group correspondence, former official, 16 November 2020. See Appendix B. Hide Footnote Nevertheless, its mandate complicates the bureaucratic architecture dealing with the South China Sea, occasionally resulting in uncertainty as to different agencies’ responsibilities in shaping policy. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, experts, 15 October 2020 and 18 May 2021; navy officer, 12 August 2020. During the Whitsun Reef incident and its aftermath, the Task Force played a key role in providing regular updates on China’s movements in the Spratlys, close to Philippine-claimed features. Hide Footnote
Another security actor, the coast guard, is on the front line warding off Chinese incursions and thus plays a major role in the maritime dispute. It patrols maritime areas, focusing on law enforcement around Palawan and supply runs to its detachment on Thitu Island in the Spratlys. The coast guard, like the navy, favours “calibrated” responses to incidents at sea, focusing on maritime patrols by a few assets rather than deploying large groups of vessels. [fn] Coast Guard Commandant Admiral George Ursabia, quoted in “Conceptualizing Archipelagic Security: Prospects for a Robust Philippine Maritime Response”, Office of Naval Strategic Studies (webinar), 19 May 2021. Hide Footnote While the two services are traditional rivals, a more cooperative relationship is evident in the Duterte era, partly thanks to personal ties between commanders. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, coast guard officer, 21 October 2020; military official, 15 November 2020. Since the Philippine navy is not large, its functions are sometimes taken over by the coast guard, including patrols near disputed features as well as supply of Philippine-occupied features. Nonetheless, naval ships also patrol the South China Sea. Hide Footnote Duterte has also scaled up relations with Beijing through “coast guard diplomacy”, for example though a joint coast guard committee and relatively frequent bilateral exchanges. [fn] J.C. Gotinga, “China coast guard ship arrives in Manila for ‘friendly visit’”, Rappler.com, 13 January 2020. Duterte has followed Aquino’s path in boosting the coast guard’s capacities. See also Jay Tristan Tarriela, “Duterte’s coast guard diplomacy”, The Diplomat , 23 December 2019. Hide Footnote
The coast guard is also integrated into the National Coast Watch System, an inter-agency mechanism, established under President Aquino and staffed by former navy and coast guard personnel, responsible for maritime security operations across the Philippines. The mechanism is supported by the U.S. and Japan, underscoring Manila’s pragmatism in drawing support from various sources to boost its maritime law enforcement.
E. Political and Economic Elites
Thanks to the Philippines’ strategic partnership and close cultural ties with the U.S., the majority of the country’s political elite remains pro-U.S. at heart. Most politicians, however, also initially supported, or at least did not criticise, President Duterte’s pragmatic approach to Beijing. [fn] As the 2022 presidential election draws near, however, criticism is growing. Some of the presidential candidates have been questioning Duterte’s approach. See “Philippine president spars with Pacquiao over South China Sea”, Reuters, 9 June 2021. Hide Footnote A long-time political observer remarked: “Politicians are pragmatic about China. If it’s about [receiving] support, they will accept it”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, political analyst, 28 September 2020. Several communiqués attest to links between Duterte’s party PDP-Laban and the Nacionalista Party, on the Philippine side, and the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing also looks upon presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. favourably, attributing to him a “pragmatic attitude” toward China. Li Kaisheng, “The US has fewer cards to stir up trouble for China in ASEAN”, Global Times , 21 November 2021. Hide Footnote
Local elites in coastal areas bordering the South China Sea are cognisant of maritime challenges and territorial disputes, but leave these matters to the national government. [fn] Crisis Group correspondence, political analyst, 5 October 2020. Hide Footnote Politicians in Luzon provinces such as Pangasinan, La Union and Zambales, as well the “last frontier” province of Palawan, are exclusively focused on local politics. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, maritime analysts, 15 August 2020. Most of these provinces are peaceful, other than minor incidents of communist insurgency. Hide Footnote They may have different perspectives on foreign affairs, but “no one fights Manila in that respect”. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, think-tank analyst, 22 September 2020; local journalist, Palawan, 23 October 2020. Hide Footnote
Business and economic elites, on the other hand, are forthcoming in expressing their foreign policy preferences. Some of the prominent families who play an important role in the national economy embraced the pivot to Beijing – without commenting on the foreign policy dimension – since it offered a potential quick infusion of capital. For example, the Davao-based entrepreneur Dennis Uy and other businessmen, including political players in previous administrations, served as go-betweens for Duterte’s opening to Beijing and subsequently benefited from contracts related to Chinese investments. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, foreign policy expert, Makati, 21 October 2019; Alvin Camba, assistant professor, University of Denver, 13 August 2020. Hide Footnote
Some experts pointedly wonder whether Beijing’s economic largesse in the Philippines hinges on Manila’s accommodation of its claims in the South China Sea. [fn] Alvin Camba and Janica Magat, “How Do Chinese Investors Respond to Territorial Disputes? Evidence from the Philippines and Implications on Economic Strategy”, Singapore Economic Review , 2019. Crisis Group online interview, academic, 6 August 2020. Hide Footnote Chinese analysts and academics often point to Manila’s “friendly attitude”, and de-escalation in the Sea in particular, as preconditions for cooperation. [fn] “Continuous Concerns in Philippines-China Relations in the Post-COVID-19 Period”, Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (webinar), 6 November 2020. Hide Footnote Against this backdrop, some Chinese investments in the Philippines have come under scrutiny for their national security implications. [fn] Two cases are noteworthy. One venture was the proposed development of Sangley airport in Cavite, south of Manila, that was supposed to involve a Chinese contracting company. While the local government was eager, the Philippine navy raised national security concerns, prompting Cavite’s governor to cancel the deal. Another Chinese investor, Dito Telecom, partially owned by China Telecom, won a lucrative contract to build an extensive network of communication towers, including in military camps, that raised anxiety about espionage. The government stayed firm in its commitment and the company is rolling out the telecommunication services, albeit slowly. Hide Footnote
F. Public Opinion
Opinion polls consistently indicate that the Philippine public is sceptical of China, which it increasingly perceives as a regional hegemon that uses bullying tactics and lacks sensitivity toward the archipelago. [fn] See, for example, “ Social Weather Stations Survey July 3-6 2020 ”, Social Weather Stations, 19 July 2020; “ Digital Sentiments on US-China Competition ”, WR Numero Research, 28 August 2020. Hide Footnote Two main factors seem to have contributed to this negative image over the last few years: first, the repeated maritime incidents in the South China Sea; and secondly, Chinese online gambling operations concentrated in Manila. In 2016, Chinese firms emerged in the Philippines to offer online casino services to customers in China, where gambling is banned. While these services help boost the local economy by providing employment, they have a poor reputation as some Chinese operators are allegedly involved in illegal or unsavoury activities. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, analyst, 12 August 2020; Crisis Group correspondence, Teresita Ang See, social activist and academic, 27 October 2020. Philippine authorities arrested and deported hundreds of Chinese over the last few years. “342 Chinese POGO workers without visas set to be deported”, Rappler.com, 20 December 2019; “Philippine police arrest 90 Chinese for illegal gambling”, The Associated Press, 31 May 2020. Online gambling firms are supposed to pay taxes but transparency is lacking. “You [the government] get something, but you do not know how much it is”. Crisis Group interview, Alvin Camba, assistant professor, University of Denver, 13 August 2020. Hide Footnote Opposition politicians, for example Senator Risa Hontiveros, have lambasted the gambling firms using rhetoric that conflates Duterte’s responses to gambling and his responses to Chinese maritime assertiveness, indirectly pressuring the government to rein in the firms. [fn] Aika Rey, “‘China owes us over P200 billion in West Philippine Sea damage’ – Hontiveros”, Rappler.com, 22 April 2020. On 23 September 2021, Duterte signed a law that would streamline taxation of online casinos. Hide Footnote
The maritime dispute and broader relations with China are unlikely to decisively shape the 2022 presidential election, but their emotional impact on voters, coupled with more immediate concerns such as economic hardships arising from the pandemic, could play a role. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, political analyst, 28 September 2020. Hide Footnote Given how prominently the South China Sea dispute has figured in public debates throughout 2021, critics of the president running for office in 2022 might try to score some political points by arguing that the administration’s China policy has been a failure. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, political analyst, 22 September 2020. Likewise, the opposition and some analysts fear a “Manchurian candidate” who would be China-backed. Alain Robles and Raissa Robles, “The Manchurian candidate: Why China’s interest in the Philippine election is under scrutiny as Duterte prepares to leave office”, South China Morning Post , 20 November 2021. There is no sign of direct interference yet, but in the past China-based online networks have used fake Facebook accounts to post positive opinions of the Duterte administration. Jessica Fenol, “Facebook removes China-based, PH military and police-linked networks for ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’”, ABS-CBN News, 23 September 2020. Hide Footnote
V. Substantive Issues
President Duterte’s strategy to de-escalate maritime disputes with China started out rather well, fostering agreements on fisheries in Scarborough Shoal and resource exploration close to Reed Bank and Palawan. Over time, however, old problems have resurfaced. Seen from Manila, the South China Sea situation looks increasingly like a long-term stalemate.
A. Territorial Disputes
1. scarborough shoal.
Filipinos, fishermen and sailors alike, have regularly reported arbitrary acts – such as confiscation of catches or fishing equipment – by Beijing’s ships at the shoal in the last few years. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, October-November 2020. Hide Footnote At first, after the 2016 arbitral decision and the beginning of Duterte’s term, China permitted Filipinos to fish at Scarborough, but since then it has equivocated. [fn] In March 2017, reports cited local Chinese officials who seemed to be planning a build-up of environmental monitoring stations on Scarborough. Jesse Johnson, “China planning ‘monitoring station’ on hotly contested South China Sea shoal”, Japan Times , 17 March 2017. No such station has been built. Hide Footnote The informal agreement between Duterte’s envoy and Beijing was verbal, and its interpretation seems contingent on Chinese coast guard personnel’s “mood”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, official, 10 November 2020; journalists, 4 and 17 November 2020. According to the former Philippine naval chief, Giovanni Bacordo, the shoal is regularly guarded by a few coast guard vessels along with three fishing vessels. Quoted in “Online Forum with Philippine Navy’s FOIC Vice Admiral Bacordo”, Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (webinar), 9 August 2020. Hide Footnote
Both sides feel entitled to Scarborough, which the Philippines calls Bajo de Masinloc. From China’s perspective, control over the shoal would complete a maritime triangle extending to the Spratlys and Paracels, providing it with a strategic edge. [fn] China’s bases in the Spratlys and on Woody Island in the Paracels are the other points of the triangle. See also Jay Batongbacal, “Scarborough Shoal: A Red Line?”, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 25 April 2016. Hide Footnote Dominating that area, and building a base on Scarborough, could even facilitate a Chinese declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the South China Sea. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 1 November 2020. Talk of establishing an Air Defence Identification Zone over the South China Sea has been going on for years, gaining traction in 2020. China already established such a zone in the East China Sea. Hide Footnote It would likely use the creation of such a zone to unilaterally impose directives on flights entering it. This would be a way for China to show its strength and perhaps to bolster its claims to the area. [fn] Alexander Vuving, “Will China Set Up an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea?”, The National Interest , 5 June 2020. Hide Footnote Defence Secretary Lorenzana identified the “prospect” of this scenario as contributing to regional tensions. [fn] “The U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty at 70”, op. cit. Hide Footnote
For Filipinos, fishing in Bajo de Masinloc has been a traditional occupation for centuries. [fn] Traditionally, the reefs and rocks around the shoal were a fishing ground for fishermen from China, Taiwan, Vietnam as well. The fishermen from various countries regularly traded with one another. Crisis Group online interview, academic, 12 August 2020. Hide Footnote According to local government data, around 4,000 Masinloc residents on the mainland work in the fishing industry, with 500 to 800 small-scale boats and fifteen to twenty large commercial vessels registered. [fn] Crisis Group interview, village official, Masinloc, October 2020. Hide Footnote Before the conflict, hundreds of men from Masinloc fished near Scarborough, with dozens of deep-sea fishing boats regularly venturing out to the shoal. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, fishermen, Masinloc, 2020. Hide Footnote
While there is no formal prohibition, most Filipinos now avoid going there. Larger fishing boats are blocked from entering the lagoon by the Chinese coast guard, while the combination of a fourteen-hour journey and the risk of encountering hostile Chinese vessels outweighs the economic benefits for small-boat operators. [fn] Access to the lagoon by larger boats is prohibited by Chinese vessels that occasionally permit smaller boats to enter. Hide Footnote “Now, we just fish nearby, in the northern tip of Zambales”, explained one fisherman, recalling how the Chinese had told him he could not fish in the area on his last trip there in 2017. [fn] Crisis Group interview, fisherman, Masinloc, October 2020. Hide Footnote Another fisherman, however, recounted a more positive experience: in 2018, he was able to fish in the lagoon and traded his catch for noodles from the Chinese. [fn] Crisis Group online communication, 8 December 2020. Hide Footnote
The economic impact of being cut off from traditional fishing grounds is visible in Masinloc. Fishing remains the main livelihood, but while some fishermen have been able to keep plying their trade in more accessible waters, others have had to seek lower-paying work as labourers or tricycle drivers. [fn] Crisis Group interview, academic, 12 August 2020. Wives of fishermen whose livelihood had been affected even prior to the standoff often left the Philippines to work abroad. Hide Footnote One fisherman explained: “When Scarborough fishing was great, I could even save some money; but now, what I earn is just enough for our daily needs”. [fn] Crisis Group interview, fisherman, Masinloc, October 2020. Hide Footnote
2. The Spratlys
The Philippines asserts that it enjoys “effective occupation” – a concept that policymakers use to underline their claim to the islets strategically and legally – over nine features in the Spratlys, including Thitu Island. [fn] Crisis Group interview, military officer, Manila, 17 October 2020. Under international law, “effective occupation” enables acquisition of territory. A Philippine representative to the UN Seabed Committee in 1972 used the term to reiterate Manila’s claim. See Marwyn Samuels, Contest for the South China Sea (Abingdon, 2005), pp. 90-91. Hide Footnote Manila insists on regular patrols to “not let up the claim”, but remains careful to demonstrate restraint. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, navy officer, 30 July 2020. Hide Footnote Patrols circle Philippine-owned features within a twelve-mile radius and avoid passing through other international and disputed waters so as not to provoke China’s ire. Military personnel, responsible for maritime surveillance, rotate through the garrisons on the nine occupied features. Despite occasional provocations by Chinese vessels, Manila avoids actions that could cause disproportionate retaliation on the Scarborough model. In the words of the Philippine naval chief: “We are guided by the rule of law, and we want to maintain the moral high ground”. [fn] “Online Forum with Philippine Navy’s FOIC Vice Admiral Bacordo”, op. cit. Hide Footnote
Chinese fishermen, maritime militia boats and coast guard vessels roam the area, and the navy is often “around the corner”. [fn] Crisis Group interview, military officer, 16 October 2020. Hide Footnote Officials, however, highlight that although irritants remain, they have achieved a modus vivendi with the Chinese under Duterte, albeit by accepting a certain level of Chinese interference. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, 10 November 2020 and 24 April 2021. Hide Footnote For example, while Manila often tolerates Chinese vessels’ massing or “swarming” close to Philippine features, it considers acts of maritime interdiction, such as supply blockades, as violations of the status quo that warrant official protests. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 25 April 2021. Hide Footnote
Located outside the Philippine EEZ, Thitu Island is the only permanently inhabited islet among the features Manila controls, just 18km from China’s base at Subi Reef. Some 200 people live on the 37-hectare rock, including navy and air force personnel. Rudimentary facilities and difficult access to the main island of Palawan make everyday life challenging. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, civil society leader, 13 October 2020. There is no hospital on Thitu island. Hide Footnote Most of the residents are fishermen who migrated from Palawan over the years, motivated by patriotism and the promise of government subsidies. [fn] Sebastian Strangio, In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century (New Haven, 2020), p. 261. Hide Footnote
In 2017, Thitu fishermen found themselves on the front line of the maritime dispute. Regularly thwarted by water cannons from Chinese vessels, they had to withdraw several nautical miles from productive fishing grounds to the safety of Thitu’s shallow reefs. [fn] Crisis Group interview, researcher, 30 September 2020. By some accounts, the Chinese coast guard was particularly firm with Filipinos in areas rich with fish. The standard procedure involved a siren or alarm warning, followed by use of water cannons and finally the “chase”. Occasionally, instructions are broadcast in Mandarin. Dylan Michael Beatty, unpublished manuscript. Hide Footnote While municipal authorities, prior to 2016, had often been keen to showcase the plight of Thitu’s inhabitants to the world, they adapted to new realities under Duterte. [fn] The outspoken mayor of Kalayaan, Eugenio Bito-On, was a source for many international and national news outlets. He lost the 2016 election to Roberto del Mundo. Since then, the municipality has been low-key in its public relations. Hide Footnote The newly elected local government has been less eager to publicise issues related to Thitu and Chinese vessels. [fn] The Palawan-based Western Mindanao Command became also more cautious about reporting Chinese intrusions. Crisis Group online interview, journalist, 23 October 2020. Hide Footnote
In 2017, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources funded the relocation of some 50 Palawan fishermen to Thitu Island. [fn] Michael Fabynyi, “Maritime Disputes and Seafood Regimes: A Broader Perspective on Fishing and the Philippines-China Relationship”, Globalisations , vol. 17, no. 1 (2020), p. 151. Hide Footnote While the move represented a potentially controversial assertion of sovereignty, it did not seem to be part of a wider strategy, and may even have been a unilateral decision by the Bureau. The fishermen, however, faced difficulties selling their catch, and ended up supplying local soldiers, making the enterprise a partial success at best.
In August 2017, the Philippine military tried to pre-empt Chinese occupation of Sandy Cay, a set of sandbars between Thitu and the Chinese-held Subi Reef, by building fishermen’s shelters, thereby flouting the 2002 Declaration of Conduct between China and ASEAN. [fn] Adopted in November 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties is a non-binding document spelling out principles for states’ behaviour pending a full-fledged Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. With the code still under negotiation, claimant states occasionally refer to the Declaration when involved in maritime incidents. Hide Footnote Beijing’s deployment of a navy ship and a coast guard vessel to the area eventually persuaded Manila to withdraw, illustrating the Chinese modus operandi : using a Philippine move as a pretext for what most observers perceive as a disproportionate response. Since then, the feature appears to be unoccupied, though the Chinese maintain a presence in its vicinity. [fn] “Online Forum with Philippine Navy’s FOIC Vice Admiral Bacordo”, op. cit. Hide Footnote The tacit agreement seems to be to stick to the status quo. [fn] Beijing seems unconcerned with construction and repair work on Thitu Island, unlike on Sandy Cay. Crisis Group online interviews, maritime expert, 28 July 2020; source close to the Philippine side, 25 April 2021. Hide Footnote
Another Philippine concern in the Spratlys is Second Thomas Shoal. In both 2018 and 2019, Chinese vessels disrupted Philippine resupply missions to the grounded BRP Sierra Madre . Beijing’s manoeuvres stemmed from the perception that Philippine forces would fortify or rebuild the Sierra Madre , which China maintains is on the shoal illegally. Manila stood its ground, and in the end reached an arrangement with Beijing, permitting resupply operations to continue. [fn] Beijing has protested the Philippine ship’s presence since 1999, and its efforts to force Manila to withdraw from Second Thomas Shoal are likely to continue. Any perceived attempt by the Philippines to go beyond mere resupply is bound to bring a Chinese reaction. Crisis Group interview, Philippine navy officer, 30 October 2020. Hide Footnote Still, policymakers consider it a potential flashpoint in the Spratlys, as any attempt by Manila to replace or refurbish the ship would most likely trigger a Chinese reaction. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 10 October 2021. Hide Footnote It is not fully clear what prompted Beijing to once again block the resupply in 2021, but Philippine sources have cited two possible factors: yet another Chinese misperception of Manila’s intentions or an effort to enforce the coast guard law. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, Philippine officials and analysts, 18, 21 and 22 November 2021. Hide Footnote
B. Declining Fish Stocks
A major long-term problem for the Philippines is the depletion of fish stocks in the South China Sea. Fishing grounds in the Sea have been likened to “cowboy country”, where players competing with no regulation create a “free-for-all”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, maritime specialist, 2 November 2020. Two thirds of the fishing in the South China Sea is said to occur around the Spratlys. Crisis Group online interview, biologist, 20 August 2020. Hide Footnote Fishing vessels from China, Vietnam and Taiwan all ply their trade within the Philippine EEZ. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, academic, 5 August 2020. Hide Footnote The level of overfishing is such that fish stocks in the region seem vulnerable to collapse if resource mismanagement continues. [fn] See U. Rashid Sumaila and William Cheung, “Boom or Bust: The Future of Fish in the South China Sea”, University of British Columbia, 2015. The Philippines has less fishing capacity than other littoral states. Crisis Group online interview, former Philippine official, 25 September 2020. Hide Footnote Some statistics point to fish stocks potentially declining up to 59 per cent by 2045 due to the combination of overfishing and climate change.
The maritime dispute causes two main problems for Philippine fishing: first, overlapping claims mean more fishing boats competing for limited resources; and secondly, foreign vessels intimidate local fishermen, who prefer to avoid trouble. [fn] In the Philippines, there are two fisheries sectors: small-scale and artisanal fishermen, on one hand, and larger commercial enterprises, on the other. The former do not venture beyond the 15km limit of municipal waters, while the latter go farther, some out to the open sea. Only larger boats can reach Palawan and the Spratlys. There are cases of Filipinos poaching in neighbouring countries’ EEZs (particularly Indonesia’s), but the absence of state subsidies for high-sea fishing keeps many fishermen close to shore. Hide Footnote
These patterns affect different areas differently. In Palawan, fishermen do not go beyond municipal waters and are thus hardly affected by the dispute. [fn] Overfishing in the province remains a problem, which has led to a fishing ban for some species in north-eastern Palawan and efforts to declare marine protected areas in some coastal towns. Moreover, some municipalities, such as Cuyo, Coron and Busuanga, regularly experience encroachment by commercial interests in their waters, according to statistics compiled by the NGO Oceana. Crisis Group online interview, 16 November 2020. Another concern in Palawan is the live reef fish trade that spurs fishermen to sell samples of rare species to regional and global customers. Hide Footnote The situation is more complicated in the Spratlys. Commercial fishing companies reported a drop in their catches in the area as early as 2013. While local fishermen corroborated this observation, Filipino scientists found that coral reef fish assemblage around Thitu Island was actually increasing – a positive sign given the importance of such fish for stocks and maritime ecosystems. [fn] “Biodiversity and Ecological Connectivity”, DENR-Biodiversity Bureau (webinar), 23 September 2020. Aileen Baviera, “Territorial and Maritime Disputes in the West Philippine Sea: Foreign Policy Choices and Their Impact on Domestic Stakeholders”, Public Policy , vol. 15, no. 2 (2016), p. 26. Hide Footnote Fish species abundance decreased, however, in Nansha and Flat Islands, two nearby Philippine-occupied features. [fn] “Biodiversity and Ecological Connectivity”, op. cit. Anecdotal evidence from a scientific expedition to both shoals and in the vicinity of Sabina Shoal suggests that Vietnamese and Chinese fishermen were present. Crisis Group correspondence, scientist, 10 November 2020. Hide Footnote In other areas, such as the Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan province, decreasing stock seems to be the result of local – sometimes illegal – overfishing rather than maritime disputes farther out to sea. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, community worker, 19 October 2020. Hide Footnote “It is hard to convince the fishermen to act sustainably”, said the wife of a fisherman from a coastal town. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, community worker, 19 October 2020. Some villages in La Union, for example, have not been affected due to proactive local government measures such as the creation of marine protected areas. Crisis Group telephone interview, local government official, 4 September 2020. Hide Footnote Local government officials also noted the adverse impact of climate change on fisheries. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, local government official, 9 October 2020. Hide Footnote
Scarborough Shoal is another matter because of its significance as a traditional fishing ground at the heart of the maritime dispute. Fishermen operating there reported a significant drop in catches in 2020. [fn] Zambales fisherfolk reported an average 70 per cent income drop. Karl Ocampo, “Group: Fisherfolk income down by 70% amid Chinese presence in disputed waters”, Inquirer , 28 May 2021. Hide Footnote Their explanations included the presence of too many Filipino fishermen, unsustainable fishing methods (such as the use of dynamite), migration of fish stocks and the overwhelming presence of Chinese fishing boats since the 2012 standoff. [fn] In 2019, Duterte was rumoured to have concluded a “verbal” fishing deal with Xi Jinping that would allow China to fish in Philippine waters. Almost two years later, shortly after the Whitsun Reef incident, the president’s office clarified that there was no such agreement. “Malacañang backtracks on Duterte’s ‘verbal fishing deal’ with China”, Verafiles, 24 April 2021. Hide Footnote A fisherman who works mostly in municipal waters said: “It seems there are fewer fish to catch. This morning, I came home with just 5kg. Before, I used to catch 20kg in one night”. [fn] Crisis Group interview, local fishermen, Masinloc, October 2020. Hide Footnote Others, however, acknowledged the seasonality of fishing success.
In the absence of detailed research, the exact causes and extent of fish stock depletion in the Philippine EEZ and beyond are undetermined. [fn] Jonathan Anticamara and Kevin Go, “Spatio-Temporal Declines in Philippine Fisheries and Its Implications to Coastal Municipal Fishers’ Catch and Income”, Frontiers in Marine Science , vol. 3 (March 2016). Hide Footnote While all littoral states inevitably bear some responsibility, industrial fleets from China, Vietnam and Taiwan likely play a bigger role. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by both foreign and local actors is a severe challenge for coastal communities. [fn] Navotas, the capital of fishing in metropolitan Manila and home to the largest fish market in the country, felt the effects of overfishing, too. Crisis Group online interviews, local government officials and community workers, 21 September, 19 October and 27 October 2020. Hide Footnote According to a scientist, “it is a mix of everything: unregulated and illegal fishing, lower recruits, reduced stock, loss of connectivity”. [fn] Recruitment refers to juvenile fish surviving to enter an adult fish population. Connectivity refers to linkages between local marine populations. Crisis Group online interview, Deo Florence Onda, professor, Marine Science Institute, University of the Philippines, 9 October 2020. Hide Footnote Calculating the losses the Philippines is incurring in its EEZ due to foreign vessels’ overfishing and other factors – locals’ illegal fishing and Chinese land reclamation, for instance – requires a detailed study. [fn] At present, only estimates are available. Ibid. Hide Footnote Access to some of the areas concerned, however, remains a major hurdle due to the maritime dispute.
The plight of fisheries in the South China Sea cannot be separated from the state of the environment, as independent experts confirmed in the course of the 2016 arbitration proceedings. Indeed, the tribunal stated that the impact of Chinese land reclamation in the Spratlys between 2013 and 2015, and the illegal harvesting of protected species such as turtles and clams, sometimes through local middlemen, had led the maritime ecosystem to deteriorate. [fn] Official Chinese communications on the land reclamation attempted to explain protection measures taken during the construction. Most subject matter experts, however, are sceptical of both mitigation measures and efforts to reverse the damage. Hide Footnote The pressure on habitats is likely to have adverse effects upon fish abundance. [fn] For example, clam poaching has led to the destruction of coral reefs, which are critical to fish mobility and are a source of food for some species. Hide Footnote
Co-management of resources in tense waters is challenging, particularly when political considerations supersede the need for cooperation. While there have been modest efforts to foster scientific exchanges in the region, these may only work as long as technical issues do not impinge on perceived sovereignty. Lamenting the impact of politics on technical cooperation, a scientist involved underlined that any kind of collaboration on fisheries requires governments themselves to throw their support behind – or at least give their blessing to – such efforts. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, biologist, 20 August 2020. Regional initiatives to boost fisheries cooperation has been often aspirational and focused largely on exchanges between scientists, often driven by NGOs. Hide Footnote Without a regional blueprint, unilateral initiatives by individual claimant states, such as declaring marine protected areas in territorial waters, will inevitably fall short of expectations.
Cooperation among the littoral states to tackle overfishing across the region is urgently required. Exchanges between scientists and data gathering are undoubtedly a small step in the right direction, even if access challenges are a complication. [fn] Angaindrankumar Gnanasagaran, “Fishy business in the South China Sea”, ASEAN Post , 22 July 2018. Hide Footnote But more effort and political capital should be invested by the Philippines and other littoral states to kickstart genuine technical cooperation between claimants, for example through regular meetings, workshops, joint review of scientific surveys and scenario analysis for fish stocks.
C. Oil and Gas
Although the exact quantities are unknown, the South China Sea is said to sit atop vast oil and gas reserves. With the Philippines presently importing oil and gas, and the major Malampaya gas field expected to run out within a few years, finding new energy sources is a high priority for policymakers. [fn] Operated by a consortium comprising the Philippine National Oil Company, Chevron and Shell (which sold its stake to a Philippine company, Udenna, in May 2021 in a deal under Philippine Energy Department review), reserves at the Malampaya gas field, north west of Palawan island, are likely to run out in 2026 or 2027. Crisis Group online interviews, Philippine official, 14 September 2020; South China Sea expert, 23 September 2020. Hide Footnote Gaining access to additional energy resources in its EEZ could have a “sizeable impact” on the Philippines’ economy, despite the relatively high cost of offshore hydrocarbon extraction. [fn] Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (New Haven, 2014), p. 149. Hide Footnote Manila, however, has limited capacity to exploit the reserves on its own, and complications associated with the littoral dispute tend to keep multinational companies away.
China could thus be a logical partner for such ventures. Talks have been under way for years, but collaborative exploration and development of hydrocarbons has been repeatedly frustrated amid recurrent episodes of friction. Previous attempts by the Philippines to explore reserves in its EEZ resulted in a strong reaction from Beijing, signalling Manila that the exercise would be fraught. [fn] In March 2011, two Chinese vessels used “aggressive manoeuvres”, compelling the Philippine survey ship to leave the area. Crisis Group Report, Oil in Troubled Waters , op. cit., p. 15. Hide Footnote In 2014, President Aquino declared a temporary halt to all exploration efforts to avoid provoking Beijing.
In principle, however, joint exploration of resources remains a way to facilitate cooperation between China and the Philippines. “Oil and gas could be a conflict minimiser”, argued a former diplomat, “and it need not compromise sovereignty”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, diplomat, 12 August 2020. Hide Footnote In 2018, as relations improved following Duterte’s election, Beijing and Manila signed an aspirational Memorandum of Understanding that expressed their willingness to engage in joint exploration and development. The memorandum stated that officials would continue discussions under the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism on how to make joint development work in practice. Shortly afterward, Duterte lifted Aquino’s moratorium on exploration. Local and international companies have since expressed interest, though no contracts have been signed. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, government official, 14 September 2020. The lifting of the moratorium was not limited only to Chinese companies, even though Beijing is highly sceptical about Philippine cooperation with companies outside the region, or even unilateral efforts. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Manila, September-October 2020; May 2021. Hide Footnote Several areas are presently under consideration for exploration. The largest is Reed Bank, within the Philippine’s continental shelf north west of Palawan, which covers an area three times the size of Malampaya. [fn] Other reserves are near Palawan proper, including Service Contracts 75 (also Reed Bank), 58 (West Calamian), 54 (North West Palawan), 59 (West Balabac) and 57 (Calamian). The first two, and perhaps some of the others, seem to lie within the (imprecise) nine-dash line, implying that Beijing would object to any non-Chinese activity there. Hide Footnote
The legal dimension of potential cooperation in the Reed Bank is particularly complex, as the area lies within the nine-dash line, thereby raising concerns over sovereignty and sovereign rights. The framework for exploration, in accordance with national law, focuses on the service contract model, whereby a Philippine corporation or a foreign entity may enter into a contract with the Philippine government. [fn] Any agreement would need to take into account Philippine law on allocation of profits. The 1972 Oil Exploration and Development Act stipulates that the Philippines government should retain 60 per cent of net profit with 40 per cent going to the contractor. Paragraph 1, Section 2, Article XII of the 1987 constitution stipulates that “the exploration, development and utilisation of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the State”. Hide Footnote But with the 2016 ruling stipulating that the Reed Bank area is clearly within the Philippine EEZ, an agreement for joint exploration following this model would have to manoeuvre around sovereign rights disputes. By entering into a service contract with Manila, an oil or gas company would de facto recognise Philippine sovereignty, something Chinese companies would clearly refuse to do, while a contract with a non-Chinese foreign oil or gas company would most likely incur Beijing’s ire.
Legal creativity could overcome the challenge. Legal experts and analysts have developed proposals, including for a joint Philippine-Chinese authority to manage the resources, and joint ventures to engage in exploration through commercial contracts. Alternatively, the two parties could negotiate a treaty, with Manila enacting an implementing law, thus bypassing the service contract model and its requirements. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, academics, 14 August and 8 November 2020. Hide Footnote
A safer bet for cooperation would be to focus on an area around the Calamian Islands, covered by Service Contract 57 and located in another part of Palawan. As the field lies outside the nine-dash line, and there is already a partnership between Philippine and Chinese state-owned companies that could do the work thanks to an existing arrangement, there is no evident hindrance to joint exploration. [fn] Service Contract 57 was awarded to the Philippine National Oil Company, which has a partnership with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation since 2007. The third partner is Jadestone Energy. The Philippine company estimates that drilling could start in the fourth quarter of 2021; other experts are less optimistic. Crisis Group telephone interview, source close to the Philippine side, 30 May 2021. Hide Footnote An agreement on the area covered by Service Contract 57, and by extension other areas nearby, could be a test case for Philippine-Chinese collaboration and even serve as a catalyst during negotiations over the contested fields. But as the end of Duterte’s term draws closer, putting the 2018 memorandum into practice may prove challenging especially given the administration’s focus on managing the pandemic and its economic impact. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, source close to the process, 25 April 2021. Moreover, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi is a leader of Duterte’s ruling party PDP-Laban and is heavily involved in electoral politics, raising the question of the department’s priorities for the rest of the year. Hide Footnote Should Manila pursue exploration on its own, or through a non-Chinese joint venture, it would need safeguards and contingency plans in the event of an adverse Chinese reaction. [fn] Pia Ranada, “Lifting of West Philippine Sea moratorium tests Duterte’s China strategy”, Rappler.com, 24 October 2020. A unilateral move by Manila, whether via a government or private initiative, and irrespective of naval involvement, could prompt Beijing to dispatch vessels to shadow Philippine ships, to conduct its own survey in the area or to engage in other tactics of non-military coercion. Crisis Group online interviews, China policy expert, 8 November 2020; diplomat, 29 May 2021. Hide Footnote
VI. Beyond the Status Quo: Options for a Maritime State
A. dealing with dilemmas.
Manila faces a dilemma in navigating the South China Sea dispute: its two objectives of strengthening national security and resolving maritime disputes peacefully are overlapping, but not necessarily congruent. Boosting defence ties with Washington and strengthening the Philippines’ maritime position will serve the first goal, while good ties with Beijing are a prerequisite for the second. More broadly, the Philippines may also have to decide whether it will continue to cope with geopolitical tensions by hedging or, instead, fully commit to its alliance with the U.S. A Philippine official admitted that “a balancing position is not going to be easy”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 10 October 2021. Hide Footnote
At present, the tide seems to be turning toward better relations with Washington, as indicated by Manila’s recommitment to the Visiting Forces Agreement. While Beijing remains an important economic partner and may have gained some good-will through vaccine diplomacy in early 2021, the Whitsun Reef standoff, and more generally Chinese assertiveness in the Spratlys over the last few years, have had the opposite effect, both in government corridors and among the Filipino public. Yet fully reinvigorating the Philippine-U.S. alliance risks antagonising China, and complete recommitment to it will depend on Manila’s perception of Washington’s long-term assurances and the level of mutual trust. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, official, 30 April 2021. Washington’s level of support for the Philippines in case of an armed attack does not seem to be a major concern for policymakers any longer, given the Biden administration’s assurances, even though the specifics of the U.S. response may still need further clarification. Another question is whether China’s grey zone operations could be a motive for invoking the Mutual Defence Treaty, a point some commentators suggest Philippine and U.S. officials should urgently discuss. Crisis Group online communication, 20 June 2021. A review of the treaty, however, may trigger objections from China, which has already indicated its concern. Sofia Tomacruz, “Lorenzana: Ex-China envoy told me, ‘Please do not touch’ PH-US military treaty”, Rappler.com, 30 September 2021. Crisis Group online interview, 10 October 2021. Hide Footnote One step Manila could take would be to continue enhancing its defence posture (ie, establishing a military capability that could provide a minimum credible deterrence) while drawing support from countries willing to assist in pushing back against Chinese territorial assertiveness. [fn] Crisis Group interview, naval analyst, 15 August 2020. The concept of credible deterrence appears in the Philippine National Security Strategy from 2018. Hide Footnote With Duterte’s term ending in mid-2022, however, such key foreign policy decisions will most likely be left for the next Philippine president.
Another major dilemma lies in how to engage Beijing. While Manila has decades of experience in negotiating with its U.S. ally, it is relatively inexperienced in dealing with an increasingly assertive China. [fn] Notwithstanding the historical and cultural ties between the two countries regularly emphasised by diplomats. Hide Footnote Even though bilateral relations have improved, Filipino experts emphasise the need to bridge the gap beyond high-level exchanges by engaging China in more technical discussions, for example about fisheries, and increasing the frequency of meetings. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, academics, 7 September and 8 November 2020. Hide Footnote Some also believe that Beijing could do more to show its commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes. As one Philippines diplomat said: “We can only do so much. The ball is now in Beijing’s hands”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 18 September 2020. Hide Footnote Manila, however, should not forget that it also has agency. It should clearly communicate any present or future “red lines” to China and insist on its rights – for example, regarding access to Scarborough – while keeping up aspects of the relationship unrelated to the territorial dispute and avoiding overheated rhetoric. [fn] While the Philippines is no match for China militarily, these red lines can still have a deterrent effect. For example, Manila identified Chinese construction on Scarborough Shoal or forceful action by Beijing at Second Thomas Shoal aimed to remove the BRP Sierra Madre as such red lines, which China has so far respected. Crisis Group phone interview, source privy to Philippine-China talks, 28 July 2020. See also Patricia Viray, “Philippines, China draw ‘red lines’ in South China Sea dispute”, Philippine Star , 29 May 2018. Hide Footnote
B. Risk Management Mechanisms
Three scenarios that could involve Manila in a maritime incident with the potential to escalate into an armed encounter, exacerbating regional tensions in the process, are as follows:
First, a collision between U.S. and Chinese forces near the Philippine Spratly features or Scarborough Shoal might drag Manila into the picture, even if indirectly. This scenario is unlikely but not impossible given the large presence of Chinese vessels, and the U.S. navy’s regular Freedom of Navigation operations in the area. [fn] The U.S. uses these operations to challenge what it views as other states’ excessive maritime claims. Fifteen of 34 such operations reported in the South China Sea between October 2015 and February 2021 occurred around the Spratlys, including in the vicinity of Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal. Crisis Group online interview, retired U.S. Navy officer, 9 October 2020. A close encounter occurred on 1 October 2018 when the USS Decatur came near a Chinese Luyang-class destroyer in the vicinity of Gaven and Johnson Reefs, close to the Chinese-occupied features. Hide Footnote Both sides worked to mitigate tensions in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election and took steps to develop a crisis communications working group in order to prevent incidents from escalating. [fn] The latest instrument is a U.S. Department of Defense Crisis Communications Working Group with China’s People’s Liberation Army. See “ U.S. Department of Defense Hosts First Crisis Communication Working Group with People’s Republic of China’s People’s Liberation Army ”, press release, U.S. Department of Defense, 29 October 2020. Hide Footnote But accidental encounters remain a real risk, which could be diminished by further strengthening crisis communication channels between Beijing and Washington. [fn] See also Crisis Group United States Briefing N°2, Nineteen Conflict Prevention Tips for the Biden Administration , 28 January 2021. Hide Footnote
One way forward could be to clarify language in the 2014 U.S.-China understandings on rules of behaviour and major military activity notifications that is, for now, open to interpretation. [fn] The mechanism stems from a 2014 agreement between President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. It aims to “to improve and normalise mutual notification of military crisis information […] in order to reduce risk, foster mutual trust and increase openness”. Hide Footnote Direct crisis communications between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and its Chinese counterpart, and more broadly, channels that can facilitate timely communications at the leadership level during a crisis, are also overdue. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, China security expert, 5 May 2021. Hide Footnote In any case, Washington should keep Manila in the loop about its existing channels with Beijing, so that the Philippines can strengthen its own crisis management and develop systematic contingency plans.
Secondly, an encounter between Philippine and Chinese maritime forces or vessels could lead to a diplomatic crisis and military escalation. Given the consistency of U.S. pronouncements about the Mutual Defence Treaty since 2019, Manila could in principle invoke this agreement in case of an armed confrontation with Chinese assets, hoping to bring Washington into the picture to assist its ally. [fn] “ Secretary Blinken’s Call with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Locsin ”, U.S. Department of State, 8 April 2021. Hide Footnote But while the treaty serves to deter full-fledged military hostilities, by its terms it applies in situations of “armed attack”, leaving some uncertainty in Manila about the extent to which it can look to Washington for support where Chinese actions appear threatening but fall below that threshold. Duterte’s rapprochement with China encouraged both Manila and Beijing to exercise caution and peacefully work out issues such as those around Sandy Cay, but the Whitsun Reef and Second Thomas Shoal incidents underlined that maritime tensions are likely to persist. [fn] Crisis Group interview, Philippine official, 15 November 2020. Crisis Group online interviews, Philippine officials, 4 November 2020 and 25 April 2021. Hide Footnote The operational environment is therefore hard to predict, particularly from Manila’s perspective.
To minimise the risk of misjudgment or miscalculation, the Philippines could seek clarity from Washington on what kind of assistance it can expect with respect to Beijing’s grey zone actions in the South China Sea. It should also, in general, work through scenarios stemming from these (and possible future) incidents, developing responses that could dial back any escalation and reduce tensions.
Thirdly, an incident could occur involving the Philippines and a littoral state other than China. The probability of a maritime encounter with a naval or coast guard vessel from a neighbouring state is fairly low. But the potential for conflict nonetheless remains, particularly due to fishing in the Spratlys or in adjacent areas such as the Sulu Sea and the Batanes Strait. The Philippines has managed those disputes well so far, thanks to its coast guard and navy’s good relations with neighbouring states’ forces. Given the geopolitical ramifications of South China Sea incidents, better risk management mechanisms in the region would nonetheless be worthwhile.
Minimising the risk of the last two scenarios would require clarity on rules of engagement involving non-navy vessels, such as coast guard ships. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, former diplomat, 3 August 2020. Hide Footnote The Philippine navy follows the 2014 non-binding Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. [fn] Crisis Group correspondence, former senior navy officer, 11 November 2020. Hide Footnote Rules for encounters involving coast guard and maritime militia ships, however, need to be clarified. [fn] Coast guards are important players in the dispute as the primary law enforcement agencies in the South China Sea, serving also as catalysts for diplomacy. At present, the Philippines is developing rules of engagement for its coast guard. Crisis Group online interviews, academic, 7 September 2020; coast guard officer, 11 September and 17 November 2020. Hide Footnote Given the robust contacts between Philippine and Chinese coast guards, codifying bilateral rules of behaviour and replicating them at the regional level could further build confidence among the claimants. Port calls, joint workshops and hotlines are also valuable for promoting exchange. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, coast guard officers, September-November 2020. Hide Footnote
While the coast guard is a crucial actor in incidents at sea, it is important to establish different channels for de-escalation as, in the views of one observer, “multiple links are ideal in that kind of situation”. [fn] Crisis Group interview, Manila, 30 October 2020. Hide Footnote Presently, the Philippine armed forces maintain a link to the Chinese Southern Theatre Command, which covers the South China Sea air and naval space. [fn] The Southern Theatre Command is based in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, bordering Vietnam. Links to it make sense considering that the Chinese coast guard has been under the People’s Liberation Army’s command since July 2018. In the Whitsun Reef crisis, the Philippine military engaged with Beijing through its defence attaché. Hide Footnote A dedicated naval hotline between Manila and Beijing, similar to those used by ASEAN member states’ navy chiefs and supported by staff-to-staff connections, would be a useful complement. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, naval officer, 30 July 2020. Malaysia and the Philippines settled a maritime incident involving their vessels in 2016 through diplomatic means. Hide Footnote
C. Using Minilaterals to Fill Governance Gaps
With territorial disputes unlikely to be resolved soon, Manila has little choice but to continue managing relations with other claimant states the best it can, seeking to minimise friction with those that occupy features in the disputed areas and share with them the South China Sea’s maritime space. Apart from bilateral engagements, it can best proceed through a “minilateral” approach – bringing together a smaller group of implicated countries (instead of all ten ASEAN member states and China, as is the case for the Code of Conduct negotiations). Discussions in smaller forums, involving only those directly concerned and focusing on areas of common interest, such as fisheries management, scientific research or law enforcement, would help build trust and sustain official and informal ties. Such alternative modes of cooperation would have the added advantage of avoiding overreliance on an increasingly paralysed ASEAN without questioning the concept of “ASEAN centrality” when it comes to Code of Conduct negotiations. [fn] Richard Javad Heydarian, “At a Strategic Crossroads: ASEAN Centrality amid Sino-American Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific”, Brookings Institution, April 2020. Hide Footnote
In that spirit, some Philippine experts suggest that Manila should push for stronger engagement with Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta through informal consultations – possibly even on the sidelines of Code of Conduct meetings. [fn] Crisis Group interviews, diplomat, 9 September 2020; military official, 20 September 2020; South China Sea expert, 23 September 2020. Existing mechanisms at the ASEAN level, for example the Sectoral Working Group on Fisheries, have not proven efficient, partly because they by default include non-claimants in discussions. Hide Footnote It could, for example, start discussing maritime and continental shelf boundaries with Malaysia and Vietnam. [fn] Manila could draw inspiration from its recently concluded border delineation with Indonesia to sort out the issue of its overlapping EEZ with Malaysia. Likewise, although it has no direct territorial disputes with Vietnam, it could work on delineating the maritime boundary or the continental shelf with Hanoi. Hide Footnote Similarly, marine scientific research on environmental challenges in the South China Sea could be the topic of targeted discussions among South East Asian claimants, with China invited at a later stage. [fn] The Philippines is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change; its maritime environment is no exception. Crisis Group correspondence, climate scientist, 20 September 2020. See also David Suh and Robert Pomeroy, “Projected Economic Impact of Climate Change on Marine Capture Fisheries in the Philippines”, Frontiers in Marine Science , vol. 3 (April 2020). On 8 November 2021, Hanoi and Manila agreed to revive a joint maritime scientific research initiative, which had been interrupted since 2007. Jairo Bolledo, “PH, Vietnam agree to resume joint marine research expedition”, Rappler.com, 17 November 2021. Hide Footnote Moreover, the Trilateral Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia regarding the Sulu Sea, adjacent to the South China Sea, could serve as a model for a minilateral approach on law enforcement. [fn] This agreement is one of the few political-security agreements among ASEAN members. Its advantages are not primarily operational, but procedural, as it deepens ties between Manila, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in intelligence sharing, coordinated patrols and personal links. Crisis Group online interviews, diplomats, maritime analysts, July-August 2020. Hide Footnote Designed as a tool for curbing piracy and maritime militancy, this flexible instrument has managed to create political capital on a subject of common interest among the three neighbours.
Claimant states also all have an interest in tackling illegal fishing and increasing fisheries cooperation more broadly. While the Code of Conduct negotiations may touch upon fisheries dilemmas in the South China Sea, they are not geared at resolving them. Littoral states should opt for a more direct form of cooperation outside the Code’s scope. Informal conversations might be a first avenue to building confidence, but a positive outcome will require an institutional framework. Deeper engagement among the littoral states’ coast guards could be one way forward. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, coast guard officer, September 2020. Hide Footnote Manila should also strengthen and promote science diplomacy in order to develop elements of a joint policy framework for fisheries in the South China Sea, facilitated by regular dialogue among claimant states. Initial steps could include data sharing on fish stocks, a mapping of particularly vulnerable areas around the Spratlys and an exchange about marine protected areas. Common guidelines on developing aquaculture could also contribute to reducing overfishing on the high seas. [fn] Aquaculture is a controlled way of cultivating fish and other seafood organisms and colloquially means “fish farming”. Hide Footnote
D. Calibrate the Code of Conduct
Under negotiation since 2002, the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea could be, if it becomes a reality, one of the few common denominators among Beijing and the ASEAN claimants. It is foreseen as an instrument for managing, rather than resolving, the maritime disputes. But while the need is pressing for a framework to contain simmering tensions, the draft under review is a complex and largely aspirational document that lays out what are currently irreconcilable positions. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, former diplomat, 3 August 2020; diplomat, 18 September and 1 October 2020. Hide Footnote Crucial questions, such as the Code’s geographic scope and legal status, as well as the question of dispute settlement mechanisms, remain unresolved. Still, if the Code talks have been arduous, they are so far the only mechanism with buy-in from both Beijing and the other littoral states.
Manila should continue to push for progress both at the negotiating table and behind the scenes. Following the minilaterals approach mentioned above, the Philippines could, for example, lobby for the creation of preparatory “working groups” that would help achieve bilateral or trilateral consensus on vital issues among key claimant states prior to going to the Code of Conduct negotiation table. [fn] While sectoral working groups exist under ASEAN on topics such as fisheries and coastal and marine environment, they have so far proven ineffective, partly due to the fact they include all ASEAN member states, many of which have no direct stake in the South China Sea, rather than focusing on claimant states. Hide Footnote
Procedure apart, Manila should also push for relevant content in the Code of Conduct to make the document more substantive. As one of the claimant states most affected by incidents at sea, the Philippines would for example have an interest in clarifying draft clauses such as language about “self-restraint”, about which the draft is presently vague, leaving plenty of room for misunderstandings at sea. [fn] The Code of Conduct’s predecessor, the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, stipulates that all parties will “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes”, but it does not define the notion of self-restraint. The draft of the Code of Conduct features some parties’ suggestions for clear wording but no agreed-upon definition. Hide Footnote It could also promote clear phrasing regarding enforcement mechanisms and dispute settlement provisions, including by emphasising the relevant mechanisms that exist under UNCLOS, and more broadly advocate for adherence to accepted principles of proportionality and good faith in resolving contentious issues. [fn] Tweet by Teodoro Locsin, @teddyboylocsin, 12:39am, 26 November 2020. Hide Footnote Finally, Manila could draw from its bilateral talks with China to strengthen provisions on environmental cooperation and fisheries management. Whatever the case, the Philippines should push for a substantive, effective and legally binding Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China at the earliest, even after its term as coordinator of the process ended. [fn] Myanmar took over the role of coordinator for ASEAN-China relations from the Philippines in August 2021. Hide Footnote
E. Keeping China in the Loop
For the Philippines, as for all claimant states, China is an inescapable geographic reality. Considering the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea are likely to be unresolved for some time, a pragmatic approach to managing differences with Beijing is crucial. “We can talk to China, but keep the expectations low. Yet talking is better than fighting”, said a former navy commander. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, retired officer, 1 July 2020. Hide Footnote China values negotiation, and the existing Bilateral Consultative Mechanism is, in principle, a good forum for talks, even if its track record is mixed. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, retired diplomat, 23 July 2020. Hide Footnote The five sessions that took place before the pandemic achieved progress on topics such as joint exploration for hydrocarbons and scientific research, while other issues stalled. [fn] Part of the problem was the infrequency of meetings, exacerbated by the pandemic. Hide Footnote A sixth round of talks took place in mid-May 2021, which officials deemed moderately successful as it allowed for continuing frank dialogue and for airing a number of constructive suggestions. [fn] Crisis Group telephone interview, 30 May 2021. The main discussion points included “issues of concern” and “issues of cooperation”. One breakthrough cited was compensation for Filipino losses during the 2019 Reed Bank incident. Observers also highlighted advances in fisheries cooperation, though details are scarce. Hide Footnote Increasing the frequency of exchanges with tangible action points and specific outputs could build trust, improve Beijing’s public standing in the Philippines, and set a precedent for future resolution of disputes.
Encouraging good-will through a formal agreement on access to Scarborough Shoal, including ground rules governing interactions between Chinese vessels and Philippine fishing and coast guard boats, would be a win for both sides. So, too, could demilitarisation of the shoal’s lagoon, in the spirit of the 2016 arbitration award. As Scarborough concerns only China and the Philippines, it can be tackled bilaterally. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, defence analyst, 30 June 2020. Hide Footnote Should there be no substantive results in bilateral channels, Manila could then bring up the issue at the Code of Conduct talks and advocate for Scarborough’s inclusion in the agreement’s geographical scope.
The South China Sea disputes are complex, involving a number of countries and a multitude of economic, strategic and security dimensions. Phases of escalation and confrontation are interspersed with periods of calm. Recent tensions are feeding back into U.S.-China strategic competition, drawing Manila into an increasingly thorny foreign policy predicament.
Following Duterte’s 2016 election victory, the Philippines’ foreign policy, and by extension its South China Sea strategy, shifted abruptly, with the president swiveling toward China. Five years on, there are divergent views in Manila about whether Duterte’s rapprochement with Beijing has served national interests, especially given the president’s ad hoc approach. Further incidents at sea are likely after Duterte steps down if the next president’s course is less China-friendly. Nonetheless, as the Whitsun Reef affair has shown, it is at least sometimes possible for Manila to deal with Beijing by combining cooperation and deterrence. Manila’s greatest asset in the long run could be its ability to isolate the dispute from other aspects of the China relationship, standing its ground in the Sea if required.
A crucial question remains whether the Philippines can navigate between China and the U.S. without an armed confrontation compelling it to choose sides. For now, Manila is hedging well. But its balancing act may soon become untenable as Beijing seeks to assert its regional ambitions and Washington pushes back. The South China Sea’s deep waters look likely to remain troubled. But finalising the Code of Conduct and boosting regional cooperation could at least avoid further escalation.
Appendix A: Map of the South China Sea
Appendix B: Map of the Spratly Islands
Appendix C: Philippine Presidents and the South China Sea (since 1998)
Joseph Estrada (1998-2001)
Although domestic issues dominated his term, Joseph Estrada’s presidency coincided with developments that would influence future Philippine foreign policy. Opposed to the presence of U.S. bases in the early 1990s, the president shifted gears after the Mischief Reef incident in 1995. Under his leadership, the Philippine Senate ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States in 1999. In the words of an analyst: “The Agreement was marketed as a way to deal with China”. [fn] Crisis Group interview, security analyst, 8 August 2020. Hide Footnote As a result, according to a diplomat, the relationship with Washington was “patched up”. [fn] Crisis Group interview, former diplomat, 3 August 2020. Hide Footnote
While committed to a diplomatic resolution of the maritime disputes, Estrada did not shy away from strong statements or assertive actions. For him, “China’s sweeping claim to the Spratlys [was] not merely about barren and uninhabitable islands. … [but] about South East Asia’s bottom-line security”. [fn] “Beijing is biggest security threat in region: Estrada”, The Straits Times , 19 May 1999. Hide Footnote Estrada established a presence at Second Thomas Shoal with the grounding of the BRP Sierra Madre in 1999 but did not succeed in a comparable proposal regarding Scarborough Shoal. As a journalist put it, “while Estrada took one step forward with [Second Thomas Shoal], he also took one step backward in the case of Scarborough”. [fn] Vitug, Rock Solid , op. cit., p. 18. Hide Footnote
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010)
Under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Estrada’s successor, Philippines-China relations reached a surprising zenith, remembered as a “golden age” of bilateralism. [fn] “ Speech of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during the 30th Anniversary Celebration of RP-China Diplomatic Relations ”, Official Gazette of the Philippines , 9 June 2005. Hide Footnote The shift occurred when U.S.-China relations were smoothened by nascent anti-terrorism cooperation in a post-9/11 global order and improved economic ties. Whether it was a geopolitical gambit or a reaction to a temporary cooling-off period in relations with the U.S., Arroyo kept both powers by her side. [fn] A security analyst said: “Arroyo was rebuffed by the U.S. and then swung back to China”. Crisis Group online interview, 8 August 2020. Hide Footnote She tried to gain traction for resolving the maritime dispute through diplomacy, leading to the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Manila went a step further and aimed for an instrument to calm the waters of the disputed area through a strategy discussed more than ten years earlier: joint development of resources.
The Philippines government tabled a regional agreement on the joint exploration of energy resources in the South China Sea as early as 2003. Spearheaded by the members of Arroyo’s inner circle, the Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking was an effort to kick-start joint development with initial exploration, short of actual extraction of oil or gas. [fn] Crisis Group Report, Oil in Troubled Waters , op. cit., pp. 18-21. Hide Footnote Hanoi joined the initiative later, eager to participate in surveys of waters it also claimed. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, former government official, 5 November 2020. Hide Footnote The deal aimed to build on the momentum of cooperation and good-will, leaving sovereignty issues for a later stage. But after the initial survey, it ended with a whimper. With the Arroyo administration in domestic disarray, the agreement was not renewed. [fn] Arroyo’s administration pursued a variety of other economic projects with Beijing and was accused of irregularities and corruption, also to the extent of trading Philippine sovereignty for Chinese monetary support. Arroyo’s initial achievements were derailed in her second term leading to allegations of corruption and coup efforts by disgruntled military officers. Hide Footnote The Joint Undertaking was “short of actual exploration and some legal issues were insurmountable”, a former government official said. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, 25 September 2020. Hide Footnote
Good relations with China did not extend to the Scarborough Shoal area, where the dispute simmered amid a cycle of protests, dialogue and incidents. [fn] Vitug, Rock Solid , op. cit., p. 55. Hide Footnote The Philippine navy, in particular, acted assertively, arresting Chinese fishermen. [fn] In some cases, the Philippines waived the sentences early as a result of diplomatic talks with China, releasing the fishermen. In others, judges ordered their release due to procedural reasons. Hide Footnote During Arroyo’s second term, the Philippine Congress passed the 2009 Baseline Law (Republic Act 9522) that adjusted Manila’s claims consistent with UNCLOS by harmonising pieces of three prior laws. Thereafter, the Philippines claimed specific islands and areas of the sea rather than the Spratlys as a whole.
Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016)
In the first years of his presidency, Benigno Aquino faced two major challenges related to the South China Sea. [fn] President Aquino was not as much an anomaly in Philippines-China relations as is often assumed. Early in his term, he reached out to China and visited Beijing for a five-day state visit in 2011. Crisis Group online interview, former cabinet member, 23 October 2020. Hide Footnote In 2011, the Chinese coast guard expelled a Philippine survey vessel in the Reed Bank, within the Philippine EEZ, leading Aquino to realise that Beijing was intent on enforcing its nine-dash line claim. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, South China Sea researcher, 23 September 2020. Hide Footnote The biggest turning point, however, was the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident. [fn] See Section II.A for more details on the incident. Hide Footnote In the aftermath of the standoff, the Philippine’s diplomatic engagement with Beijing invariably ended in acrimony. [fn] Vitug, Rock Solid , op. cit., p.145. Hide Footnote ASEAN’s lukewarm support frustrated Manila.
The incident also changed the calculus of Manila’s security establishment. Driven largely by concerns about China’s ambitions in the region, Aquino actively invested in military modernisation. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, defence analyst, 30 June 2020. Hide Footnote Although the Philippines cannot hope to reach parity with Chinese forces, one leitmotif for the defence sector is attaining “minimal credible defence” while dealing with the disputes. [fn] Crisis Group interview, navy officer, 12 August 2020. Hide Footnote In the aftermath of the Scarborough Shoal incident, Aquino strengthened the coast guard, presided over the drafting of a maritime strategy, and signed a partnership with Vietnam in 2015 to increase economic and political cooperation based on shared concerns in the South China Sea. [fn] “Viet Nam, Philippines issue joint statement on strategic partnership”, Vietnam News, 19 November 2015. Hide Footnote Toward the end of his term, he also organised the Task Force on the West Philippine Sea. [fn] Foreign Secretary Del Rosario formed the first task force to respond to the developments around Scarborough Shoal in 2012. In 2014, Aquino created the Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee on the West Philippine Sea before transforming it into the task force in 2016. Hide Footnote
Spurred by the Scarborough episode, Aquino finally sought international arbitration under UNCLOS despite reservations from his cabinet and foreign ministry officials. [fn] Crisis Group online interviews, journalist, 24 September 2020; think-tank analyst, 05 September 2020. See Vitug, Rock Solid , pp. 176-177. Hide Footnote Months after China refused to take part in the proceedings hosted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it started to build artificial islands through massive land reclamation in the Spratlys. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged not to militarise the reclaimed areas, features such as airfields, harbours and various facilities could easily serve dual purposes, while others are clearly military installations. [fn] China has also deployed military assets it described as “necessary national defense facilities, … aimed at protecting China’s sovereignty and security”. “Beijing ‘installs missiles’ on South China Sea islands”, Agence France Presse, 3 May 2018. The military significance of the features remains debated, with two main interpretations of Beijing’s objectives: dominance of the South China Sea and power projection directed at Taiwan and the first island chain, or a defensive posture enhancing Beijing’s coastal defence around Hainan province and the Paracel Islands, short of domination. Hide Footnote
The island building likely resulted from a confluence of factors including the arbitration proceedings and the fallout of the Scarborough standoff. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Filipino-Chinese analyst, 5 September 2020. Hide Footnote Contrary to what some of Aquino’s domestic critics assert, it preceded the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement between Manila and Washington initiated by Aquino. [fn] The Duterte administration has frozen the defence pact. Hide Footnote Most analysts see the land reclamation as consistent with Beijing’s more assertive foreign policy from late 2013. [fn] Island building occurred around the same time as the launch of the Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea and worsening Sino-U.S. relations. A Chinese analyst wrote: “The question was not whether China should build islands, but when. That moment came in 2013, when the PLA Navy, making a new pitch after a leadership transition, was given the green light by President Xi”. Feng Zhang, “China’s Long March at Sea: Explaining Beijing’s South China Sea Strategy, 2009–2016”, The Pacific Review , vol. 33, no. 5 (2019), p. 19. Hide Footnote An analyst summed up: “For Beijing, security beats economics and even the environment”. [fn] Crisis Group online interview, Filipino-Chinese analyst, 5 September 2020. Hide Footnote
This report is one in a three-part series treating important aspects of the maritime disputes in the South China Sea: Competing Visions of International Order in the South China Sea; The Philippines’ Dilemma: How to Manage Tensions in the South China Sea; and Vietnam Tacks Between Cooperation and Struggle in the South China Sea. The recommendations below are common to all three.
To better manage tensions arising from conflicting claims to sovereignty and jurisdiction in the South China Sea:
To the governments of all claimant states:
1. Bring claims to jurisdiction in the South China Sea into conformity with international law by declaring baselines and maritime zones that accord with conventional readings of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
To the governments of ASEAN member states and China:
2. Accelerate negotiations on a substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
To the government of the Philippines:
3. Encourage the establishment of risk management mechanisms among claimant states in order to reduce the risk of escalation during incidents at sea. These could include clear rules of engagement for non-navy vessels such as coast guard ships in the region.
4. Promote minilateral structures for negotiations focusing on issues of common interest among claimant states, such as scientific research or law enforcement. Increased cooperation on fisheries management is another vital tool to both build confidence and tackle the dwindling stocks in the South China Sea.
5. Maintain dialogue with China through the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism; and use this communication channel to negotiate rules of access to Scarborough Shoal and develop ground rules of interaction between both countries’ vessels therein. Manila should also use the mechanism to clearly communicate its red lines in the maritime domain to China.
To the government of Vietnam:
6. Accelerate negotiations with China on delimitation of the waters outside the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin.
7. Expedite talks with Indonesia to delimit the two countries’ overlapping maritime claims.
8. Replicate and expand existing mechanisms of bilateral coast guard and fisheries cooperation at the regional level, including through minilateral structures.
9. Promote marine scientific collaboration with other littoral states to build confidence and nurture cooperation.
10. Push for the establishment of technical working groups on fisheries and environmental protection to support negotiations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
To the government of China:
11. Bring maritime claims into line with UNCLOS by:
a) Stepping away from its claim to “historic rights”;
b) Ending its practice of deploying survey vessels and large fishing fleets of vessels in the exclusive economic zones of the other littoral states.
12. Relinquish the legal argument that the Spratly Islands is a single unit that can be enclosed by straight baselines and generate an exclusive economic zone.
13. Reassure South East Asian neighbours by expressing willingness for a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
14. Explore with other littoral states mechanisms to prevent incidents at sea involving maritime law enforcement and fishing vessels, and develop operational principles to guide law enforcement behaviour at sea, including in their treatment of fishermen.
To the government of the United States:
15. Accede to UNCLOS to bolster U.S. credibility, strengthen the treaty regime and raise the reputational costs to China of flouting the law.
16. Calibrate efforts, alone and with partners, to pressure China through Freedom of Navigation operations, military exercises in the South China Sea and other means that increase the risk of unplanned incidents, which could escalate and reinforce Beijing’s fears of encirclement.
17. Encourage cooperation among South East Asian claimant states on marine scientific research, fisheries conservation and environmental protection.
To the governments of China and the United States:
18. Intensify high-level dialogue to resolve possible misunderstandings and to communicate clear red lines.
- South China Sea
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My life as a senior in high school
Students face many challenges with school, relationships, work and social interactions.
- by Reno Swiger, Lincoln High School
- Nov 26, 2012
- Nov 26, 2012 Updated Oct 12, 2017
- 3 min to read
- Copy article link
SHINNSTON — If someone were to ask me what it is like to be a student in today’s society, I would probably answer them something like this:
Hi, my name is Reno, and I am a senior at Lincoln High School. Let me just tell you that being a student in today’s society is not always easy.
Adults often tell us that we don’t know what stress is and to just wait until we grow up. But we as teenage students have our own levels of stress. For instance, all school activities require you to uphold your grade point average to high standards, along with the expectations that you dedicate any extra time to it day and night.
Then, getting your homework turned in on time seems simple, but you still hope to have a life outside of school as well. Many students in their high school years start their first job, so now you have school in the mornings, followed by responsibilities needing to be taken care of at home and then you’re off to work.
By the time you are done there, you are too exhausted to finish your school work, but you stay up late to try and return to school feeling half conscious the next day. What good is that?
Now, let me remind you that we are becoming young adults, and some of the students have gotten involved in serious relationships, maybe even gotten married. Of course that doesn’t give a free pass that exempts you from homework, but it does make home life stressful when you are trying to have a relationship as well.
Also, more than ever before, young girls are becoming mothers, and that means if she even continues to attend school after giving birth, she is now a full-time mother, as well as trying to accomplish homework assignments just to graduate.
Going through something like that makes you vulnerable to being bullied. These are students who are constantly trying to hide in the background, feeling judged and ridiculed in a place where they should be accepted.
Let’s not forget about peer pressure. All high school students are exposed to it at some point in their life. High school can be a place where students are made fun of, disapproved, singled out and pointed at.
Each of us has a choice on how to accept these challenges in his or her life, and for that, I choose my faith. I have expressed some of the challenges we face in just being a student. Yet, I haven’t even touched on how difficult it is to be a Christian teenager in high school today.
Professing yourself to be a Christian opens a lot of doors where you must defend yourself, like being involved in the Christian Club or even praying at the lunch table before you eat. Being a Christian in high school tests your faith to high measures, watching young women give themselves away, students not caring about their grades, others dropping out and the list goes on and on.
My point is, it is a whole lot more stressful to be a student in high school than adults believe. Though it shouldn’t be this way, it only gets worse as years pass by. And we are constantly being judged, especially for what we believe in.
So our “stress” may not involve paying bills, buying groceries or taking care of a family, but I’m sure if the adults in our lives could go back to school today, they would be surprised at how much it has changed.
I don’t want you to think for a minute that there aren’t good moments and memories made while we are students. We find our friends, our mentors and, if we are lucky, ourselves!
My mom always tells me to enjoy it while I can — ‘it’ being my youth. I know that the world outside of school is often harsh and that the responsibilities are serious. That’s exactly why I know that the focus I give to my future is essential in helping me navigate my way into a career that will allow me to contribute to society and enjoy who and what I become.
I want to remind everyone, including myself, that in this moment, we are as old as we have ever been, and as young as we will be again. Live in the moment! If this was your last moment, would you be able to say you were living? I want to be able to say yes. So that’s what I am trying to do — learning as I go, wearing faith as my armor and knowing that in God’s plan we are all students and teachers, too.
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I am a senior in high school. I have a lot of free time because I don't have many classes, so I spend it doing whatever I want. Sometimes I like to play games with my friends or read books. I also enjoy spending time outside with my family, where we can go hiking or camping. We always make sure that we get some fresh air and exercise while we're out there. And when it gets cold, we love to stay inside and watch movies or play games on the computer. Using https://fixgerald.com/ to check for plagiarism helps me very much in saving additional time. I'm very happy with my life right now because it's going well for me.
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