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Silver linings in a challenging time

PEMA GYAMTSHO- - - 
The past month has given me a sense of déjà vu. A number of our member countries have gone back to strict lockdown measures, as we collectively continue to grapple with a painful second wave of COVID-19. Across the region, lives and livelihoods have been disrupted and we have had to endure unthought-of hardships. Many of us have lost close relatives and friends to the disease. Therefore, it is only appropriate that I begin this message with prayers for all the departed souls to find peace and for those affected by the losses to find strength and fortitude to tide over this difficult period.
It is difficult to keep positive amidst all the pain and suffering; nonetheless, that is what I will try to do in this space today. Looking back at our first experience of COVID-19 lockdowns last year, there is a lot we learnt, personally and professionally. On a personal level, we all learnt to better understand and cope with uncertainty and with our own anxieties, fears, and loss. While past experience does not necessarily make for an easier ride the second time around, it does give us knowledge and insight, and I think it has helped many to keep relatively calm and soldier on.
Professionally too, we have become familiar with working from home, how best to manage our time, and how to ensure that our work does not stop. This has been evident as much of our work continues and is going well. We organized or were part of webinars that covered a range of issues, from women in agriculture and geospatial information technology to climate change, sustainability, and conservation. In some sense, this new arrangement is even better and more efficient with some important positives.
For example, I find it incredibly convenient to be able to easily join important conversations with our partners from around the world. It is amazing that I can be in discussions with colleagues and stakeholders in our part of the globe in the morning and be in conversation with partners from Europe and the Americas that same evening. Despite the challenges of connectivity and technology, most important meetings continue to happen online. I think we can safely say that this modality has significantly helped lower our organizational carbon footprint.

This brings me to another important positive dimension of the ongoing situation. Much like last year, the strict measures and overall reduction in economic activity have given our natural environment some breathing space. As we celebrated the International Day for Biological Diversity in May, I thought about how this month has probably been a respite for our biodiversity in our mountains to flourish and thrive. I am also confident that there has been better air quality and cleaner water in most parts of our region over these past few weeks. We now need to think about how nature can thrive while human lives continue uninterrupted. It may be difficult to imagine right now, but we can be confident that like all pandemics of the past, this particular one will also gradually come to an end. For now, it is critical that we do all within our means to minimize impacts and suffering. It is, however, equally important to also already start thinking about what we do next.

And so we will need to think carefully about what a post-COVID recovery for our mountains and region should look like. The current crisis provides an opportunity for us all to re-think our development priorities and what we value. A proper and efficient health infrastructure is one, but equally, conservation and restoration of our ecosystems and environment has to take centre stage. This will be important to not only avoid future pandemics and zoonotic diseases but also guarantee healthy, equitable, and prosperous lives for over 240 million who inhabit our region.

It is becoming increasingly clear to us that what we are going through is of our own making and has resulted from our mindless pursuit of wealth through over-exploitation of natural resources and abuse of nature. Therefore, we have an opportunity to change – individually and collectively – and bounce back differently, with nature first on our agenda. Until then, let us all do our best to stay positive, and test negative.

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