Change-making in the time of COVID-19

Asia and the Pacific winner Sonika Manandhar, software engineer, Chief Technology Officer of Aeoli (Green Energy Mobility); Europe winner Marianna Muntianu, environmental activist, Founder of Plant the Forest; and Asia and the Pacific winner Louise Mabulo, celebrity chef and farmer, Founder of the Cacao Project. If one disease can provide wisdom beyond our comprehension of how fragile, interconnected and precious life is, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic offers a plethora of lessons on a personal, regional and planetary level. 
Crises like COVID-19 show the urgency to promote necessary transformations for our society to survive in the 21st century. It can be a good reminder that in any breakdown, there is always a chance for breakthrough.
We turned to three of our 2019 Young Champions to gain some of their personal reflections as they navigate all the highs and lows 2020 has brought their way. 
Here’s what they had to say. 
Amidst the acute sense of loss, anxiety and insecurity COVID-19 has brought on all fronts, do you feel that it has any silver linings to offer? What have you experienced that you would consider a positive aspect in this shift from life as usual? 
Louise Mabulo: On a community level, I feel as though being in enhanced community quarantine has allowed us to look inward and start valuing ingredients and materials produced locally, by our own neighbours and friends. Life has reverted to a certain way, where we appreciate each other much more, albeit from a distance, and we start to appreciate the small things we take for granted on a daily basis. It has forced us to slow down and reassess our priorities and what we truly value.
Marianna Muntianu: Coronavirus is showing us that we really can unite our actions to solve global problems and do it quite quickly in spite of many obstacles and in the face of economic difficulties. The lockdowns we see around the world are forcing us to slow down, take stock and start thinking about our future – what kind of world do we want to see in a decade, or even earlier? 
From a reported drastic improvement in air pollution levels in parts of the world, to the water in canals is some urban areas said to clearing for the first time in decades, from wild animals appearing in and around big cities, to the sweet sound of birdsong in areas where there was none, one thing is clear: nature is enjoying this small break from us, our daily grind and environmental footprint. 
The virus has given us a good lesson: if we reduce our impact on nature, she will return the favour with fresh air, clean water and bounteous ecosystem services.
Sonika Manandhar: One thing that really excited me about this space that we’re in, especially as a software engineer, is that this outbreak will most definitely force consumers and businesses to go digital. I can’t wait to see what transformation and innovation it brings on all fronts, pushing us to leapfrog outdated modes of doing things. 
Over the past few weeks it feels like we are constantly being bombarded with news, information, misinformation and a slurry of emails and texts on the crisis – it’s super hard to concentrate or focus on much else. But the work to save our planet must continue. What have you personally struggled with and what top tip would you give on trying to keep some sense of focus and productivity during this difficult time?
Louise Mabulo: It’s been such a challenging time to focus. We have so much information, news, and worries circling our heads every hour of the day. I’ve been distance learning and homeschooled for years, and yet I still find it challenging to concentrate in these unique times. 
It’s important to take care of yourself, take breaks, and set up an accountability system. Although it might suddenly seem like we have an abundance of time, we also need to ration our time wisely, so that we can still meet targets while having a healthy work-life balance. Now is a wonderful time to work on developing ourselves, and continue personal growth in isolation. 
Top tip:

For those of you who are struggling with the awkwardness of telecommuting, something I’ve found very helpful is an article from Stanford D.School called Making Virtual More Human. The idea is to engage people virtually and break down some of the barriers that make online communication awkward, and create an environment where people can delve deeper into distance collaboration.
Marianna Muntianu: I have been working remotely from home for five years already, so self-isolation is luckily not a new concept for me. The hardest thing I’ve been struggling with is the panic emanating from people around me, my parents in particular. 
As with everyone, it’s been challenging to discipline myself according to the recommendations to prevent the spread: to not touch your face, wash your hands with soap thoroughly and wear a mask. 
While we protect ourselves, I would encourage everyone to do as much as possible to also protect nature during this hard time and to be conscious about your impact. For example, unless you’re in a high-risk category like medical workers, you can look into replacing low-quality disposable protective equipment with washable and reusable masks. 
Think twice before buying something. Do you really need it? Try and choose reusable and low carbon footprint consumables. And remember that although it’s now the time to stay home, you should always try and get some time with nature, even if it’s just looking out your window at the birds. 
Top tips:
For remote work, there are several convenient meeting platforms which can hold large numbers of participants for meetings and webinars, with screen-sharing capabilities. 
A lot of accelerators and business schools are currently conducting online training all over the world on a variety of websites” in Russian free of charge like SKOLKOVO, Open Education. 
If you’d like to start learning a new language, Duolingo is one of many great free platforms. 
Sonika Manandhar: To keep our Aeloi team focused and productive, we have started a daily check-in and check-out call before we start and end our work hours. While working from home, I’ve noticed a lot of us start to lose track of time and end up working much longer hours, until late evening. 
During this stressful time, a healthy work-life balance is essential. I have started personally practicing a cutoff time for work, to do some de-stressing activities. I am having such a wonderful time learning guitar which gives me perfect downtime and a creative outlet after a day full of calls and coding. Now is a wonderful time to take up a hobby!
Top tips:
The news can also add to stress levels. While misinformation from online media sources is rampant at this point, my mantra is: only read and share news from reliable and credible sources such as the World Health Organization and your country’s health ministry. Always check before sharing!
If you want to learn guitar, Fender is providing three free months of lessons!
Why would you encourage young change-makers to apply for Young Champions of the Earth, now more than ever?
Louise Mabulo: Now more than ever, the world needs a ray of hope, the world needs active change agents – young people who are brave, engaged and can lead the way to a prosperous future. These days, it’s so easy to get lost in the cacophony of grim news about the state of the world, but the Young Champions applicants and winners of today and those to come, prove to all of us that the fight to save our world goes on strong. We are not giving up, and we’ve only just begun.
Marianna Muntianu: Mother nature has given us a strong signal through this pandemic:  we must change our habits and slow down if we are going to continue living on this planet. It is a perfect time to make people realize on a global level that flattening the curve of climate change and environmental destruction is just as important as flattening the curve for COVID-19. It’s a perfect time to formulate and refine your ideas and put the planning and strategy in place to make them happen. 
Sonika Manandhar: It is important to keep in mind that with a system failure, it becomes evermore clear that we need a system change. This is the time for all young changemakers to step forward and to make themselves heard. The timing has never been better to apply to be a Young Champion of the Earth. 
Note: The comments, suggestions and recommendations above are attributable to each person listed above and should not be construed as advice from or endorsed by the United Nations Environment Programme.
Do you have what it takes to be a Young Champion of the Earth? Apply now. Remember to press submit as applications close on 10 April 2020. When you apply, you also become part of our change-maker community. 
Young Champions of the Earth is the United Nations Environment Programme’s leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. 


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