Crises have a way of exposing certain things that in better times we prefer to sweep under the rug.

One of the things made abundantly clear by the COVID-19 pandemic is just how far we remain from building a truly sustainable society.

Our environmental impact is well documented, from fishery depletion and resource over-extraction to climate change and habitat loss. But we are falling short on economic and social issues as well, and this pandemic has only worsened that problem.

Our most vulnerable neighbors are more likely to be facing unemployment or working in a job that doesn’t allow them to practice safe distancing. They also more frequently struggle with access to quality medical care; are often exposed to greater levels of air pollution; and, according to a Harvard study released in April, are also experiencing worse outcomes from COVID 19.

You might think of sustainability as focusing only on environmental issues, but that’s only part of it. It’s also about understanding that environmental improvements are most effective when we include economic health and social equity as related goals.

As we look to recover from this virus and recession, we have an opportunity to think about how we can make structural changes that create greater equity and reduce the number of people who bear the brunt of economic and environmental inequality.

Fitchburg has prioritized these concepts through its Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, seeking to improve access to city resources and economic opportunity in locations that have been historically underserved. There are other gaps we could address.

As celebrated author, poet, and activist Sonya Renee Taylor recently said, we won’t be going back to normal after we recover from the current crisis.

“Normal never was,” she said. “Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection … We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

We have to consider what “normal” we might want to return to.

It could be a world where we consume more than the earth can sustain while many still suffer from a lack of necessities and basic comforts. Or instead, it could be a world where we prioritize sharing and concern for one another.

It could be one where healthy ecosystems and farms supply us with enough food and resources for everyone without being depleted and where the concept of “marginalized communities” has no meaning. Where the most important metrics have to do with equity, opportunity and overall global health, rather than monetary figures that are indifferent to the well-being of people.

It has become evident in recent months that major changes must be made if we are to create more opportunities and greater equity for all our neighbors. We look forward to recovering from both a global pandemic and an economic recession. Let’s start making positive changes now so our new “normal” better protects us from future crises and offers shared growth for all.

We can support groups working to lift up those hit hardest by this crisis, ensure our communities are rebuilding with equity and fairness in mind and encourage our leaders to pursue sustainability in its fullest meaning. By rebuilding with that vision in mind, we might just create exactly the kind of “better world” we’ve been dreaming about for generations.

Phil Grupe is a sustainability specialist for the City of Fitchburg.