Pollution Free Environment and Covid-19 Pandemic
| Dr. Anwesha Chakraborty, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha - 13 Oct 2020

Dr. Anwesha Chakraborty

From New York and Serbia to Beijing and Ghaziabad, visibility of blue skies and inhaling clear air levels have been increased dramatically since lockdown started, offering an opportunity for positive change of climate beyond covid-19.Taking fragrance of clean air under blue skies has taken a more literal meaning these days. We are getting back to our natural rights to take cleaner air has been an unintended consequence of the covid-19 pandemic.

According to the report of IQ Air, a gigantic dropin air pollution levels has been noticed in almost all polluted cities in the world.My friends from New Delhi also discussed about the cleaner air of their places since the lockdown geared up from mid of March. Now Parliament house is clearly visible from India Gate. Eight years ago, I had gone through a helpless situation when my uncle- an investment banker – struggled to survive in the last stages of lung cancer that killed him. He was exposed to polluted air of Delhi in Laxminagar area and affected by lung cancer. I came to know his condition through his pulmonologist Dr.Shah. He described that “lungs as a central machines, containers of airthat just kind of blow life giving oxygen into the blood through a thin wall, a membrane”,I estimated suddenly what he exactly wanted to share with us by the “texture of the lungs”.

My aunt, who stays in Los Angles, now started claiming that they are experiencing the cleanliest air of any major city of the world. The inhabitants of Los Angles used to the thick layer of smog all through the year. This is the clearest air since 1995 and the city dwellers are thankful to the authority for the stay-at-home order. Before the start of the lockdown, smoke blanketing of the Sydney city is declared as a public health emergency by a coalition of doctors and researchers. They said that the level deemed “hazardous’’. But my uncle from the place is claiming that these days they can see the opera house from their apartment, which is 11 kilometers far away.

During December 2019, a novel infectious disease of coronavirus family was identified in Wuhan Province of China which later named as COVID-19. In January 2020, WHO (World Health Organization) confirmed that transmission of COVID-19 takes place from human to human body through respiratory droplets and later the outbreak of COVID-19 became an epidemic. Subsequently, Chinese government declared lockdown in some pockets of the country to control this emergency situation. During February, outbreaks took place in Iran, Italy, Spain and many other countries across the globe. Gradually the epidemic turns into pandemic and by the end of March almost half of the world came under some form of lockdown.

As most of the countries in the world went through a lockdown stage, the industrial activities came to a standstill. Apart from industrial sector, many other sectors including the transport sector also heavily affected. In fact, global oil demand declined rapidly and prices of crude oil dropped sharply primarily because of curtailed economic activities. As a result, improvement of global environmental quality was identified with 40% reduction of NO2 gas.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ESA (European Space Agency) confirmed the improvement of environmental quality with minimal releases of vital air pollutant gases like NO2 and PM2.5. NASA collected all environmental data through using OMI (Ozone Monitoring Instruments) on its AURA satellite while ESA collected data through Sentinal-5P satellite using TROPOMI (Troposphere Monitoring Instrument). NASA and ESA substantiated the claim of improved environmental quality by releasing the satellite images of different countries during the pre and post lockdown period.

Scientists are claiming that polluted air reduces human’s average life span by three years. People more prone to air polluted areas are the most sufferers from covid-19 pandemic. Theyare likely to suffer especially from respiratory problems, therefore struggle to cope with covid-19. The latest research from Harvard University offers the first clear link between long term exposure to air pollution and covid-19 death rates. During lockdown,11,000 fewer numbers of death cases have been registered in Europe. There is a sharp down fall of NO2 level by 40% while 10% down of PM levels in Europe. These two major air pollutants are solely responsible for weakening the heart system and respiratory tract of human body.

This ongoing pandemichas literally challenged us to rethink and re-assign our environmental and economic problems as well. We willhave to prioritize some ofour important sectors like transport, industry etc., which has enough room to seize the current heath disaster. For example, it would be preferable to use solar power, wind energy or garbage energy as a substitute sources rather than using traditional sources of energy like petrol, diesel or natural gases. In addition to this, the low public expenditure on healthcare must be improved at each and every level and we must rearrange and invest in a far more meaningful public healthcare system.

Harvard’sT.H Chan School of Public Health have found that- higher concentration of tiny particulate matters in the air known as PM2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the disease. This study is considered as the first nation wise study to show a large overlap between covid-19 and other diseases associated with long term exposure to particulate matter. According to US Environmental Agency, the annual mean of safe limit of PM2.5emission is 12 micrograms per cubic metre. On the other hand, World Health Organization suggests that 10 micrograms per cubic metrecan be considered as the safe limit of PM2.5emission. However, it is observed thatparts of the New York’sannual average PM2.5 levels are consistently above this safe threshold level. Researchers suggest, the high level of PM2.5might have played a role in the increased number of deaths in New YorkStateduring this pandemic.

Aaron Berastein, the director of the Centre for Climate, Health and Global Environment at Harvard University said that- people who are staying in places that are more prone to pollution over ages are more likely to die from the on-going pandemic. Their study mentions, people who had lived in places with long term air pollution exposure for 15-20 years had significantly higher mortality rates. A similar study by Denmark’s Aarhus University shows that high level of air pollution is responsible for more death cases among covid-19 patients.

Finally, in this present crisis, there is a widespread perception that we should manage our resources efficiently and effectively to face any such challenges in future. Managing our resources and protecting our environment would be a blessing in future, if any such further challenge comes in. The present crisis is a lesson for us to rethink and rearrange our health infrastructure and environmental sustainability to a greater extent than ever before.

(The author holds a PhD in Environment Geography from University of Calcutta and a Visiting Faculty of Birla Global University, Bhubaneswar) 


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