Mustafa Majid Sheikh
The majority of humans are staying home to save themselves from being infected with novel coronavirus. As a consequence, the air is cleaner, the water is clearer, and animals are freer. It seems that the Covid-19 pandemic is a gift to the environment. It has not only taken billions of people off the streets but has also reduced national and international travel, both by air and road.
Back in October and November 2019, Delhi was wheezing for breath. Dangerous particulate levels in the air were about 20 times greater than the WHO air quality standard. Air quality had reached “horrendous levels”. Schools were bolted, flights diverted, and people were advised to wear masks and stay indoors. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal while discussing the problem of air pollution stated that the city has turned into a “gas chamber”. Five million masks were distributed among school students and officials declared a public health emergency.
The level of minute particulate material (known as PM 2.5) which badly affect the lungs was 533 micrograms per cubic metre in the city. As per the standards of World Health Organization (WHO), the PM 2.5 levels should not be more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre on average in 24 hours. Delhi and 15 other Indian cities feature on the list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. It is estimated that more than a million Indians die every year because of air pollution-related diseases. Industrial smoke, vehicular emissions, burning of trash and crop residue, and building construction and road dust are the major contributors.
When the lockdown was enforced in major cities around the world, emanations of the planet-heating gas CO2 fell sharply. The air quality of cities in India and across the world improved significantly. Even before the first national lockdown on March 25, the phased lockdowns in India were having an impact. In the first three weeks of March, the usual nitrogen dioxide levels declined by 40%-50% in the cities of Pune, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, compared to similar period in 2018 and 2019 as per the data of System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), which works under India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences. SAFAR also reported that the level of particle pollution dropped by nearly 60% and that the air quality in the national capital on April 21, 2020 was recorded in the ‘satisfactory’ category with PM2.5 at 35.
The European Space Agency (ESA) satellite imagery observed a substantial drop in NO2 emissions in northern Italy between January 1 and March 11, corresponding with the period of lockdown. Analysis of air quality in different cities of China carried out for the climate website Carbon Brief reported a decrease of 25% in energy consumption and emissions in China in just two weeks of lockdown. In the city of Wuhan, epicentre of the lethal virus, 44% reduction in air pollution levels was reported between February 26 and March 18 as compared to the same period last year.
South Korean capital Seoul recorded a 54% drop in PM 2.5 levels from February 26 to March 18 as compared to the previous year during the same period. In March 2019, the South Korean government had declared air pollution a “social disaster.”
Los Angeles recorded its longest period of clean air, from 7th to 28th March. PM 2.5 concentration levels dropped by 31% from the same time last year and down 51% from the average of the previous four years.
Researchers in New York told the BBC their early results showed carbon monoxide mainly from cars had reduced by nearly 50% compared to last year. The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the University of Reading reported that London city observed almost 60% reduction in air pollution since the start of the coronavirus lockdown in the U.K. Analysis carried out by the BBC reported significant drop in air pollution in the most polluted cities including Readings in London, Glasgow, Bristol and Oxford since the announcement of lockdown on 23 March.
The AIRPARIF, an organisation responsible for monitoring air quality in Paris, reported that France’s stay-at-home guidelines to fight the coronavirus resulted in a 20 to 30 percent fall in air pollution levels in Paris. A study by Ecologists in Action reported that pollution in urbanised areas fell by 58% between March 14 and April 30 in cities across Spain.
The improvement in air quality in past few months of the Covid19 lockdown has prevented 11,000 deaths from pollution in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Sharp decline in road traffic and industrial emanations and radiations have resulted in 6,000 less children developing asthma, 1,900 emergency cases avoided, and 600 fewer preterm births, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
It is pertinent to mention that every year 7 million deaths occur globally due to exposure to air pollution, which is much less than the deaths caused by Covid-19 (WHO). A recent study by Zhu et al. (2020) suggested that there is a relationship between higher concentrations of air pollutants and higher risk of Covid-19 infection. China topped the 10 countries with the highest mortality (1.2 million) due to air pollution (Health Effects Institute, see www.healtheffects.org). As per the data published by the European Environment Agency (EEA), particulate pollution alone was responsible for over 400,000 fatalities across Europe in 2016, with NO2 pollution accounting for a further 71,000 fatalities.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020 warned that air pollution is already costing the world more than $5 trillion in decreased productivity every year. Combined with the impact of climate change, the report concluded air pollution is challenging healthcare systems globally.
One must awake to the grimness of the situation in which 15 of the world’s 20 top-most polluted cities are in India. Many other cities in India fail to meet the WHO’s air quality standards. It is now a recognised fact that air pollution is a silent killer that causes serious damage to lungs and leads to severe health problems, especially in the ageing population and children. Still, we are yet to accept it as a problem. According to the WHO, ageing people, and people with co-morbid medical conditions, including asthma, are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 and becoming severely ill or dying of the infection.
India being the country with the highest rate of respiratory diseases in the world and having the world’s highest number of tuberculosis cases could potentially be at greater risk from the coronavirus. It’s critical that when the lockdown ends and people return to their usual practices, they must continue to follow the Covid-19 advisories. The current drop in pollution levels must be made a permanent feature by laying down an effective environmental strategy or policy. This policy must not become a victim like the Kyoto Protocol which America didn’t ratify or like the Paris Climate Agreement, to which America was a signatory but later backed away from. There is a need to adopt green energy resources rather than fossil fuels to limit the global carbon emission and prevent air pollution. Electrifying transport can also reduce global carbon emissions.
Much has been said about ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, which means the earth is one family — now is the time to implement this slogan.
The writer is Assistant Professor in Education, Ganderbal Degree College. [email protected]