Air Pollution & COVID-19
TOPIC: General Studies 3:
- Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment
- India accounts for two-thirds of the world’s most polluted cities — 21 of the most polluted 30 cities; 14 of the highest 20; and 6 of the highest 10 — in the 2019 World Air Quality Report released by the pollution tracker IQAir and Greenpeace. The ranking is based on a comparison of PM2.5 levels. Among countries, when population is taken into account, average PM2.5 pollution is highest in Bangladesh, followed by Pakistan, while India is at number 5.
- Globally some 9 million premature deaths a year are associated with air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5. Regrettably, 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India. The air in Ghaziabad, Delhi, and Noida is particularly hazardous. Last year, a public health emergency was declared as post-Diwali New Delhi’s air quality index approached 500, the “severe plus emergency” category.
Warning on Communicable Diseases
Ranked as the world’s fifth most vulnerable country to climate change, India must respond to alerts on communicable diseases linked to GHGs.
- Global warming intensifies heat waves and worsens respiratory illnesses.
- Locust swarms in Jaipur and Gurugram have been linked to climate change.
- Evidence is also emerging on a link between global warming and the emergence of diseases.
- Mosquito-borne diseases in India have been connected to global warming through both increased rainfall and heat waves.
Is the Air pollution linked to the coronavirus pandemic?
A study published in 2003 found that higher air pollution caused greater deaths from SARS, which was caused by a cousin of the current strain of coronavirus. A range of studies have found that air pollutants are linked to increased risk from influenza-type illnesses.
Air pollution indirectly influences the transmission of COVID-19 and the improvement in air quality during the lockdown may have reduced the chances of infection, a recent study has also found. This finding was part of a research paper titled ‘Potential link between compromised air quality and transmission of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in affected areas’ published in Environmental Research journal.
- Focussed on the infection rate induced by air quality in central Kerala and other global COVID hotspots, including China, Italy and the U.S.
- It claims that one of the potential modes of transmission of COVID-19 is through ambient air by droplets which carry the viruses. This means that changes in the environment will affect the transmission of the infection. Air pollution is one of the elements that can change the environment. So it can be said that air pollution can indirectly influence the transmission.
- The dust particles exposed to humid environment have been contaminated with a water film on it. There is a possibility of the mix of saliva droplets and the dust coated with the water film becoming more airborne and spreading the infection.
- The researchers pointed out that the improvement in air quality during the lockdown period might have restricted the transmission of the infection in some places. The hypothesis would help design protocols for the prevention of future pandemics.
What was the impact of Lockdown on the Ambient Air Quality?
- PM2.5 reduced by 24 per cent during the pre-lockdown phase and further reduced by almost 50 per cent during the lockdown phases as compared to levels observed during 2019.
- PM10 reduced by a massive 60 per cent, with NO2 levels falling by 64 per cent, Benzene by 62 per cent and SO2 by 35 per cent, during the second phase of lockdown as compared to levels in the same time period in 2019
A study revealed that sources associated with vehicular emissions, domestic/local coal combustion, waste incineration and urban organic aerosols reduced sharply from the pre-lockdown phase into lockdown phase-I and were found to steadily rise back with increasing relaxations in the lockdown.
Irreversible emission reductions through sustainable process changes and long-term objectives is crucial for achieving good air quality levels. However, as the impact of various anthropogenic activities is now being quantified, actions that can be integrated in business as usual scenarios need to be identified, with emphasis on reduction of emissions at source including dust control, vehicular emissions, industrial operations, etc.
The Way Forward
- It is critical to determine not only what type of pollutants are driving health impacts, but also to learn what level of these pollutants our bodies can tolerate. That will help us understand our susceptibility to COVID and other diseases. Ultimately, the goal is to find some type of mechanism that can block the impact of air pollution at the cellular level, so that when we’re hit with things like COVID-19, hopefully, we’re less susceptible to the severe complications of it.
- In managing health risks, emission reduction should be coupled with a stronger public health system. Right now, government spending on health is just 1.6% of GDP, low for a lower middle-income country. Most countries, including India, fail the test of readiness for health disasters, according to the 2019 Global Health Security Index.
- Governments would be hard-pressed to impose measures designed for an international pandemic to address environmental issues like air pollution. It is also not pragmatic to impose a blanket lockdown to address air pollution. Policy decisions will have to balance socio-economic considerations with health imperatives. Inter-generational equity should be the thrust of such efforts.
- The government can consider promoting innovation in the private sector in matters pertaining to the environment. Individual sectors can be made custodians of regions to curb pollution. For instance, green indices of companies can be made a factor in their market valuation. Similarly, instead of adding fuel/carbon tax at the time of issuing flight tickets, the same could be added to the yearly tax returns to make a person aware of his/her carbon footprint. Some of these measures can be scaled globally within a short time.
Connecting the Dots:
- Why air pollution is being linked to severe cases of COVID-19? Explain.
- Why have governments not been able to enforce such environmental measures proactively? Why is the current situation a by-product of managing a pandemic?