Multiple reports have been emerging since the coronavirus pandemic started to rapidly spread across the world, showing how recent shutdowns in many countries have cleaned out our air. This has been great news for everyone, bringing a silver lining to the devastating news that the virus has already infected over 900,000 people. The improvements in our air quality are not just about helping our environment but also saving millions of lives.
The Cost of Air Pollution 2016 by the World Bank and the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) reported that air pollution is the fourth-largest threat to human health, alongside high blood pressure, dietary risks, and smoking. It poses many health risks such as infections and cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic lung disease, and lung cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there were an estimated 6.5 million deaths across the world from air-pollution diseases in 2012 alone.
A study conducted by the WHO revealed that more than 9 out of 10 of the world’s population live in places where pollution exceeds safe limits, including Africa, Eastern Europe, India, China, and the Middle East. About 94% of deaths recorded in low- and middle-income countries are linked to air pollution. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, air pollution led to 1 in 10 deaths in 2013, which cost the global economy about $225 billion in lost labor income.
Thus, Dr. Chris Murray, Director of IHME, and other experts demanded an “urgent call to action” for policymakers around the world. “Of all the different risk factors for premature deaths, this is one area, the air we breathe, over which individuals have little control. Policymakers in health and environment agencies, as well as leaders in various industries, are facing growing demands – and expectations – to address this problem,” Dr. Murray said.
Air Pollution Can Increase the Mortality Rate of Coronavirus
As of current writing, coronavirus cases across the world have reached 934,825 with a death toll of 47,189. Recent statistics from Worldometers.info showed that the US has the highest number of cases among all countries with 214,639, followed by Italy (110,574), Spain (104,574), and China (81,554). Experts are worried that the deaths due to the virus will only increase because of air pollution.
Urban air pollution continues to decline in developed countries due to the efforts of environmental organizations and governments. Unfortunately, its widespread damage has become more severe considering the fact that air pollution has stayed in our atmosphere for so long, risking our health even more. The toxic air in developing nations has even risen to extreme levels. Breathing unclean air is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and respiratory diseases - conditions that health experts are starting to associate with higher death rates for COVID-19.
According to Grist, an American non-profit online magazine, health officials are warning that people who live in polluted places may be at greater risk. Experts found out that the underlying health damage caused by air pollution means that respiratory infections may well have a more serious impact on city dwellers and those exposed to toxic fumes. “I can’t help but think of the many communities where residents breathe polluted air that can lead to chronic respiratory problems, cancer, and disease, which could make them more vulnerable to the worst impacts of COVID-19,” Gina McCarthy, the president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.
Previous studies have shown that air pollution may have increased the death toll of the SARS pandemic of 2003, a previous coronavirus outbreak. In one study, the researchers found out that people living in regions with a moderate amount of air pollution were 84% more likely to die than those in regions with cleaner air. Research on the Mers coronavirus outbreak reported that tobacco smokers were more likely to get the disease and were more likely to die.
“Given what we know now, it is very likely that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who are smoking tobacco products are going to fare worse if infected with [COVID-19] than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke,” Aaron Bernstein, a researcher from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, Marshall Burke of Stanford University in the US said that the indirect impacts of COVID-19 are probably much higher than currently known. “It seems likely that any ‘benefits’ from reduced air pollution are going to be dominated by the direct and, especially, the indirect costs of the virus, [such as] the health effects of lost income and the morbidity/mortality costs of non-COVID health problems going untreated,” he said.
Sara De Matteis, a member of the environmental health committee of the European Respiratory Society, said that patients who have long exposure to air pollution and suffering from chronic lung and heart conditions are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die - which is also likely the case for COVID-19. She suggested that we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics by lowering air pollution levels.
Experts Call On China For Cleaner Air
A US expert suggested that tens of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution may have been avoided if only China has cleaner air. Thus, government officials and citizens are calling out the country to clean up an environment that’s damaging people’s health. “We paid people’s lives for the lesson, and we should never do it again. I think environmental protection will rank even higher for both the central and local governments,” Cai Xue’en, a delegate of the National People’s Congress and adviser to China’s supreme court, said.
While there has been a slowdown on China’s greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the pandemic, the reduction may be short-lived. According to Bloomberg, an online site that delivers business and markets news, data, analysis, and video to the world, the slowdown took out the equivalent of almost 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in China and could curb global emissions from air travel by 11% to 19%. However, once everything goes back to normal, there would be a resurgence of emissions not only in China but also in many parts of the world.
Xu Jintao, a professor of environmental economics at Peking University’s National School of Development, stated that the virus will have a negative impact as the economy begins to recover. “There are already signs China might go back to more coal and stimulate heavy industries, but I don’t think the negative impacts on China’s climate and environment goals will last long. Chinese people increasingly care about health, which is closely related to the air, water, soil quality as well as the whole environment,” Jintao said.