COVID-19 lockdown: Why battle against air pollution needs to continue

Air crisis will spiral if it’s not contained long-term and if mitigation actions are diluted to make up for time lost during lockdown

By Swagata Dey
Published: Wednesday 27 May 2020

By end of May 2020, most Indian states would have begun to ease lockdown restrictions — imposed to curtail the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic — and limp towards ‘normalcy’ in the larger interest of a crumbling economy.

Public transport and industrial production as well as infrastructure projects have already started in some parts — reportedly with social distancing and personal hygiene norms. Domestic flights, too, resumed on May 25.

On the road towards a quick economic revival, however, environmental concerns seem secondary. In the last few months of lockdown, a large number of infrastructure projects were stealthily given clearance.

Some of these included the Etalin Hydro project in the Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley, a highway project expected to cut through the Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and the much contentious Central Vista project in New Delhi.

In all the cases, the recommendations and grants came through video conferencing without crucial component of site inspection. The recently released draft EIA notification 2020, too, has raised a lot of questions regarding the discretionary powers granted to authorities.

In Telangana, the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority granted clearance to 55 projects in one sitting after the lockdown was partially lifted in the state. The Vizag-based LG Polymers Pvt Ltd devastating gas leak is a classic example of lax environmental compliance with catastrophic consequences.

The final blow was allowing open-access auctioning of coal mines, as announced by Union finance minister as a part of the fiscal stimulus to cushion economic shocks of COVID-19. Such quick clearances are bound to have a detrimental effect on the local air quality and larger flora and fauna of the area.

In the initial days of the nationwide lockdown, social and print media were flooded with photographs of blue skies and clearer water bodies. Images of peaks of lower Himlayas visible from rooftops in Jalandhar gained traction on the internet. Several cities in India recorded over 60 per cent drop in air pollution levels and some even claimed that air pollution was no longer a real concern.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Apart from general well-being of the population, fighting the air pollution emergency will reap concurrent benefits of fighting with COVID-19.

The initial reports of how long-term exposure to particulate matter 2.5 could lead to higher COVID-19 mortalities have now been backed by thorough and peer-reviewed research. In a study conducted across 71 provinces in Italy, the incidence of COVID-19 mortality was found to be highest in the regions that exceeded the regulatory limits of atmospheric pollutants continually for over four years. 

In another study in China, a significant relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 infection was reported across 120 cities.  It was found that a 10 microgram per cubic metre (μg/m3) increase in pollution concentration led to statistically significant increase in daily counts of confirmed cases.

There was a 2.24 per cent increase for PM2.5 and 6.95 per cent for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).  The only outlier was sulphur dioxide (SO2), wherein a decrease of seven per cent in infections was noticed for every 10 μg/mincrease.

In the United States, after the initial correlation between rate of infection and PM2.5 exposure in Manhattan, a nationwide study across 3,000 counties showed higher death rates in the Mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest and Gulf Coast regions — all of which have higher population density and have reported higher PM 2.5 exposure.

An increase of only one μg / min long-term average PM2.5 led to eight per cent increase in the mortality rate across the United States. Since New York Metropolitan area experienced the most severe outbreak, the study excluded cases from New York counties to remove any data biases.

Further, researchers adjusted socioeconomic, demographic, weather and comorbidity-related confounders to reiterate that PM 2.5 exposure only exacerbated COVID-19 related complications.

India, as of May 27, 2020 is one of the 10 worst affected countries by the pandemic — it recorded at least 147,000 cases as on May 27, 2020. As we get ready to limp back to normal lives from June, it is more important than ever to continue actions that have helped make small gains towards cleaner air.

In April, we formally adopted the world’s cleanest Bharat Stage VI fuel norms and vehicles (those using BS IV fuel can now no longer be registered). However, automobile industry associations have time and again approached multiple channels, including the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways as well as the Supreme Court to ease the order, citing unsold stock, the lockdown and its economic fallout. 

According to a recent market survey, however, almost 57 per cent urban commuters wanted to buy a personal vehicle in 2020 as they felt using public transport could increase their chances of catching an infection.

In a survey conducted by CSE to understand post-lockdown mobility preferences, the number of people who wished to use their personal vehicles instead of public transport in the near-term future of six months increased 20 per cent.

The number of vehicles plying on roads would thus increase significantly even if half of these people went ahead and bought personal vehicles or used their existing personal vehicles, thereby leading to a sharp rise in air pollution.

The auto industry will recover as well. Hence retracting our steps towards older fuel norms is counterintuitive. Additionally, NO2, a major component of vehicular emissions has been found to have a high correlation with COVID-19 mortality in northern Italy and Metropolitan Madrid.

History has shown us that when the economy recovers from a major crisis like this one, anthropogenic emissions from economic activity spike, leading to a phenomenon called retaliatory emissions. There was a slight plateau in the emissions curve after the 2008 financial crisis. But between 2009 and 2010, the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increased by six per cent, all of which had a negative effect on the local air quality.

A similar situation is being experienced in China wherein a 76-day lockdown led to drastic improvement in air quality. However, in an independent study by Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, air pollution increased as compared to pre-lockdown levels after China’s post-pandemic reopening of commercial activities. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide increased.

India might suffer the same fate if atmospheric pollution is not considered a long-term and chronic problems and mitigation actions are diluted in a bid to make up for the time lost during the lockdown.

Finally, northern India was recovering from its smog episodes of October and December 2019 when the pandemic struck. Planning for this year’s expected pollution season has possibly been affected due to the pandemic. For instance, so far there has been no dialogue on how paddy crop stubble will be managed this year. The status quo remains as it was.

In October, air pollution is expected to rise along with the annual influenza season. It is now well-known that exposure to pollution can alter the early immune responses leading to an over expression of inflammatory symptoms and can increase prognosis.

It is then highly likely that several asymptomatic patients will need a lot more medical care than simply home quarantine, adding pressure to an already stretched medical infrastructure. Air quality management, thus, should be continuous and long-term. A few days of blue skies should not make us complacent.

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