Polluted air can aggravate COVID-19 crisis! What should be done to ensure public safety

November 3, 2020 2:37 PM

Coronavirus is a disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, which can trigger respiratory tract infections, leading to medical complications and death in serious cases.

Covid cases are rising in Delhi.

By Rushda Majeed

Coronavirus is a disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, which can trigger respiratory tract infections, leading to medical complications and death in serious cases. Therefore, the air we breathe is crucial to our health in these times. There seems to be growing awareness of this – a recent survey by the Clean Air Fund stated that over 67% respondents (from India, Poland, Nigeria, Great Britain and Bulgaria) believe that living in high-pollution areas makes people highly susceptible to COVID-19. Lockdowns have resulted in a reduction in air pollution. Delhi, for instance, reported a 60% drop in pollution levels. You could argue that the global lockdown has improved air quality, but it’s a temporary phenomenon. For years, many of our cities have suffered from high air pollution. People living in such cities have been exposed to pollution for prolonged periods, which may be responsible for many health issues and weakened immunity.

In young children, poor air quality not only impairs health but also diminishes their capacity to learn and grow. Pollution exposure in the first 1,000 days of life – from conception to age 2 – is especially dangerous because it’s during this time that their bodies are growing, and their organ systems are undergoing complex developmental processes that can easily be disrupted. For example, newborns and infants take 30-60 breaths per minute and toddlers 24-40 breaths per minute, compared to 12-18 breaths per minute for adults. Young children not only have fragile lungs, but they also breathe in twice or thrice as much as adults. Breathing polluted air for years can degraded the health of many young children and adults, making them vulnerable to respiratory infections and to diseases like coronavirus.

While air pollution affects everyone, lower- and middle-income communities are the most affected. Contraction of the virus might be more of a possibility in lower-income communities because of the lack of social distancing and poor access to healthcare.

As we ease into the unlocking phase, air quality will deplete again. Government and policymakers must be equipped with relevant health measures and resources. State health and environment departments can work closely to monitor and forecast air pollution levels, especially within relatively short distances. This can help policymakers and medical bodies implement short-term measures during high air pollution periods to reduce adverse health effects on the population and consequently the burden on the health system. In the long-term, policymakers can encourage and provide economic stimulus packages to industries that are part of the solution and contribute to lowering air pollution.

There is also a need to improve existing public services and accessibility to them, especially within neighbourhoods. Reduced transport time to key services; accessible infrastructure, such as parks and playgrounds; better walking and cycling infrastructure; widespread, affordable and safe public transportation; and low-emission zones benefit every urban dweller, including babies, toddlers and their caregivers. Choose bicycles, when possible, to perform daily tasks, such as taking children to day care, going to primary healthcare units and shopping. Walking and biking could meet people’s practical interests and health needs too, making their lives easier, healthier, and save them time and money on commutes.

We can also look at improving and upgrading streets. Green streets provide climatic protection to all and buffer from noise and pollution, and harsh climatic conditions. Planting trees is important to create shade and cooling on streets. They create a pleasant environment (protection from glare and heat). Promoting such initiatives will not only help curb air pollution but also prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Lastly, consistent monitoring and tracking of pollution levels is imperative in order to implement corrective health and safety measures. Working with other governments and across agencies can prove beneficial to tackling pollution across state and national boundaries. Our country is not the only one facing challenges due to air pollution and its consequent effects on the health and well-being of its people, particularly in times of COVID-19. A collective effort is essential for large-scale impact.

(The author is India Representative, Bernard van Leer Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)

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