Pollution was a major health concern even before Covid-19, though Covid-19 has spelt it out more starkly
A study by German and Cypriot researchers published last month showed that long-term exposure to pollution could be linked to 15% of the Covid-19 deaths worldwide.
There are already some signs of the double whammy—some are calling it the ‘twindemic’—of pollution complicating Covid-19. The spurt in cases in Delhi seems to have as much to do with worsening air quality as with festive season activity. A study by German and Cypriot researchers published last month showed that long-term exposure to pollution could be linked to 15% of the Covid-19 deaths worldwide.
The study analysed disease data from the US and China, apart from satellite and ground data on exposure to particulate matter, and estimated that a little over a fourth of the Covid-19 deaths in East Asia, where pollution is amongst the worst in the world, had links to pollution; the corresponding estimates for Europe and North America were 19% and 17%. Even when there is not enough research to establish a clear causal link, experts believe pollutants exacerbate existing co-morbidities that are linked to increased chances of Covid-19 fatality.
The researchers also underscore the fact that particulate matter pollutants increase the activity of ACE-2, a receptor that is involved in facilitating infection by many pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2. Another study by Harvard researchers bears out the European researchers’ findings—it finds that a mere 1 microgram increase in PM2.5 levels in a cubic metre of air raised the risk of death from Covid-19 infection by 11%. Against such a backdrop—with Delhi, where the air quality has been in the ‘severe’ band over the past few days, frighteningly near running out of hospital capacity—the National Green Tribunal’s decision to ban crackers till November 30 in cities where pollution levels are high is a welcome measure.
However, this hardly suffices; Delhi’s poor air quality has a lot to do with other factors such as crop stubble burning in neighbouring Punjab & Haryana, and vehicular and other sources of pollution such as construction and road dust. The problem with an episodic response, such as crackers bans or cheap access to farm equipment to deal with crop stubble or odd-even vehicle rationing, is that it sweeps the actual reasons under the carpet. For instance, the crop burning problem doesn’t go away with Happy Seeders as long as burning (with the fines factored in) remain the cheaper option; in which case, the ideal solution would be to eliminate the problem at the root itself, which, in turn, needs the government to relook its open-ended procurement at MSP of paddy from Punjab and Haryana farmers.
Similarly, odd-even, which has been shown to have very limited effect, distracts from the fact that Delhi doesn’t offer enough public transport (with less polluting fuels) capacity to obviate the need for hydrocarbon-fuelled personal transport.
A cracker ban is good, but there are hundreds of micro and small enterprises as well as bigger units in the national capital region that don’t comply with pollution norms. And, a third of the power consumed by the national capital is from generation companies that don’t follow emission norms, as per a study by the Centre for Science and Environment. Pollution was a major health concern even before Covid-19, though Covid-19 has spelt it out more starkly.