Though it seems morbid to identify a silver lining of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, the pandemic has shone a light on the impacts of human activity on air pollution. Many of India’s cities — identified as being among the most polluted in the world — now sport clear views.
Residents of New Delhi are experiencing the longest period of clean air on record, according to Government data. The limitations on work and travel put in place by the quarantine has significantly limited the use of cars and motor vehicles, as well as limited the impact of industry and factories across India. The result has been clear skies, a rare occurrence in India’s polluted cities.
A report published last year by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), found that 8.3 million lives are lost to air pollution every year, making air quality the leading environmental threat to public health. In 2017 it was documented that India lost 2,326,771 lives to pollution.
The fact that air quality has improved so rapidly after just a few weeks of reduced human activity due to the quarantine serves to highlight the profound impact we have on the environment. PM2.5 particles are one of the major drivers of health issues related to air pollution. These minute particles are produced through combustion occurring in both industry and in vehicles and are small enough to be absorbed into the blood through the lungs.
The absorption through the lungs causes damage to the lungs themselves, but the extent of the damage to the rest of the body is still being uncovered. Research has linked PM2.5 exposure to a constant inflammatory effect across multiple organs. As the pollutant material is transported in the blood, it has the potential to cause inflammation in multiple organs, leading to a number of diseases.
As such, research has suggested that poor mental health, heart disease, cancers, respiratory illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia, and eye diseases – among others – can all be connected to exposure to polluted air.
The average concentration of PM2.5 in Indian cities was 81.88, recorded between March 22nd and April 15th of last year, according to the analysis of data gathered by the state-run Central Pollution Control Board. IQ AirVisual said New Delhi’s average annual concentration of PM2.5 in a cubic metre of air was 98.6 in 2019.
Following the imposition of the quarantine, the air in New Delhi averaged at 44.18 per cubic metre, according to a Reuters analysis of government data. This a rare “good” rating on the Air Quality Index – the safest level for human health on the scale.
The Centre has invested in a Rs 4,400-crore grant to municipal corporations (MCs) of large cities for the 2020-21 period to tackle air pollution. Such a financial investment provides hope that efforts can be made so that the sights of a smog-free New Delhi becomes the norm in the future. However, efforts must be sustainable, consistent and thorough to ensure this is the case.
The current clear skies offer an insight of what the situation could be in a best-case scenario. However, it is important to acknowledge that the current situation is unprecedented in modern memory. Under normal circumstances, it would be all but impossible to reduce traffic and factory output to the near non-existent levels India is seeing at present.
However, there are solutions to reduce carbon emissions. Improvements to public transport systems could allow for hundreds of thousands of cars across India’s cities to be removed. Green energy such as solar and wind power could reduce the need for coal and gas power plants.
For some, the clean air has been the only silver lining, and the only potential message of hope amidst the crisis of the pandemic. “Clean air has come as a boon,” said Rakesh Singh, a computer engineer who lives in Noida, a satellite city of New Delhi. “Breathing good air will only boost my immunity against the coronavirus.”
While India’s public health, and in the coming months, the reignition of the economy is vital and must be prioritised, we cannot lose sight of the fact that air pollution is in itself a public health crisis. Once the pandemic is over, efforts must be made to tackle air pollution, or New Delhi, and indeed much of India, will once again see the smog encroach.