COVID-19 may be perceived by many as the defining challenge of the moment. It can be wagered that the health of our environment – indeed, the health of our planet – is the defining challenge of our time.
This is not to exculpate COVID-19 as the real threat that it is, nor to downplay the severity of that threat. We are living amidst a global pandemic, one which has dealt a dire hand. The pandemic has engendered suffering of a magnitude inconceivable except for those afflicted by it. It has led to grief, pain, and heartache – understandable through the lens of sickness and death and through the lens of economic hardship leading to joblessness, insecurity, hunger, and despair, among so many other issues.
In the moment of COVID-19, it is difficult – and understandably so – to consider anything else. But we do live in an age of manifold threats. COVID-19 joins the ranks of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and many, many more health threats that – year on year – deal that dire hand to so many millions the world over. When we consider the environment, we must reckon with the fact that the health threats we face now will only intensify if we fail to take meaningful action – now – to address the issues plaguing our planet, degrading its health, and inflicting destitution, displacement, and more on our fellow humans.
No one issue can be contemplated in a vacuum. The challenges we face collectively intersect. In this piece, I wish to discuss pollution – an issue with which so many Indians are very familiar in the worst possible ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our environment in interesting ways. The lockdown restrictions imposed by a number of nations resulted in economic activity grinding to a halt. By extension, some observed that lesser levels of economic activity could benefit the environment. As my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote for Health Issues India wrote earlier this year, “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.”
While the initial stages of India’s COVID-19-prompted lockdown saw cities where clear skies were rarely seen, there was a subsequent resurgence of economic activity as lockdown restrictions were lifted in many parts of the country. The world is unlikely to proceed as normal going forward – but regressing to a scenario where we fail to check pollution levels and take active steps to mitigate the damage on our environment and human health will be disastrous at a level equitable to, if not more than, COVID.
As a case in point, this week saw research released indicating how a Delhiite loses more than nine years of their life to the ramifications of air pollution. Air pollution shearing years off your life expectancy is not a new phenomenon – in 2o18, it was found that Indians lose 1.53 years of their life to pollution.
Fundamentally, this cannot stand. Far too many Indian cities inhabit the space below polluted skies – and those who reside within are at elevated risk of conditions ranging from lung ailments to heart ailments to so many more. Pollution represents an existential threat – fuelling the environmental crisis and smothering people on a sustained basis. As we grapple with the health crisis that is COVID-19, let us also grapple with the crisis posed by air pollution – and work to counter it.