Monday, 24 January, 2022

Lockdown: A Pause To Think About Air Pollution

Sijal Pokharel / Nikesh Balami


THE whole world is pulverised by the shtick of a submicroscopic agent and has left us answered about what human beings have achieved so far. The effect of the COVID 19 pandemic is disproportionate all over the world, provided the world is indifferent in terms of its geographical location, its people, economy, and pace of development. It has been a difficult time in a country like Nepal, which hovers around its inefficient technology and unprepared human resources to address this pandemic. In addition, the increasing updates about the coronavirus, with patches of news like confirmed cases and death tolls have an overwhelming impact upon the people and no wonder why people are getting relentless and anxious.

Fresh air
Despite the worst, people in the city like Kathmandu and few others, whose ambience has progressed significantly in terms of the air pollution, traffic, and noise, have taken it as an opportunity to scrutinise the beauty of the pollution-free environment. The rare view of open sky, fresh air, and majestic mountains are no less than a scenic utopia these days. It is obvious for the street and the sky to rejuvenate in freshness when 2.5 million people of the chaotic valley are staying home. In addition, frequent rainfall is acting as a sleight of nature to settle down the dust on the ground. The air quality index of the valley has dropped within an acceptable range from a few days as atmospheric gases are absorbed and particulate matters are trapped in raindrops falling on the ground. However, the air pollution equilibrium is continuously imbalanced by anthropogenic activities like scrub burning, forest fire, brick kiln, and trans-boundary non-point pollution sources. The oscillation between polluted and not so polluted phenomenon of the environment is well reflected in the data published by the Department of Environment too. The momentary sneak from air pollution due to lockdown and rainfall cannot deny the fact that air pollution is a long-term and deep-rooted structural and sometimes a political issue. The temporary reduction of air pollution will definitely have no association with a long-term health benefit. At the same time, air pollution is expected to rise exponentially as the country and the world will leave no stances to accelerate economic growth, and that would definitely be at the cost of environmental degradation. "Restarting" of greenhouse-gas producing industries and transport following the lockdown is hypothesised to sabotage the decreasing trend of the emission. The only possible lesson during this crisis could be an implementation of interventions in the pollution hotspot of the cities and create a new situation where the urban area hits the positive environmental counts.
The World Health Organisation states that air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year which probably surpasses the number of the eventual death toll from COVID-19. The loss-loss deal is more evident when people with previous health conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory diseases like asthma, lung inflammation, lung cancer, and allergic hypersensitivity are likely to get affected easily by COVID, too. Most of such health conditions are caused by long-term exposure to pollution. In Nepal, it is evident that air pollution and respiratory ailments are killing 22,000 people yearly and experts say that people with these ailments are more likely to suffer from communicable diseases like coronavirus. The national study on long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality done by Harvard University has shown that an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in PM 2.5 (fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5) is associated with a 15 per cent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. The study underscores the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis. The research on previous outbreaks has also suggested bad air makes viruses more deadly and spread further. A study of SARS-CoV-1 victims in 2003 found that patients were twice as likely to die in regions where air pollution was high as compared to a less polluted area.
Kathmandu is listed as the 7th most polluted city in the world and many other cities of Nepal have been reported to have unhealthy air. The gravity of this threat can pull many lives in the midst of COVID 19. The required action to address this vicious interlinkage is limited to some discussions only from the government and civil societies. The lockdown period should not only be taken as a precaution for COVID but also a time to strategise the way out for the prevailing pollution as an early preparedness for another possible pandemic in the future. This is a high time to bottle up research-driven policies, plan, and implementation right from the government, research institutions, and concerned civil society. Installation of the required number of air quality monitoring stations should be done all over Nepal so that the micro-level assessment can lead to the area-specific solution. Local governments can efficiently chip in this very task of installing monitoring stations and their local experience can add value by mobilizing developmental and other environmental funds for a cause. Also, long term intersectoral collaboration within all tiers of the government is key to tapping the available resources. Involving multi-sectoral parties in addressing the complex issues opens up the room for the public to act more responsible and takes ownership of the ongoing projects. Having the public on board can have a butterfly effect on the outcome of the project, as the major source of pollution like agricultural residues and waste burning can be controlled.

Careful action
Lockdown has resulted in proven success in Nepal as the number of infections didn’t hit the graph as speculated. WHO’s reclassification of country from “very vulnerable” to “less at risk” sounds like a hopeful glad tiding. However, we cannot deny the fact that we are still breathing toxic air. The fleeting change in the emission withholds the exponential potentiality to bounce back the pollution once the lockdown is lifted. The deserted situation during this pandemic calls for the mindful action from all the concerned entities along with the citizens included. After all, the global realisation from this pandemic is nothing materialist but the welfare of the individual, family, and community and this can be realised only by prioritising environmental health.

(Pokharel is environment scientist while Balami is data science aspirant)