Increasing pollution is a bigger problem for the country this year due to already challenging health situation dealing with COVID-19 pandemic. With the onset of winters and Unlock 5.0, the demon of air pollution has once again raised its head. Various studies across the globe present several arguments about effect of pollution on novel coronavirus
Pollution has been a serious challenge to the health sector of the country for some time now. However, this year with COVID-19 already weakening the immunity and respiratory systems of people, pollution has jeopardised their health further. Moreover, continued studies in this regard have found that pollution acts as catalyst in the spread of COVID-19.
Researches showing connection between COVID-19 and pollution
The countries with the underlying problem of pollution are one of the hottest spots of COVID-19 infection, as suggested by data from World Health Organisation (WHO) website. According to a study published in Cardiovascular Research, about 15 per cent of the deaths due to COVID-19 can be attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution. Recent surge in COVID-19 cases of Delhi is the appropriate example of effect of pollution on COVID-19 transmission. According to Indian Medical Association, about 13 per cent of this increase in COVID-19 cases is estimated to be due to pollution.
A study conducted in nine Asian cities to find relationship between novel coronavirus and pollution, was published by Springer. It clearly stated that air pollution is acting as a hidden element in intensifying the spread of COVID-19. Another study done in Italy and published in ScienceDirect, found the genetic material of novel coronavirus among the air pollutants. Previous studies have also suggested that pollution has carried the viruses causing bird flu, measles, etc. Experts aren’t sure of the spread of COVID-19 via tiny airborne droplets;however, SARS-CoV (2003) was also spread in the air via pollution particles. These findings point towards a strong linkage between pollution and COVID-19.
A study published in ‘Environmental Research’ journal, claims that one of the potential modes of transmission of COVID-19 is through exposure to polluted air by droplets which carry the virus. The dust particles exposed to humid environment get contaminated with a water film on them increasing the chances of contamination. This can seriously jeopardise the health situation of India as it is the fifth country in the world in terms of exposure to Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5), according to a data by IQAir, Swiss Air Technology Company. For an expert view, Urban Update spoke to Dr SubrotoKundu, Former Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Indian Health Services.
He told us that novel coronavirus remains for a longer time in air with high PM2.5. He said, “the basic nature of novel coronavirus is very similar to a normal flu virus, it attacks the lungs and respiratory system. Pollution also does serious damage to lungs which makes a perfect environment for the spread of virus.”
Government Policies to curb pollution
According to State of Global Air, 2020, around 1.6 million deaths in India have been because of long exposure to air pollution in which it is second in the world. Due to the large population size, in India public policies regarding curbing air pollution are needed to produce effective results. Government of India and Government of NCT (National Capital Region) Delhi have come up with aggressive public policies to curb pollution such as “Red Light On, Gaadi Off” campaign and ordinance on pollution, respectively. Dr Kundu said, “policy making by the central and state governments is an important factor in handling this health situation.”
However, in cases like stubble burning strict policy making and guidelines have also have produced minimal outcomes as it still remains a prime source of air pollution in the capital. Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) has consistently been in the ‘severe’ category in the first week of November, which raises serious alarm especially considering the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the capital. As always, loop holes in the preparedness of government and administration against pollution are exposed. Dr Kundu stated smog as the root cause of every health problem related to lungs including COVID-19. Winter has always carried increased levels of smog but no precautions and self-preparatory methods were adapted, this being the year of health disasters.
Effect of weather on COVID-19
How weather affects the spread of COVID-19 is still a question for the health agencies around the world as the results of various studies show varying results.A study published in International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health states that temperature and humidity have negligible effect on novel coronavirus. The spread of infection almost completely depends on human behaviour. A lot of rumours around effect of climate on COVID-19 infection have been cleared by WHO.The agency has said that spread of novel coronavirus is not dependent on any weather and can spread in all climates. On this, Dr Kundu said, “the basic structure of novel coronavirus is similar to flu as it also affects body temperature, symptoms of cold and problems in breathing. Winters, being the welcome season for the spread of flu, can affect the spread of COVID-19.”
Curbing air pollution is the first and foremost solution to this health situation. The increased COVID-19 cases in Delhi is attributed to varying reasons such as festival times, reopening of offices, and avoidance of safety precautions. Following the basic safety guidelines of WHO regarding social distancing and wearing of masks is the first line of defence against the virus which should be followed seriously. Dr Kundu also addressed the problem of avoiding masks and said, “solution for containing the pandemic and pollution is first of all to just follow the basic WHO guidelines. Secondly, people with breathing problem should avoid going out and avoid the crowd. Government policy making is equally important to oversee the status of pollution.” He specially mentioned that complete ban on crackers should be implemented across the nation to further contain the spread of COVID-19 in Diwali season. Many states like Odisha, Delhi and Karnataka have already banned the use of crackers and this should be followed by all the other states as well, he added. Ban on crackers by National Green Tribunal was a step towards fulfilling the aim to curb the spread
Wearing of masks is the most important tool against both pollution and COVID-19 as both are associated with breathing. WHO has again and again reiterated that quarantine, wearing of masks and social distancing are our best chances against the pandemic. As vaccine for COVID-19 is around the corner, this seems the last battle against the novel coronavirus. If the country copes up with the combined challenge of COVID-19 and pollution, a better part of the work will be done.