Can The Pandemic Shutdown Teach South Asia About Air Pollution?

by GoNews Desk 11 months ago Views 1078

Can The Pandemic Shutdown Teach South Asia About A
By Syed Muhammad Abubakar; Ankita Anand/

After India shut down in response to Covid-19, people started posting stunning photos of the Himalayas, visible from 200 kilometres away in Punjab for the first time in decades. Photos flooded Twitter, the Indian and global media.

Environmental activist Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal captured the excitement. “We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs. And not just that, stars are visible at night. I have never seen anything like this in recent times,” he told the SBS Hindi news service. Seechewal is a veteran campaigner against air pollution with more than 30 years’ experience.

Newly-clean skies have stirred hopes that regional action on South Asia’s lethal air pollution may be possible despite years of false starts and failure. Furthermore, links between poor air quality and chronic health conditions that jeopardise the survival of Covid-19 patients now make tackling pollution more pressing than ever.

“The whole pandemic experiment and resulting shutdown of human activities have shown us that clearing the air is possible, with both short- and long-term planning and implementation of environmentally friendly policies,” said Pawan Gupta, a research scientist studying transboundary airflows with the Universities Space Research Associations at The NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, USA.

Covid-19 risks of heart and lung disease

NASA’s Terra satellite observed a 20-year low for deadly aerosols – tiny, airborne particles that can penetrate the lungs and heart – in northern India’s Indo-Gangetic Plain at this time of year. Gupta who studies trans-boundary airflows and pollution, said a drop was expected but “I have never seen them so low.”

Data from the Terra Satellite’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) shows aerosol optical depth (AOD) measurements over India from March 31 to April 5 each year from 2016 to 2020. The sixth map shows a strong anomaly in AOD in 2020 compared to the average for 2016-2019

Air pollution routinely kills millions each year – it contributed to more than five million deaths or up to 22% of all deaths in South Asia in 2012, according to a scoping study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Furthermore, if Covid-19 becomes established, without a vaccine or cure, air pollution will exacerbate the death rate in any outbreak. Clinical experience so far, and early studies suggest patients with pre-existing heart and lung problems are more likely to die.

Crisis brings an opportunity

“Many understand that we’ll have a new normal. We need to take advantage of that, and enforce, even accelerate, some policy shifts. I think states should implement those policies they have, as those exposed to air pollution are more vulnerable,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, the founding director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.

“The Indian Prime Minister has called upon the region to use the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation ) framework to fight coronavirus. We can follow this framework to solve what is essentially Covid in slow motion, i.e., air pollution,” she added.

Air pollution crosses national boundaries, but attempts to tackle it at the regional level in the past have come up against political tensions.

“Air pollution cannot be effectively reduced unless India and Pakistan cooperate. I fear politicians are abandoning their responsibilities by playing politics. You can’t cooperate if you’re blaming one another for the problem”, said Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and Yale World Fellow from Pakistan.

Regional airflows push pollution far from its source. Pollutants – including smoke from crop burning – are regularly driven southeast by seasonal post-monsoon winds crossing over Pakistan and north India into Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. The transported pollution often reaches parts of southern India and Sri Lanka too. An inter-governmental data sharing agreement could provide a basis for countries to establish baseline data and reliable reports, and recommend solutions, possibly using SAARC’s existing framework.

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