The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a serious concern worldwide, and it isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Schools and businesses in many countries have closed, travel restrictions are being implemented, and people are asked to stay home in order to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Now that many people’s lives have effectively been put on hold, the global economy is beginning to show signs of a downturn. Experts warn that if this continues, we could be headed towards another recession.
Not everything is bad news, however. Over the past several weeks, reduced activity has resulted in one welcome side effect: lower pollution levels.
Wuhan — the perennially smog-laden city of 11 million people where the outbreak began in late 2019 — has seen a significant improvement in air quality ever since the central government of China imposed a lockdown in January, forcing many factories to either close or reduce their operations. On social media, residents shared photos of clear blue skies, which has become quite a rare sight in many parts of the country.
In early March, NASA released satellite imagery comparing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels over China before and after the lockdown which began on the 23rd of January. The images also showed a decrease in pollutants in and around Wuhan during this period. Though pollution levels in China tend to decrease during the Lunar New Year holidays, NASA says that this year’s decline was bigger than usual.
Italy, the second worst-hit country after China, has also seen a decrease in NO2 levels since the start of the nationwide lockdown on the 9th of March. Furthermore, photos and videos posted on Facebook and Twitter now show clear water flowing through the notoriously-polluted canals of Venice, mainly due to the absence of tourists and cruise ships in the area.
While these positive effects to the environment do not reduce the suffering of those affected by the outbreak, research suggests that better air quality may have helped save more lives and kept the death toll lower than it should have been.
Professor Marshall Burke, a scientist at Stanford University who studies the social and economic impact of changes to the environment, averaged the drop in air pollution levels in four cities in China and calculated its effect on mortality nationwide.
Burke used data from U.S. government sensors in these four cities to measure levels of PM2.5, tiny particles which are believed to be one of the leading causes of death from air pollution.
According to Burke, the lower levels of air pollution throughout the two-month period covered by his study may have helped save the lives of around 4,000 children under the age of five and around 73,000 adults over 70 years old. This is higher than the current COVID-19 death toll of around 9,000.
The complete findings of this study were published on the website of G-FEED, an interdisciplinary group that focuses on understanding the relationship between society and the environment.
These findings appear to be in line with those of another recent study which suggests that on average, air pollution takes three years off the global life expectancy.
Burke, however, warns that he is not in any way suggesting that pandemics are good for health. Rather, he sees this as a reminder of the often-neglected effects of the status quo, such as the costs of how we do things currently and how it affects our health and our livelihoods.
Though there aren’t enough studies to determine the true health impact of reduced emissions, Burke also mentioned that the fact that disruptions caused by the outbreak have yielded some positive results shows that our normal way of doing things may need to be disrupted as well.