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Lessons from COVID-19 about Human Health and Environmental Sustainability

The satellite images of the major drop in air pollution in China, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, have gone viral around the world. Pollution has dropped as a result of grounded air traffic, cars, factories, and the closing of all non-essential businesses. The COVID-19 has shown us the immense impact of human activity on human health and the environment. Some scientists estimate that in China, more lives were saved due to the impact of clean air, compared to the number of people that died due to the Novel Coronavirus.

Actually, air pollution is considered to be a 'silent public health emergency'. Globally, 9 out of 10 people are breathing polluted air. Due to the wide-spread contamination of air quality, roughly 7 million people die each year from diseases related to outdoor and indoor (office and home) air pollution. However, the good news is, scientific studies have revealed that the health of communities can improve within a few weeks of improvements being made to air quality.

As lock-downs and quarantines continue across the world, clean air is being observed in other regions. When countries in Europe were under the strictest measures to combat COVID-19, the European Environment Authority reported a major drop in air pollution. For example, in Barcelona, nitrogen dioxide levels went down by 40 % from one week to the next.

There have also been other benefits for nature and wildlife. In Sardinia, on an island off the coast of Italy, people reported the return of dolphins, due to the reduction in boat traffic. Also in Italy, the famous canals of Venice, which are usually clogged with boats and gondolas, are clearer and cleaner than ever before. The water is blue and transparent, while fish, ducks, and other marine life are returning.

Some people in Venice are proposing that boats should be limited to the future to support the return of a thriving and unique biosphere. A Venetian hotel owner is inviting the Venetian community to reflect on finding 'a balance between the city and tourism - in a tourist destination where business as usual involves around 20 million visitors each year. There are also wide-spread calls to continue the measures that have been put in place due to the COVID-19. For example, China is being encouraged to continue to ban wildlife markets. While the aviation industry is also under pressure to find clean ways to service the tourism and travel industry.

Whatever the way forward, we can certainly learn something from this global pandemic. While air quality has improved and wildlife has returned, there has also been a massive amount of medical waste generated, mostly in the form of gloves and masks. This raises questions regarding safe disposal and avoidance of plastic marine pollution.

None-the-less, the year 2020 will be remembered as the moment in time when COVID-19 stopped millions of people and economic activity around the world. 2020 also marks the Decade of Action towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Although the cause is not what anyone would have ever wished for, the environmental and health benefits for humans, nature, and wildlife from the pause of human activity in response to COVID-19 - certainly provide some ideas and options to explore.

References

Abram, Simone, Global COVID-19 response has slashed CO2 emissions - heres how to keep them low, 26 Mar 2020 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/coronavirus-co2-emissions

Brunton, John, Nature is taking back Venice': wildlife returns to tourist-free city, March 20, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/20/nature-is-taking-back-venice-wildlife-returns-to-tourist-free-city

Ellyatt, Holly, Chinas wild animal trade should be banned for good if future viruses are to be stopped, activists warn, March 12, 2020: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/12/chinas-wild-animal-trade-changed-for-good-by-coronavirus.html

European Environment Agency, Air pollution goes down as Europe takes hard measures to combat coronavirus, 7 April, 2020: https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/air-pollution-goes-down-as

McGrath, Matt, Coronavirus: Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads, BBC News, 19 March: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-51944780

McMahon, Jeff, Coronavirus Lockdown May Save More Lives By Preventing Pollution Than By Preventing Infection, March 11, 2020:

 
 

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