During the height of lockdown, one of the few positive parts was the perception of cleaner air, beautiful skies and the sound of birdsong. With fewer people travelling, the decline of emissions inevitably meant the natural world would increase in our perception. The improvement in air quality, it was argued, was linked not to the pandemic but to the choice of lockdown.
Poor air quality is viewed to have some link to Covid-19 deaths. A study in the Cardiovascular Research journal found that long-term exposure to air pollution could have been linked to 15% of Covid-19 deaths across the world. The research comes specifically from German and Cypriot experts, who analysed health and disease data in the USA and China, according to Al Jazeera.
It is clear that air pollution is linked to the burning of fossil fuels. They release carbon dioxide into the air, causing the proportion of our atmosphere which is made up of Co2 to increase (it is currently around 0.04%). The study also explored global satellite data of exposure to microscopic particles alongside ground-based pollution as part of their study over whether Covid deaths could be linked to air pollution.
The link logically seems clear. The Covid-19 disease is caused by the SARS-Cov-2 virus. SARS stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome, demonstrating the links to one’s lungs and the gases that are released into the atmosphere. Before the pandemic, in some countries it was common to wear face masks because of the risks posed by poor quality air and the effect on one’s lungs. Making the case that already weakened lungs could be at more risk from the disease does not appear hard.
The statistics are striking. From the research, 27% of Covid deaths in East Asia could be linked to the health effects of poor quality air, with 19% in Europe and 17% in North America. Asia has greater reliance on polluting industries with large manufacturing sectors reliant on polluting fossils fuels. The correlation is obvious.
Nonetheless, it is important to dig deeper into these statistics. A key argument framing the deaths from Covid, is over whether the death caused by Covid or something else. The distinction is subtle but important for working out whether the disease was the primary cause or a contributing factor. While Covid could have been the catalyst for a premature death, the context of poorer air quality might be significantly important.
The paper’s co-author Thomas Munzel stated that: “if both long-term exposure to air pollution and infection with the COVID-19 virus come together then we have an adverse effect on health, particularly with respect to the heart and blood vessels.”
The report then demonstrates how Covid would severely impact those who already had underlying medical health issues. It is these people who were asked to shield during the first lockdown and it is believed would be more affected by Covid compared to those with no underlying health issues. Air pollution then makes lung and heart problems more likely, meaning an individual becomes more vulnerable.
However, the authors have been clear that pollution itself was not killing people with the disease but that, according to Joe Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, the “pollution particles are a co-factor in aggravating the disease”. Potentially, 6,100 deaths in the UK could be linked to air pollution compared to 40,000 in the USA.
Heavily polluting manufacturing industries have been more problematic during the pandemic with the pollutants having the potential to aggravate Covid-19 which raises the risk for workers. It’s clear that greater reliance on polluting industries in East Asia have contributed to Covid deaths to a greater extent than it has done in other countries.
Covid has been seen as the catalyst for many changes from how we shop and socialise to ways we work. This study could motivate further change around how our cities are operated. There should be greater focus on renewable resources and the aspiration towards living in a cleaner manner.
Covid-19 is further evidence of the urgent need to solve our pollution problem. Structural change in industry is necessary to stop pollutants entering the atmosphere. If we can do this, should we face another respiratory disease, fewer people would be at high risk due to pre-existing conditions linked to air pollution.