Need some good news? Well, turns out there’s an unlikely beneficiary from all this virus mess: the environment.
As we sit and wait in our homes for this quarantine to finally end, our planet has been actively regenerating itself and giving us clear warning signs for change. There are clear waters in Venice’s normally murky canals, and 25 percent lower CO2 emissions have been measured in Wuhan, China where the coronavirus outbreak began. The European Environment Agency reports a similar change in Barcelona and Madrid´s pollution level, where Spanish authorities issued confinement orders in mid-March.
So what should we expect in terms of improvements to our health, given that air pollution provokes around 4.2 million deaths each year according to the World Health Organization? On a daily basis many of us may not realize that fine particles can irritate our eyes and throat and inhibit our breathing correctly. In extreme cases, elderly people and those who suffer from asthma can die if they are not properly treated.
Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told France 24, “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.” The thick smog that usually blankets these industrial cities in China, are now seeing blue skies. The same report noted that in northern Italy average NO2 concentration levels have been almost halved on average. This pollutant provokes serious inflammation of the respiratory system.
These improvements in our air quality will surely happen worldwide as the pandemic forces us to stay inside. But what happens afterwards? Do we just go back to our old ways when the quarantine is lifted? Or will all of this make companies and governments wake up to the fact that climate change could be just as devastating on our health as pandemic viruses can be — or perhaps even more dangerous and irreversible? Let’s look at what changes and discoveries have occurred in our environment since the beginning of this pandemic.
Hong Kong Cleans Up its Air Due to Traffic Reduction
Since late January when people started working from their homes, the air quality has improved greatly. The lack of traffic congestion has had a significant impact and this will improve lives in other ways aside from those who suffer from coronavirus.
Patrick Fung, chairman of the Clean Air Network told CNN that for the last decade, Hong Kong’s air pollution has been double the World Health Organization’s recommended safe level. “Especially at the roadside, where a lot of pedestrians and commuters are exposed to that kind of toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants,” he said. Fung has been campaigning about the long-term health impact of the air pollution in Hong Kong, which he says causes on average 1,500 premature deaths per year in the city. Those conscious of the problem, like Fung is, hope that this period will help people push for longer-term changes in how we work from home. If old and young people are to live healthily in Hong Kong, a business as usual concept cannot remain the same; there has to be a change.
Animals Roam City Streets Again
We may not think of big cities as a part of nature, but they are. We´re so busy in our city lives that we may not always remember that animals have always lived among us and are still there. Since the quarantine, for instance, the world has seen creatures strolling through its streets instead of humans. Turkeys have taken to the streets in Oakland, California, and boars are back in large numbers in Barcelona while people are on lockdown. In Guardian article, Jorge Ramón López Olvera, a UAB vet scientist managing a boar control program, said that the species looks less like its wild forebears from the forest than it does today. “The urban boar has become a species unto itself. It’s become habituated to city life, and we are transforming it. It’s not healthy — for the boar, or for us.”
In the same report, sika deer are said to be wandering through city streets and subway stations of Nara, Japan, hile in San Felipe, Panama, raccoons were spotted on the beach, and in Lopburi, Thailand, monkeys have replaced the tourists on the streets.
For those who still think there were dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice or drunken elephants roaming through China’s Yunnan province, we are sorry to report that it was fake news. But hey, it could still happen.
Both Bats and Humans are Likely to Blame for the Coronavirus
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this pandemic has been the realization that if we keep at this pace of deforestation around the globe, viruses that usually begin with wildlife will continue to kill us. The more we invade the places where animals live to build our industries, the sicker and more stressed these animals we displace will get. Though it has not yet been proven, the bat is being blamed as the animal that caused the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, scientists are defending them and calling out humans as the problem.
For instance when a bat is stressed because its habitat is damaged by deforestation or because it is being hunted, its immune system is challenged. So if these sick bats were at the epicenter of the virus as CNN reported, at the so-called wet-markets of Wuhan, China, where wild animals are held captive together and sold as delicacies or pets, it is likely that the spread of the virus occurred there. Once again, the coronavirus is an indisputable sign that environmental damage can kill humans and animals if we don´t change our destructive behavior with nature.
Sadly, many think this improvement in air quality will be short term and that when the quarantine is lifted, factories will likely double their efforts to catch up for their losses.
But as we move to restart our economies, we all need to consider our planet and learn from what has happened. Do we want to go back to the status quo or save our planet and save ourselves from further deadly illnesses caused by our hyper industrial tendencies? I think we all know what has to be done. The impact is far too great to ignore anymore.