Air pollution is back with a vengeance as industries play catch up — and that could further worsen the COVID-19 pandemic

Air pollution is back with a vengeance as industries play catch up — and that could further worsen the COVID-19 pandemic
Nitrogen dioxide emissions over India are higher in 2021, then they were before the pandemic in 2019, according to data from the Sentinel-5 Precursor's TROPOMI instrumentTerraScope/BI India
  • The level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air, one of the main causes of air pollution, decreased sharply during the lockdown.
  • Data from the TROPOMI instrument aboard the Sentinel-5 Precurson shows that not only is NO2 back at pre-COVID levels but is higher.
  • Worsening air quality amid the surging COVID-19 cases could add to the pressure on India’s healthcare system.
We saw some improvement in air quality during the lockdown with fewer cars on the road and industries taking a break as workers were confined to their homes.

Over a year into the pandemic, companies are trying to catch up for the production they lost during the past year. This also means that elements that wreak havoc on air quality, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are back with a vengeance.

Data from the TROPOMI instrument aboard the Sentinel-5 Precursor (S5P) — a sensor that measures columns of sunlight being reflected from the surface for fingerprints of different gases — shows that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels are not only back at pre-COVID levels but are higher.

According to TS Panwar, the director of the Climate Change and Energy Programme at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India, air pollution is one of the world’s biggest health hazards. A study by Harvard University estimates that at least 30.7% of global deaths due to air pollution happen in India — that’s around 2.5 million people every year.

“The spread of COVID-19 has raised new concerns as exposure to particle pollution may increase vulnerability to the virus and its health impacts,” Panwar told Business Insider.

What does nitrogen dioxide have to do with COVID-19?

Exposure to nitrogen dioxide, or any increase in air pollution, increases the risk of diseases that attack the respiratory system. And, COVID-19 is mainly a disease of the respiratory system. And, in moderate to severe cases of COVID-19, symptoms include oxygen saturation and breathlessness.

“We are increasing the susceptibility, the vulnerability of people who are exposed to air pollution,” said World Health Organisation’s Maria Neira.

Manufacturing in India continued to improve in March 2021. Firms scaled-up production with restrictions around COVID-19 easing up, according to IHS Markit. Factory production, in particular, expanded at a sharp pace.

Air pollution is back with a vengeance as industries play catch up — and that could further worsen the COVID-19 pandemic
Manufacturing sector conditions in India continued to improve sharply in March, despite some loss of growth momentum<br>IHS Markit

Air pollution needs a long term solution

Air pollution comes from fossil fuels, construction activities, waste combustion, seasonal stubble burning, and a host of other sources. This means that there is no one solution to tackle all of them.

“Since a number of sectors contribute to air pollution, hence appropriate inter-ministerial coordination is required at the central level, besides effective coordination with the states as well as supporting the cities in addressing this challenge,” said Panwar.

According to him, the government has already set up multiple programs to address the problem of air pollution but a multi-pronged strategy with a time-bound action plan is required moving forward.

Not only should it cover issues that relate to policy and regulation, but also address technological intervention and capacity building. “The success would depend on the timely implementation of the action plan — where the government has a major role but with contributions from multiple stakeholders,” said Panwar.

Air pollution is not only among the largest causes of mortality, it is also the major risk to the economy, work productivity, healthcare costs, and tourism.

“COVID-19 has taught us that there is a lot that can be achieved virtually. We should take this lesson and implement it in our daily lives — like to reduce our travel and do as many tasks virtually as possible,” said Rakesh Khatri, the founder of the Delhi-based Eco Roots Foundation

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