Ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the world has come to a standstill. Everyone’s waiting for the nightmare to be over. The entire countries have locked down, air travel has stopped, and the birds and beasts are reportedly sighing with relief in a relatively clean and unpolluted environment.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, facts and figures demonstrate how the Earth is healing in the absence of human activity. Pseudo experts have extrapolated these numbers and linked them to unbelievable occurrences.
Some call it the Earth’s revenge, others call it a divine warning, but the fact remains – this pandemic has shown us the mirror! As the air quality index improves around the world, we have no excuse but to accept the wrongs we’ve done to the Earth.
But is COVID-19 really the silver lining for the environment? Is the Earth really healing and at what cost?
Is this pandemic really going to change us, HUMANS, for better? Is the human race really going to mend its ways and include Earth’s rights in plans and policies?
Let’s analyze numbers and news (including myths) to understand the real impact of COVID-19 on our environment.
Did Humans Bring Coronavirus Pandemic on Themselves?
We humans usually take the Earth for granted. For the past few decades, the explosive advancements in technology and the rise in disposable culture has caused an irreparable loss to the Earth’s environment and the habitats of millions of animals and sea creatures.
According to the Executive Director of UN Environment Program, Inger Anderson, ‘never before existed an opportunity this vast for the pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to the people.’
According to the University of Edinburgh, wildlife exposure accounts for about 75% of all the emerging infectious diseases today. That is why the experts like Aaron Bernstein of Harvard School of Public Health call the wildlife habitat destruction as ‘playing with the fire.’
According to the biological and geographical experts, wildlife is a vast web of millions of novel viruses that can cause devastation to the human race. If we wouldn’t stop meddling in the lives of wild animals, we will keep contacting the diseases that may have the potential to wipe out entire populations from the face of the Earth.
Covid-19 Isn’t the First Epidemic Nor Will It Be the Last
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the human race has been hit by various new and dangerous diseases that have caused massive health disasters in the recent past.
How is Covid-19 Effecting the Environment?
Let’s analyze some popular facts and myths to unearth the full scope of the impact of COVID-19 on our environment. Not all the pandemic-related environmental changes are positive or permanent. On the other hand, it’d be safe to say that the adverse ecological effects of COVID-19 outweigh any positivity we see temporarily.
1. Decrease in Pollution
In the wake of COVID-19, the recent data collected through Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite shows a visible reduction in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide, a significant air pollutant across major cities like Paris, Milan, Madrid, Rome, and all over China.
The virus has extended to all the countries of the world, causing massive lockdowns. In the absence of human activity, the average air quality index of even the most polluted cities like Beijing, Beirut, and New Delhi has seen improvement.
According to Hanks Eskes of Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), ‘The nitrogen dioxide concentrations vary from day to day due to changes in the weather. Conclusions cannot be drawn based on just one day of data alone.” That’s why they combined data over ten days to observe the real impact of changes due to human activity.
2. Lowered Greenhouse Gas Emissions
One of the biggest survival threats to our Earth is global warming due to the elevated greenhouse gases. It is leading to scorching summers, melting glaciers, and flooding of coastal areas.
Because of reduced human activity, greenhouse gas emission has seen a marked reduction. New York alone has seen a 50% reduction in carbon monoxide levels compared to last year’s stats. According to Forbes, Europe is also expected to see a 24.4% drop in greenhouse gas emissions due to massive lockdowns.
China’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by almost 25% over the first month since the breakout. No traffic on roads, a complete halt to the aviation services and a ban on train and tube services are helping the Earth with reduced carbon emission, albeit temporarily.
Collectively, all the countries will emit 388.8 million tons less carbon into the atmosphere than before the coronavirus outbreak. This number is indeed an eye-opener for what we can achieve if we start to live thoughtfully.
3. Increase in Disposable Waste
COVID- 19 outbreak has seen a sharp increase in disposable waste. The virus can stay alive on surfaces for more than 3-29 days. That’s why the plastic industry is using this as an opportunity to push for lifting bans from disposable bags.
This pandemic is jeopardizing all the efforts to ban disposable bags, straws, and forks. Oregon has lifted the ban on plastic bags, followed by Bellingham, and Washington. On the flip side, the prohibition of reusable cups and straws at restaurants and coffee stores, like Starbucks, is contributing to the ever-increasing problem of disposable waste.
Top it up with the increased amount of medical waste being produced since the breakout. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the initial Coronavirus outbreak, hospitals produced around 240 metric tons of medical waste daily. Rough data collections predict six times more medical waste production compared to before the outbreak.
Stericycle is the biggest waste management company in the US, with its 50 waste management facilities. They have yet published no clear stats of COVID-19 medical waste. However, according to the Stericycle Vice President of Corporate Communication, Jennifer Koenig, ‘we are closely monitoring the situation with all relevant agencies to determine the next steps.’
The point to note is the decrease in air pollution is likely to reverse once COVID-19 threat is no more. But we’ll be left with a lot of waste, including plastic waste, for many decades to come. Moreover, the efforts to ban disposable plastics might meet higher resistance now that the plastic industry is labeling them as a carrier of various germs.
4. Healing of Ozone Layer
Some news outlets are linking the lockdown-induced reduction in greenhouse gases to the improvement of the ozone layer over Antarctica, which is indeed a myth.
Healing of the ozone layer is a long and steady process and a direct result of sustained environmental efforts. The reduced road and air traffic do not play any significant role in the ozone layer repair. Conversely, it’s the Montreal protocol signed in 1987 that banned the production of ozone-depleting substances, particularly, CFCs worldwide.
In 2000, Anarta Benerjee and her team from the University of Colorado Boulder noticed positive changes in wind patterns that are responsible for trade winds, tropical rain-belts, hurricanes, and subtropical deserts. They found the changing trends a direct result of massive ozone repair.
So ozone has been repairing itself long before COVID-19 lockdowns. Hopefully, it will continue to heal itself over the next many decades.
5. Reduction in Water Pollution
You must have heard the news of the swans’ sighting in Italy after the lockdown. It’s a popular myth that COVID-19 has reduced water pollution in Italy. People are sharing before/after images of canals in Venice. You can see clear waters which were always otherwise murky. In fact, the waters are so clear people also report seeing fish swimming in the rivers.
However, a spokesperson from the Venice mayor’s office rejected the myth.
The water now looks clearer because there is less traffic on the canals, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom. However, the air is less polluted since there are less Vaporetto and boat traffic than usual because of the restricted movement of residents.
We’re going through the first major lockdown since World War II. But viewing the cessation of human activities as the ultimate solution to all our environmental problems is indeed absurd. The temporary decrease in air pollution isn’t really a moment to celebrate. Conversely, it’s a moment to think that we can surely reverse the damage we’ve done if we only learn to slow down and lead our lives thoughtfully.
We cannot think of reversing the damage caused over centuries in only a few weeks of lockdown. Now, more than ever, it’s clear that if we want to save ourselves for future pandemics, we need to protect wild habitats with all our might.
Prof Andrew Cunningham, of the Zoological Society of London, is not convinced the warning will be taken.
I thought things would have changed after SARS, which was a massive wake-up call – the biggest economic impact of any emerging disease to that date. Everybody was up in arms about it. But it went away, because of our control measures. Then there was a huge sigh of relief and it was back to business as usual. We cannot go back to business as usual.
The way COVID-19 has shaken every nation, I hope when all this is over, we do not go back to the normal. May we find a new normal where humans respect wildlife and humankind moves forward with nature as its biggest ally!