A Breath of Fresh Air

Among many tragic consequences, Coronavirus also carried a welcome short-term effect: the quality of the air in our usually polluted cities, have rarely been better.

As lockdowns have shut down factories and kept cars off the roads, this year’s Air Quality Index shows that pollution has dropped to historical lows in metropolitan areas that usually experience a very polluted air: -44% in Wuhan, -54% in Seoul and -60% in New Delhi.

By harming the human race on a global scale, Coronavirus paradoxically did something good to the environment that hosts mankind; Today, I will close the loop and investigate the cause-effect relationship between air pollution, and the damage caused by COVID-19.

Pollution can be measured using the number of micrograms of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5 present in a cubic meter of air. The safe limit designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency is 12 micrograms PM2.5 per cubic meter, while the World Health Organization has a guideline figure of 10 micrograms per cubic meter as an annual mean.

A recent study conducted by Harvard University researchers shows that Coronavirus mortality rates were significantly higher in people who had lived in counties with long-term pollution exposure for 15-20 years. The study is waiting for peer review, but it is common sense to assume that its results are linked to the higher risk of existing respiratory and heart diseases in areas of higher pollution, which also weaken the immune system, compromising people’s ability to fight off infection.

A different study conducted in northern Italy found a similar correlation between COVID-19 mortality rates and high levels of pollution. The researchers questioned the role of low air quality in Lombardia and Emilia Romagna, the two areas that registered the highest mortality rates, concluding that: “the high level of pollution in northern Italy should be considered an additional co-factor of the high level of lethality recorded in that area”.

Already in 2003, a study on patients with SARS, a respiratory virus closely related to Covid-19, found out that they were 84% more likely to die if they lived in areas with high levels of pollution.

Researchers at several Italian universities recently published a more surprising study that claims an intriguing relationship between COVID-19 and air pollution: the virus could be hitching a ride on PM10 particles – the same stuff as PM2.5, just slightly larger – and disperse more widely in areas where such particles are abundant. Like much research on Coronavirus so far, this study too has yet to go through robust peer-review.

Scientists warn that the fall in polluting emissions will be short-lived and air quality is likely to worsen again as lock-downs are lifted and we return to business as usual. In the short-term, reducing pollution levels will minimize future effects of a second wave of Coronavirus, and some administrators are trying to take steps in that direction: to deter people from getting in their cars, Milan will create 35km of new cycle paths to make cycling and scooter transport more accessible, for example. Milan metro will only run at 30% capacity to allow for social distancing, reducing the number of passengers it can carry from 1.4 million to 400,000 people. Creating cycle paths in one of the most polluted Italian cities will not wipe Coronavirus away from Milan, but similar measures are a suggestive attempt of addressing the problem from a different perspective and should not be disregarded.

While scientists around the world scratch their heads to elucidate the many unknowns that persist in the Coronavirus equation, it is easy to mingle with a simple although supernatural idea. This virus was not created in a lab or spread artificially. Maybe it just came to let us look back, and then look forward again. In doing so, it drew a line between the life we left behind and the “new normal” waiting for us. Forecasts anticipate a dystopian future where dangers lurk at every corner and ignore the fundamental lesson Coronavirus taught us: forecasts are done to be corrected and our future depends on the choices we make. Let’s do better choices, from tomorrow on.


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