With its multi-faceted strike on many industries and countries across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly tested the preparedness and resilience of governments and healthcare systems alike. But is there a sliver-lining for the environment as a result of the global outbreak?
by Deborah Seah
As we step in to the final quarter of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic still continues to spread across the world. Crippling weak healthcare systems and surfacing many social issues as countries adjust to changes in the society. Many industries are hit hard by the outbreak, most predominantly tourism and air transport. Given the ubiquitous impact of the recent global pandemic, many reports and studies have also evaluated how it might affect the environment.
One of the earliest epicenters of the novel coronavirus was the city of Wuhan in China. On 23 January 2020, the central government of China declared a lockdown of the city together with other affected cities in Hubei province in order to isolate and prevent further spread of the new disease. These lockdowns included travel restrictions as well as limiting the number of people who permitted to leave the household. Control of movement and suspension of public transport was also implemented, keeping the entire population except essential frontline staff at home.
Throughout the next few months as COVID-19 continued to spread across China, other cities also went into lockdown. To top it all off, inbound and outbound travel restrictions for Chinese citizens were imposed by many countries. As the number of cases began to climb worldwide, many governments also began imposing lockdown measures to control movement within countries in hopes to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Despite its devastating impact on healthcare, society, and the economy at large, studies and reports have found that the COVID-19 pandemic might have temporary positive influence on the environment.
Reality of Urban Air Pollution
Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, air pollution is considered to be detrimental to human health and the environment as whole. Based on the World Health Organization, ambient air pollution exposure is the cause of 4.2 million deaths each year, this accounted for 7.6 percent of all deaths in 2016.1
Researchers have found cleaner air to be a positive take-away from the lockdowns implemented in various cities. Satellites used by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to monitor pollution was able to detect drastic fall in airborne nitrogen dioxide across China.2 Data collected from the satellites displayed a significant drop in the pollutant over the quarantine period which was first evident in the city of Wuhan and eventually throughout China as the Chinese government began implementing lockdowns across the country.
Study conducted by various environment research institutes across China quantitatively evaluated the impact on air quality due to the lockdown in Wuhan, China. Following the lockdown, air quality showed significant improvements with the reduction of six major air pollutants, except ozone.3 Reduction in traffic pollution and industrial emissions as a result of the lockdown has shown much benefit on the environment as these are key factors that influence overall air quality and ultimately public health.
Lockdowns in other major cities have also experienced a similar fate. Strict restrictions imposed in India during its first lockdown period from 24 March 2020 to 14 April 2020 saw significant air quality change. In the megacity, Delhi, India, air quality was found to improve by 40 to 50 percent just within the first four days of the lockdown. Amongst other major pollutants, PM10 (Particulate Matter) and PM2.5 dropped by more than 50 percent when compared to air quality before implementation of the lockdown.4
In Singapore, the National Environment Agency (NEA) also reported a decrease in key pollutant levels when circuit breaker measures kicked in on 7 April 2020. Nitrogen dioxide levels fell from 27ug/m3 during the same period in 2019 to 13ug/m3 from a preliminary analysis after two weeks since the start of the circuit breaker period.
A spokesperson from the NEA attributed this drop to the reduction in vehicular traffic as many businesses have enforced work-from-home schedules for its employees. Both PM10 and PM2.5 levels also dipped by 21 percent and 35 percent respectively. Major pollutants such as carbon monoxide and Sulphur dioxide also fell by 8 percent and 43 percent.5
Based on initial reports, the future of our ambient environment seemed bright with many glowing reports showing reductions in air pollution and improvements to air quality as a result of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A research team led by Professor Sun Yele from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences further analyzed the chemical breakdown of air pollution in Beijing, China during the COVID-19 outbreak. Their study demonstrated the effect of secondary air pollutants that still pose a danger albeit overall improved air quality. Substantial decrease in primary gaseous and aerosol pollutants by 30 to 50 percent was found but secondary aerosols only fell by 5 to 12 percent.6 This discovery led the team to identify that these secondary pollutants could account for certain cities not experiencing improvements in air quality amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"There's an urgent need for a better understanding of the chemical interactions between precursors and secondary aerosol under complex meteorological environments," said Professor Sun.
A state of emergency was declared on 1 July 2020 in one of Indonesia’s third-largest province when more than 700 sites for forest fires were identified. During the second half of each year, the Southeast Asian region prepares for a period of haze as areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan – in the Indonesian part of Borneo – are struck by massive forest fires due to forest clearing or prolonged dry seasons.7 Episodes of haze are still an impending threat for Southeast Asian countries even though air quality has improved during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rise of “COVID Waste”
Protecting frontline healthcare workers against infection which caring for COVID-19 positive patients is of paramount importance to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus in hospital settings. Proper personal protection equipment (PPE) have to be worn by healthcare professionals to protect themselves and frequent changes were necessary when tending to different patients. Disposable PPE is designed for single use and usually made up of various types of plastics.
Many countries across the globe have also enforced mandatory wearing of masks when out in public. This inevitably gave rise to the accumulation of COVID-related waste in the form of disposable gloves, face masks, and even empty hand sanitizer bottles. Much of these “COVID waste” have been found washed up beaches and swept up by waves from the beaches of Hong Kong to the Mediterranean.
From a report by UNCTAD, the global sale of disposable face masks grew from USD 800 million in 2019 to USD 166 billion in 2020. Estimates from China found that hospitals in Wuhan generated more than 240 tons of waste daily during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.8
To meet the growing demand for face masks, companies such as tech firm, Razer has stepped up manufacturing in Singapore by setting up an automated face mask manufacturing line. Mohar Shipping Corporation and DIP Investments announced the launch of Mohar Medical, a Singapore-based medical equipment brand to produce disposable medical masks.
There is an urgent need to evaluate and manage “COVID waste” produced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Options could include policies on disposal of PPE as well as innovations to redesign disposable PPE using more sustainable and biodegradable materials that are less harmful to the environment.
After the Pandemic
Reduction in air pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic largely made possible by industrial slowdown, decrease in traffic pollution, and reduced commercial air travel. Despite this sliver-lining, the environmental impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak has to be kept in check with the drastic and inevitable increase in usage of disposable PPE.
While we enjoy clearer skies and breathe in the fresh air during this time, it would be a waste to see it all go away as the economy gradually opens up after pandemic clears or if and when a vaccine is developed. Collaborative efforts have to be made at the governmental to the societal level to maintain this standard of air quality to help our planet heal.
- World Health Organization (May 2, 2018) Ambient (outdoor) air pollution. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ambient-(outdoor)-air-quality-and-health
- NASA Earth Observatory (n.d) Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets over China. Retrieved from: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146362/airborne-nitrogen-dioxide-plummets-over-china
- Lian, X., Huang, J., Huang, R., Liu, C., Wang, L., & Zhang, T. (2020). Impact of city lockdown on the air quality of COVID-19-hit of Wuhan city. Science of The Total Environment, 742, 140556. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140556
- Mahato S, Pal S, Ghosh KG. Effect of lockdown amid COVID-19 pandemic on air quality of the megacity Delhi, India. Sci Total Environ. 2020;730:139086. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139086
- Christopher Tan, The Straits Times. (May 5, 2020) Coronavirus: Air quality improves as Singapore slows down under circuit breaker measures. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/coronavirus-air-quality-improves-as-singapore-slows-down-under-circuit-breaker
- Sun, Y., Lei, L., Zhou, W., Chen, C., He, Y., Sun, J., Li, Z., Xu, W., Wang, Q., Ji, D., Fu, P., Wang, Z., & Worsnop, D. R. (2020). A chemical cocktail during the COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing, China: Insights from six-year aerosol particle composition measurements during the Chinese New Year holiday. Science of The Total Environment, 742, 140739. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140739
- The Straits Times. (July 1, 2020) Indonesian province declares state of emergency over forest fires. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/indonesian-province-declares-state-of-emergency-over-forest-fires
- The Straits Times. (August 1, 2020) Pay heed to the 'Covid waste' problem. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/st-editorial/pay-heed-to-the-covid-waste-problem