Government has announced a what feels like an indefinite lockdown after an experimental one-day Janta Curfew. Till date, this measure has proven to be the only effective measure (in combination with others like increased testing and efficient healthcare) to contain the fatal and highly contagious COVID-19 aka novel coronavirus.
While the virus has disrupted day to day lives for most humans, the planet is loving the change. China is left with cleaner air to breathe. Venice (a popular tourist destination in Italy) is seeing fishes return to canals. And Delhi, which is notorious for its fatal Air Quality Index (AQI), has shown unprecedented positive changes in air quality with only a few days of closure in.
The AQI is an index for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you. The AQI focuses on health affects you may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air.(1) Below 100 is considered good to moderate, and above 100 is considered from unhealthy to hazardous.
As the factories shut, cars stayed off the roads, and people stayed at home, Delhi lived and breathed. AQI remained within 42 through the day (that’s down from hazardous 999 we saw during Diwali). Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi that regularly reports an AQI of over 300, showed an AQI of 50 i.e. ‘satisfactory’ levels on Friday. In Mumbai, AQI levels were at 85, compared to an average of around 153 in March 2019. Dr. Gufran Beig, project director at the government environment monitoring agency SAFAR , said that is mainly because of a huge reduction in vehicular traffic.
AQI IN VARIOUS REGIONS OF DELHI ON 27TH MARCH, 2020 (in accordance to COVID-19)
The curfew has been extended to 21 more days. This means, besides industries producing essential goods, or providing healthcare and journalism services, most things and people would stay shut – or at least work from inside their homes. The changes have led to minimal traffic on roads – even in big metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Which in turn is expected to substantially improve India’s air quality and reduce pollution.
Exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributed to over 1.2 million deaths in India in 2017, a global study said.(4) If the lockdown stays in place or potentially gets extended, all of India could have healthy breathing air. And that could potentially save more lives than coronavirus could take. We won’t know whether that last statement is true until we escape these bizarre coronavirus times – but the zeitgeist is that, on average, pollution has been taking more lives in India on a monthly basis than coronavirus did globally in the past nearly 4 months. These numbers aren’t to undermine the ongoing pandemic (it is fatal and highly contagious, and healthcare systems across the world are overwhelmed), but to put into perspective one of the big issues our country has been grappling with.
Once the curve flattens, the virus gets contained and previous activities resume, World Economic Forum notes that it is yet to be known whether NO₂ emissions will bounce back to their pre-pandemic levels. And a recent statement by the World Meteorological Organisation on COVID-19 pandemic said: “Efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic have reduced economic activity and led to localised improvements in the air quality. But it is too early to assess the implications for concentrations of greenhouse gases, which are responsible for long-term climate change.” The pandemic has however taught us multiple lessons that we could implement in the longer term.
Also read: Busting the myths about COVID-19
The recent closure goes on to show how harmful cars and factories are. And how we need a big change in the existing system. Working from home could be made efficient by using the right resources and discipline. If a sizeable part of the population manages to work from home even half of their work days (maybe alternate home and office days), it would significantly reduce the road cluster. We could further promote electric cars, discourage single-occupancy vehicles and tax fuel cars. An efficient public transportation could be a game changer.
We could mandate manufacturing industry to reduce their carbon emissions and offset the remaining emissions by planting trees, or by coming up with something innovative. We have even learned to stray away from non-essential purchases and fast fashion. We could continue to cut down on unnecessary splurge.
Most of these changes require a change in lifestyle, or heavy investments. But schools and universities have been closed for about a month now. Most of us are staying indoors. Many of us are separated from families. But all of us have a common goal – to fight a global pandemic. If our dedication to fight pollution and climate change is a quarter of current scale to fight COVID-19, we will save lives, and make the world a better place.