Air Pollution Might Amplify Coronavirus Infections, Warn Experts

Note: The Prime Ministerial Brief podcast is now live! Head here to listen and subscribe to the latest episode on issues that young India wants the Prime Minister to pay attention to.
This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.
WhyOnEarth logo mobEditor’s Note: Are you bothered by the drastic changes in our climate, causing extreme weather events and calamities such as the Kerala Floods? #WhyOnEarth aims to take the truth to the people with stories, experiences, opinions and revelations about the climate change reality that you should know, and act on. Have a story to share? Click here and publish.
Clean air volunteers demand clean air
Action at the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi. Image courtesy: Greenpeace India

According to the experts, the health hazard inflicted on people by long-standing air pollution is likely to impact the fatality rate emerging from Covid-19 infections. Polluted air is known to cause respiratory diseases and is responsible for at least 8 mn early deaths annually. This means that Covid-19, which spreads through respiratory droplets, is expected to have a more serious impact on city dwellers and those exposed to toxic emissions from fossil fuels. 

However, strict confinement measures in China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and in Italy, Europe’s most affected nation, have led to falls in air pollution as fewer vehicles are driven, and industrial emissions fall.

According to a report by the Guardian, a preliminary calculation by a US expert suggests that tens of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution may have been avoided by the cleaner air in China, far higher than the 3,208 coronavirus deaths. It is said particularly in the context of China and Italy (currently most affected with Covid-19), where maximum cities under lockdown witnessed immense emission reduction. Experts clearly stated it does not mean in any way that experts are claiming the pandemic as good for health. However, experts have also cautioned that it is too early for conclusive studies on the relation of air pollution and coronavirus. 

Observations from previous coronavirus outbreaks suggest that people exposed to polluted air are more at risk of losing lives. Scientists who analysed the Sars coronavirus outbreak in China in 2003 revealed that infected people who lived in polluted areas were twice as likely to die as those in less polluted areas. Early research on Covid-19 also red flags smokers.   

Aaron Bernstein, the Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said, “Given what we know now, it is very likely that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who are smoking tobacco products are going to fare worse if infected with [Covid-19] than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke,” quoted Washington Post. 

With the lockdowns in place, reductions in emissions have been recorded in Italy. In China, when regions shut down as a rapid response to the corona outbreak, emission reduction was observed in the four weeks after 25 January. The level of PM2.5 fell by 25%, while nitrogen dioxide, produced mainly by diesel vehicles, dropped by 40%. 

In the Indian context, the 2019 World Air Quality Report released in the last week of February this year, pointed to a 20% reduction in annual emission levels but attributed this to the economic slowdown. According to the report, the findings were arrived at by comparing India’s economic growth with air pollution data, where it “appeared” to correlate with lower growth and lesser pollution. Having said that, it is also noteworthy to be reminded of the notice served by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to the polluting power plants for non-compliance of emission standards. 

CPCB’s Notice

To achieve the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C, polluting power plants need to be shut down. Image via Flickr.

On January 31st this year, in an unprecedented move, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) issued show-cause notices to 14 coal-based power plants (5 plants in Haryana, 3 in Punjab, 2 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Andhra Pradesh, 2 in Telangana and 1 in Tamil Nadu) with a total capacity of approximately 15 GW. The notices were issued for non-compliance to the deadlines given to these power plants to reduce SO2 emissions by 2019 December under the notification issued on December 7th 2015 and later on the extension in timelines by CPCB in 2017.

CPCB, in its notice, asked the power generators, “Why should the plant not be closed down and environmental compensation be imposed for continuing non-compliance of the directions?” The show-cause notice cited the notification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change in the year 1984, 1986, 1989, 1999 and 2015 which mentioned the revised emission limit for particulate matter and notified new limits for Sulphur dioxide (SO2), Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) and mercury emission, and water consumption limit for coal/lignite based thermal power plants. 

The notice also elaborated on how the power plants have not retrofitted Electrostatic Precipitators (ESP) and missed the deadline for installing Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) units. CPCB also strictly advised the power plants to immediately take measures such as the installation of low NOx burners and  provide Over Fire Air (OFA) to achieve progressive reduction to comply with NOx emissions.

To achieve the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C, polluting power plants need to be shut down. Analysts have repeatedly argued that if India is really concerned about the pollution crisis, no new fossil fuel infrastructure should be built. 

Fossil Fuel Emissions, Deaths And Covid-19

Last year, a report by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) found pollution to be the largest environmental cause of premature death on the planet, causing 15% of all deaths—some 8.3 million people. The latest year for which data was available, among the 10 countries with the most pollution deaths in 2017, included both developed and developing nations.

India and China led in the number of pollution deaths, with about 2.3 million and 1.8 million respectively, followed by Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan. “India has seen increasing industrial and vehicular pollution from urban growth while poor sanitation and contaminated indoor air persist in low-income communities,” the report said.

Experts’ concerns around air pollution and Covid-19 transmission, if at all, stand substantial in the long run, it calls for caution for countries particularly such as India. 

According to the media reports, the link between air pollutants and early deaths are well-known and Marshall Burke, at Stanford University in the US, used the data to estimate the impacts on air pollution mortality. The young and old are worst affected by polluted air. As per Burke’s calculation, the cleaner air is expected to have prevented 1,400 early deaths in children under five and 51,700 early deaths in people over 70.

Experts’ concerns around air pollution and Covid-19 transmission, if at all, stand substantial in the long run, it calls for caution for countries particularly such as India. Image Credit: Quartz India

“The study on the relation between fossil fuels emissions and Covid-19 as published by the international publications lacks clarity and the methodology too is unknown, so it’s better to not comment on that,” said Independent Energy Analyst, Kshama Afreen. However, according to Kshama, India is suffering heavily for pollution and that must be addressed immediately.

India is estimated to bear 10.7 lakh crore, or 5.4 per cent of India’s GDP annually, the third highest costs from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide. That amounted to a loss of ₹3.39 lakh per second, according to the report by environment organisation Greenpeace Southeast Asia. That must be a concern for the governments,” she added. 

Experts also believe that the indirect impacts of Covid-19 may be probably much higher than currently known. Talking to the Guardian Sascha Marschang, the acting Secretary-General of the European Public Health Alliance, said, “Once this crisis is over, policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads. Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.”

Similar Posts

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below