The novel coronavirus is changing nearly every aspect of life across the world. Like any disaster, the Covid-19 pandemic is hitting sections of the population harder than the rest, though. Since it’s a disease that assaults the lungs, people living in places with excessive air pollution are seen to be more vulnerable, especially poor homes and the elderly.
“As someone who has dedicated her career to public health issues, the Covid-19 crisis isn’t simply a public health issue. It’s directly related to social equity and environmental justice,” said Gina McCarthy, president of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“It is directly related to our fight for clean air, clean water, a healthy environment and healthy communities. Covid-19 is affecting all of us – our health and our way of life, but low income communities and communities of color may face added risk,” she added.
Severe cases of the viral flu can lead to pneumonia, a killer disease. Even without a pandemic, air pollution has been linked to lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among other respiratory conditions.
Studies around previous coronavirus incidents like the 2003 SARS indicate that patients in places with high air pollution levels were twice as likely to die from the bug compared to those who lived in places with little pollution. Even in moderate levels, air pollution significantly increased the risk of death.
There isn’t data yet on how air pollution is playing into the current pandemic, but scientists suggest that international hotspots for Covid-19 –Wuhan, Northern Italy and Seoul – have pretty high levels of air pollution. Air pollution maybe one reason, although not a primary factor, for why outbreaks in those places have been apocalyptic.
Granted, lockdowns and restricted movements have meant fewer cars on the road and grounded planes, something that has temporarily curbed pollution crisis in major cities across the world. But it can’t completely erase the decades’ worth of damage that has already been done.
The Covid-19 bug has especially been deadliest in older people and those with pre-existing health conditions (comorbidity), which makes it harder to fight off infections.
In African urban centres, air pollution is also a problem as is poverty. It’s a double whammy of higher risk and little resources. There are fears about how poor housing and inadequate green spaces and healthy foods in African towns could increase the risks. In such places, the Covid-19 pandemic is piling on top of other stressors. Social distancing orders have taken a toll on street vendors and casual laborers, most of whom live hand to mouth.
At this point, cases of the virus have mainly been reported in middle-income neighborhoods in Africa. However, the damage is feared to be calamitous should it leak through slum-based homes and the countryside where people rely on smoke-emitting cook fuels in houses with poor ventilation amid grinding poverty and rickety healthcare facilities.