It is safe to say that COVID-19 has had an impact on many people’s lives. Our physical and mental health have been affected, our social lives have taken the backseat and we have had to adapt to a new lifestyle in a short amount of time. However, COVID-19 has not only affected our ways of living by threatening our physical well-being, but it has also shed light on the far-reaching consequences that an unhealthy environment has on worsening health outcomes.
An association between environmental change and the emergence of COVID-19 is conceivable. The origin of this novel virus is most likely due to zoonotic transmission. This means that it began as a disease in animals which eventually spread to humans. A similar mode of infection has been recognised in diseases such as SARS, Zika and Ebola viruses. As of April 2021, approximately 660,000 deaths have been reported in Europe due to COVID-19. Changes in environment and human activity create the potential for new viruses to evolve. Increased urbanisation, destruction of habitats, climate change and intense livestock rearing provide opportunities for zoonotic pathogens to establish themselves. Viral transmission is facilitated by overcrowding and poor ventilation in commercial and transport spaces. Environmental stressors such as poor urban design and pollution have been shown to worsen the outcome of disease, including COVID-19.
Emerging evidence suggests that the severity of COVID-19 is worsened by exposure to air pollution. Our environment greatly impacts our health, including both acute and long-term illnesses. Poor air quality impairs the mechanisms required by the immune system to combat disease. The harmful irritants in the air created by traffic combustion, powerplants, factories and agriculture lead to inflammation throughout the body which may lead to structural change of the body’s own molecules. This highlights the importance of caring for the environment, with the reward of better care of ourselves. A sudden decrease in economic activities due to COVID-19 has resulted in lower air pollutants detected in cities affected by lockdowns. This unfortunately will only be a temporary development until pre-pandemic levels will once again be reached upon increased activities unless we preserve some practices encouraged during the pandemic.
By encouraging the population to stay indoors and travel less, when looking at the European countries which have suffered the greatest impact by COVID-19 such as Italy, Spain and France, one would observe the largest reductions in air pollutants namely nitrogen oxides and particulate matters. As reported by the European Environmental Agency, in Spring 2020 there has been a reduction of up to 70% of nitrogen oxides in the measured air quality and up to 40% reduction of particulate matters. It is in each of our own interests to be aware of air pollution as it has been proven to have direct effects on our health. It is linked to the development of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, worsening co-morbidities and easier transmission of diseases. Particulate matter is carcinogenic. In Europe it is estimated that over 90% of citizens are exposed to levels of particulate matter higher than the threshold recommended by the World Health Organization. Water and noise pollution have also reduced by the decreased recreational tourism.
Negative environmental impacts have also been noted due to the pandemic. COVID-19 is spread through droplet infection and measures adapted to protect oneself include wearing masks, gloves and increased use of single-use plastics. An increase in biomedical waste and civil waste is also observed due to the pandemic which has direct impacts on public health and the environment. In some European countries such as Italy, COVID-19 infected residents were prohibited from sorting their waste due to the potential risk of transmission of disease. Poor waste management leads to further infection and pollution, a global concern.
Even though the pandemic has brought about a health crisis, one can learn from the short-term effects of COVID-19 on the environment. Better air quality was brought about by a drop in vehicle use, more people working from home resulting in less commuting and by improved ventilation in workspaces. By encouraging people to shift to walking and cycling where possible, one would be working towards and better health by tackling obesity which itself is a risk factor for increased severity of COVID-19. As devastating as the global pandemic has been, it has given an opportunity for change, to better environmental and personal health.
Dr Emma Hunter is a medical doctor and Friends of the Earth Malta Volunteer with an interest on the health perspective within an environmental context.
Friends of the Earth Malta gratefully acknowledges financial assistance from the European Union. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Friends of the Earth Malta and cannot be regarded as reflecting the opinion of the European Union. The European Parliament cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained.