COVID-19 is Changing Our Environment

Littering vs reduced emissions vs clear waters. The diseases ripple effects were felt the world over
At least, temporarily
At least, temporarily

The world is preparing for an indefinite amount of social distancing. While recovering patients give us hope, there is still the chance of re-infection, and levels of contamination and spread aren&rsquot the same in every country. As institutions, entertainment and industries come to a standstill, there will be an inevitable domino effect on our environment. We are not sure to what extent it&rsquoll pan out this summer. But along with the global efforts at containing COVID19, these are some of the environmental effects we&rsquove seen so far

Wuhan&rsquos air pollution is replaced by breathable skies

The epicentre of the coronavirus was also a major industrial hub, with a hazardous level of air pollution. But the lockdown in China&rsquos Hubei province has unintentionally brought emissions under control. According to China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the air quality improved by 21.5 per cent in February. Satellite photos released by the European Space Agency and NASA showed a drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution, caused by unhinged emissions from cars, power plants and industrial processes.

With reduced oil and steel production, as well as domestic flights, the trend extended to other large Chinese cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing. There was no rebound in toxic clouds after the Chinese New Year. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, China is the world&rsquos worst offender, which makes this change all the more radical.

But not all workplaces cut back. Some, like this face mask production factory in Wuhan, went into overdrive in February to meet public demand. 

Single-use masks clutter Hong Kong&rsquos scenic locations

For Indians who can afford it, the top choice for masks right now is the NIOSH-approved N95 respirator mask. But in China, a shortage sprang up quick, with citizens resorting to using fruit rinds, mesh bags and even brassieres to protect their face. Hong Kong's seven million-plus residents have been using single-use surgical face masks, but not disposing them properly. As a result, they have started to litter forests, nature trails and beaches. Masks have washed up on the sands of the Soko islands, an uninhabited group south of the city.

Hong Kong's residents lead a fast-paced life, with most waste going to landfill instead of being recycled. Since the rot is deep, the masks are showing up in large enough numbers to even affect marine life (choking, strangling) or amplify the spread of germs from asymptomatic carriers.

With a decline in tourists, Venice's canals clear up

There's a romance to the Venetian canals, but only if you don't get too close to the water. The wisened tourist knows to keep their hands (and noses) far removed from its polluted, murky stretches while on gondola rides. After Italy went under lockdown, the reduced tourism seemed to have improved water quality along the canals. Locals marvelled at the clarity, and at being able to see fish swimming about. The Venice mayor's office, however, labelled it a false alarm. The lack of boats meant the waters were simply undisturbed, allowing sediments to settle at the bottom of the canals. A spokesman confirmed that air quality, instead, has been better, due to restricted boat traffic and resident movement. 

Venice had its&nbspfair share&nbspof bad news last year, so you can't blame them for celebrating small joys.

While optimism helps, we're yet to determine important factors about the coronavirus&mdashwhether it is seasonal, it instills immunity in the infected and recovered, and whether one can be a long-time carrier without showing symptoms. Keeping that in mind, lockdowns are temporary and unsure in nature, and so are the yays and nays they might inflict on the environment.

The road ahead is unclear, so it is best to rely on scientific data instead of hearsay and superstition. This interactive trajectory chart by non-profit Our World in Data is one of many credible sources that can be used to gauge the future of recovery, plus country-wise performance in containing the virus. Let us know if you found this useful, and of any large environmental effects in your area. 

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