SARS-CoV2, coronavirus came to light in 2020 and has caused an unprecedented impact on the majority of the countries. As many as four million people worldwide are affected with Covid 19 and 3.5 lakh deaths recorded, as said by the World Health Organisation.
Most of the nations tried to combat the Covid 19 with screening and testing as well as started following the social distancing norms to control the spread of the coronavirus. It seems clear that majority of the governments and private agencies policies revolves around public health. However, it lacks other perspectives, mainly environmental issues and because of this, the indirect effect of coronavirus on the environment has been little investigated and analysed.
A FEW IMPACTS
Despite the fact that around, 2.2 billion people of the human population do not have proper access to drinking water, they are asked to wash their hands regularly to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Around 4.2 billion people are deprived of safe sanitation system (U.N estimates). A few positive impacts on the environment was witnessed due to covid 19 lockdown like the air pollution dramatically decreased, as people were asked to stay in their houses and the majority of the vehicles were inside the houses and garages. There has been a sharp decline in environmental noise. Environmental noise can be well defined as an unsolicited sound, which is generally, generated by the different kind of anthropogenic activities such as commercial and industrial activities, the transit of vehicles engines and tunes a very high rate. It is perhaps considered as one of the major sources of discomfort to the human population and the surrounding environment, which does not only cause severe health-related issues but it also alters the natural condition of the ecosystem.
The imposition of covid 19 lockdown and quarantine by the different governments has caused people to stay back at their homes, and due to this, the movement of people from one place to another slowed down and the use of private and public transport has decreased significantly. Likewise, on the other hand, the commercial activities are at a standstill process entirely. Because of all these changes, noise level in most of the cities dropped considerably.
In addition, many beaches around the world were cleaned up and the animals were seen back in cities, but the covid-19 virus has also generated negative and indirect effect on the environment.
To begin, due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the developed countries have abundant their sustainability programs related to the environment. In the United States, some cities and small municipalities have suspended their waste recycling plants as the authorities raised concerned over the spread of the virus in the recycling centres.
Likewise, Italy asked their infected citizens to stop sorting and segregating the waste at their homes and offices. On the other hand, many other European nation-states particularly which are most affected due to the pandemic restricted the sustainable waste management system. In addition, many firms, corporations and restaurants have again started the trend of use of single-use plastic in place of reusable bags and containers. For example, Starbucks, a coffee company in the month of March 2020, has announced a temporary ban on the use of recyclable and reusable cups.
Furthermore, a large number of people are isolated at their homes and due to lockdown majority of the malls, shops, restaurants and food outlets are closed. This had led to an increase of online purchase and food deliveries are quite very high. This has led to more use of single-use plastic as well as it has created more demand for the need of fossil fuel for individual transportation and mobility for the supply of goods.
Various environmental problems and issues, like water pollution, soil erosion, air and deforestation, ramblingly supplement inorganic and organic wastes. The policies adopted by different governments during the coronavirus pandemic like lockdown and quarantine in most countries has created a new demand in the market of online shopping and home delivery systems. Therefore, the organic waste produced has become very high in the households. On the other hand, the food items, which are brought online are shipped in single-use and plastic bags and containers, and it has led to an increase in the inorganic waste.
MEDICAL AND CLINICAL WASTE
There has been a huge upsurge of medical waste- as the products used by the healthcare professionals are generally single-use items that can be worn only once before they are being disposed of. Like the use of mask, personal protection kits, and gloves. For example, a hospital in Wuhan produced around 200 tons of medical waste per day in the course of the peak of the pandemic breakout, as compared to 50 tons more than the usual average waste.
The demand for mask during the pandemic has touched the sky but the elements required for this mask are highly dangerous for the environment as they are generally made up of non-woven fabrics. Polyester, Polystyrene, polythene and poly carbonate, are some common material used for the surgical mask whose density lies between 20 grams to 25 grams/sq. metre. These all are liquid resistance and plastic-based products and they have a very high afterlife after discarded. They end up filling the landfills and oceans. For example in Hong Kong, clinical waste has already started to affect and degrade the environment.
Certain portions of the population are at risk of adverse impacts from exposure to medical waste as well, such as cleaners, garbage collectors and other people who spend a great deal of time in public spaces. Students are asked to stay away from schools and universities, and white-collar employees are availing work-from-home options. Nevertheless, those at the frontline of keeping cities clean have to go about their daily chores, making them one of the most vulnerable groups and one that is most susceptible to the virus from droplets that may linger on the masks. They may also catch other forms of infection from pathogens remaining on these discarded pieces of garbage, such as meningitis and Hepatitis B and C.
MOUNTAINS OF WASTE
As recycling plants are on hold, the waste generated keep on increasing and is a cause of concern as the deposited waste in many areas are becoming a pile of small mountains and their deposition at open areas is making the surrounding more vulnerable. They also create a high risk atmosphere related to air pollution as the dumped open waste is left to decay there is a greater chance of increased level of methane (CH4) emission, a greenhouse gas. It is not only going to affect the surrounding areas but it will also affect the people living in the near-by areas too.
ECO SYSTYEM AT RISK
The natural ecosystem and protected flora and fauna species, no doubt, are at a much greater risk. Several countries are in lock down and asked the people to stay indoors. The people working in natural parks, marine conservation zones and wildlife sanctuaries are stuck at their homes, leaving these places and zones unmonitored. Their absences have marked a huge rise in the wildlife hunting, illegal deforestation and fishing activities.
On the other hand, the, the sudden shutdown of ecotourism activities in tourist destinations and in the forest areas has left the ecosystem at much higher risk of encroachment and illegal harvesting. Additionally, as ecotourism is considered a major source of an economic mainstay in many places, the increasing unemployment rate due to the pandemic could force people to gather resources from the most brittle ecosystem and environment, to meet their household demands for food and income.
INDIRECT EFFECT ON ENVIRONMENT
Some nations like China have asked their authorities and local governing bodies to brace up their disinfection routine. Despite no evidence on the survival of coronavirus in wastewater as well as in drinking water (WHO, 2020), several authorities asked to increase the dosage of chlorine in the wastewater treatment plants to stop the spread of the virus. Excess of chlorine in water could lead to harmful problems and issues related to people’s health like bladder cancer.
HUMAN HEALTH AND PLANET HEALTH
COVID-19 is a reminder that human health is linked to the planet’s health. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they transmit between animals and people. They account for seventy-five per cent of all emerging infectious diseases. As coronavirus is spreading rapidly across the globe, the top priority of governments and agencies is to control its spread. But we need to shift the spotlight soon on the management and treatment of the waste (especially clinical and medical waste) generated around the world and how effective is the measure taken is or to be. Likewise, at the same time we as an individual need to step up and follow the necessary guideline for disposing of the waste and medical gears.
In spite of everything, these actions could reverse what beneficial environmental effects have arisen from the pandemic response. A similar case can be seen with the 2008 financial crash – although there was a temporary decrease in emissions of 1.3%, as the economy recovered in 2010, emissions were at an all-time high. After all, it is only through mutual empathy and goodwill that we will see the world emerge stronger from this global pandemic. To prevent future outbreaks, we must address the threats to ecosystems and wildlife, including habitat loss, illegal trade, pollution and climate change.
(Dr Naresh Purohit is Executive Member, Federation of Hospital Administrator. He is also advisor to the National Communicable Disease Control Programme. Dr. Purohit is also Advisor to six other National Health Programmes. He is visiting Professor in five Medical Universities of Southern India including Thrissur based Kerala University of Health Sciences. (The views and opinion expressed in this article are those of the author)