Evaluating the environment of a 21st-century pandemic

Environmental wake-up calls as hazy skies turn blue


Photo courtesy of Laura Nelson

Los Angeles skyline clearer than it has been in years due to decreased air pollution.

“Playing with fire” seems to be an uncomfortable phrase to many, especially to those who were forced into panic as the Woolsey and Camp Fires laid ash and smoke seemingly everywhere. It may hit too close to home.

However, according to The Guardian, leading scientists suggest we continue “playing with fire:” a metaphor describing the world’s treatment of the very land where we live, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

While our eyes are fixed on the general coronavirus news, many experts suggest people must also focus their attention increasingly on how the world’s environment relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We cannot go back to business as usual,” Professor at the Zoological Society of London Andrew Cunningham said to The Guardian, explaining the changes society makes in their treatment of the natural environment when a pandemic strikes versus the normal day-to-day.

Referencing what many experts have already described, phenomena such as global warming, destruction of natural habitats for farming, mining and industrialization in addition to animal trade and quasi-unregulated animal markets are leading to increased chances of disease outbreaks traced back to animals.

Assistant Faculty Director of the Climate Change & Health Initiative at the Harvard Global Health Institute and Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) Aaron Bernstein told The Guardian the cruciality of the intertwining of environmental policy with health policy.

“Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with,” Bernstein said.

The Guardian reports that many scientists have taken this unfortunate opportunity to shift to policies that call for greener actions here on out. A substantial part of this effort for a greener future is made up of plans to increase knowledge to the public and companies. People can now better understand that increased land encroachment increases risks of disease from animals and air pollution can be a determining factor in susceptibility to COVID-19. Once again, health and the environment collide. 

Air Pollution:

A study conducted by Harvard University found that it is extremely plausible that a small increase in exposure to particulate matter — an air pollution —increases the COVID-19 death rate by 15%. 

Exposure to air pollution, according to The New York Times, can cause flares in heart and lung diseases, asthma complications, strokes and more yet to be fully studied and confirmed.  

As the Washington Post reports, the problem may lie within the Earth’s animals, but it affects the human population all through the fault of our own.

“There needs to be a cultural shift from a community level up about how we treat animals, our understanding of the dangers and biosecurity risks that we’re exposing ourselves to,” chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London Kate Jones told The Washington Post. “That means leaving ecosystems intact, not destroying them. It means thinking in a more long-term way.”

As politicians across the globe work with scientists to continue working on possible long-term habit alterations in environmental care, we can enjoy the novel benefits of billions of humans staying inside and maybe learn a lesson or two about how we can keep our air cleaner. 

On an episode of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” highlighting panda mating and air pollution, Noah pointed out the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi. As the city’s almost 22 million people are forced to stay home, images comparing the memorial from 2019 and the present have gone viral. 

Side-by-side the photographs are astonishing. One displays a heavy haze while the other features blue skies and a colorful landscape. Click here to see the images provided by The Washington Post. 

UCLA professor Yifang Zhu found that even here in Los Angeles, a 20% improvement in the air quality can be seen through the EPA’s Air Quality Index — not only this but she also found the dip in air pollution is partially correlated to the region’s stay-at-home orders, according to The Washington Post.

Even in the most polluted cities and around the globe such as in Italy and China, major improvements in air quality can be seen, leaving everyone the ability to take a fresh, deep breath among much chaos.

Factories, cars and planes in respite leave nitrous oxides and particulate matter to reach long-time lows.

To Zhu, however, this is no excuse to continue with the ‘same, old’ when the COVID-19 pandemic begins to clear.

“There are technological tools and policy tools to make our society more sustainable,” she told The Post. “We don’t need to have a pandemic just to bring clean air to everybody.”

Animals and wildlife

Many were given a false reality check: A trending tweet supposedly showed swans return to the canals of Venice, Italy. Another included a fabricated video of dolphins swimming through the city’s canals. One depicted a herd of elephants getting drunk off of corn wine and passing out in a tea field in the Yunnan province of China.

Unfortunately for the hopeful retweeters, who were overjoyed to see some sort of positive side effect of the mandatory orders to stay at home in the wake of COVID-19, not a single one of those tweets is true. 

Some of the tweets were taken at different places or times, and others have been debunked by experts, according to National Geographic. However, the canals of Venice have been much clearer than before and there are other species that have taken residence in human settlements. 

In reality, whether or not a species will thrive in the absence of its usual human companions is decided by its adaptability, according to Wired. For instance, coyotes are highly adaptable, and as such, they are able to thrive in areas currently unpopulated by humans. Similarly, mountain goats have moved into the Welsh town of Llandudno, and wild boars have ventured into the center of Barcelona. 

However, in places where ecotourism accounts for a large portion of its conservational efforts, the plummet of tourism indicates another issue: the salaries of security guards who work to prevent poaching are being cut. With this swath of unemployment, even those in the ecotourism industry may turn to poaching in order to feed their families. 

An article by Nature explains that according to a laboratory study conducted by Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, cats can be infected with COVID-19. However, it cautions against pet owners’ alarm, as the test subjects were deliberately exposed to very high doses of the virus within the study. Dogs, it seems, do not contract the virus.

Animals in the cat family — large or small — do, however. A tiger named Nadia at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for the virus, along with six other big cats. It is speculated that they may have caught the virus from a zookeeper who did not present any symptoms. Zoos across the globe have noted an interesting phenomenon: their more intelligent species of animals have begun to miss the attention of the humans who normally flock to their zoos.

It is important to remember that though it may seem that the COVID-19 pandemic will have negative effects on the environment, we must view the lowered emissions and movement of wildlife as opportunities to learn how to better take care of the natural world. If we continue to reduce emissions as is happening now, what we now predict to be short-term positive effects may turn out to be much longer-lasting in the future.