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Covid-19, the Environment and the Economy

Artwork by Anastasya Eliseeva
Written by Rose Chaudhary

The new coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) has made an unprecedent impact on most countries of the world. The countries are using as much of their resources as they possibly can to fight this deadly disease that has affected 33 million people globally as on 28 September 28, 2020.

It’s clear that for governments and people alike health is the top priority, and other issues that challenge us have taken a backseat. For this reason the impact of the coronavirus on environment has been given little attention.Its sure that in this pandemic the bin has gotten out more than us. So, the next obvious question is to ask how are countries dealing with this added pressure of bio-medical waste disposal?

According to the World Health Organization, many cities report a large increase (5 times greater than before the pandemic) of medical waste generated in hospitals, especially through the use of PPE.

Since gloves, surgical masks, gowns are all items that are thrown away as infectious waste after each use they also cannot be reused.

In Wuhan, where coronavirus first emerged, officials didn’t just build new hospitals for the influx of patients; they constructed a new medical waste plant and deployed 46 mobile waste treatment facilities too. Hospitals there generated six times as much medical waste at the peak of the outbreak as they did before the crisis began. The daily output of medical waste reached 240 metric tons, about the weight of an adult blue whale.

In India too, the Union Health Ministry has raised an issue over the management and proper disposal of biomedical waste especially PPE kits worn by healthcare workers as there is no sign of the pandemic subsiding and the burden increasing everyday. On being asked whether COVID-19 cases increased among individuals employed in garbage collection and disposal, the Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare said the data is not maintained by the Centre.

As per CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) guidelines, used PPEs like face shields, goggles, hazmat suits, plastic coverall, used masks, head cover, shoe cover etc. generated from COVID-19 isolation wards at Healthcare Facilities shall be segregated and sent to Common Facilities for disposal as per Bio-medical Waste Management Rules, 2016 (BMWM Rules).

However, used PPEs like masks and gloves generated in Common Households, Commercial Establishments, Institutions, etc., are required to store separately for a minimum 72 hours for disposal along with solid waste after cutting or shredding. Another problem in this pandemic is that masks and other PPE may also clog sewers and waterways resulting in sanitation problems and can cause broader ecological impacts.

Medical waste isn’t the only waste that has increased, due to strict social distancing policies and lockdowns introduced by governments around the globe, single use plastics for packaging of goods that are demanded and foods that are purchased online have increased manifold.

Investments in waste management, including sourcing environmentally friendly products along with regulation on improper disposal can help reduce such issues. Public and the society by large should be conscious of their consumption of single use plastics and avoid it where they can, for example choosing to wear reusable cloth masks and not surgical masks where not needed.

The Coronavirus pandemic undoubtedly also has created some positive effects on our environment. As the governments issued strict social distancing policies and lockdown restrictions that affected the economic activities many power plants and industries halted their production.

The use of vehicles fell substantially and the drop in concentrations of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Particulate Matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 μm (PM 2.5) could be seen in the clear blue skies that many polluted cities enjoyed.

Even as early as the end of March 2020, major cities saw a huge reduction in air pollution where the lockdown had been imposed. China, Italy and New York City reported sharp declines in global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Subsequently restrictions on travelling resulted in many beaches being clean as no waste was generated by tourists. Between 23 January 2020 and 21 April 2020, travel restrictions caused air traffic to decline by around 63% in the total number of flights and about 75% in the number of commercial flights.

The aviation sector is responsible for 1-2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and about 3-5% of global CO2 emissions.

All this contributed to a reduction in noise pollution levels as well. However now that restrictions all over the world are easing up, businesses and economic activity returning back to a new normal these positive effects maybe only short term, reversable and impermanent which are not sustainable. But in any case, it has taught a very important lesson to us as a society that if we try and there is a check on big industries then our pollution levels and greenhouse gas emissions are capable of reducing.

The full evaluation of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the environment is far from being realized because it is an ongoing disaster of epic proportion and tremendous complexity. The virus may bring other long lasting impacts on our environment and that maybe more challenging to deal with if countries continue to ignore the effects on environment.

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