Environmental Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic and What to Do Next
Junyup Song, Korea Kent Foreign School, Seoul, South Korea
We are currently living in an unprecedented time elicited by the COVID-19 pandemic. Adapting accordingly, most governments have restrained the movement of people in order to reduce the infection and death rates through school closings, self-quarantine, and suspension of public transportation. Since March 2020, the streets of Italy have been empty as residents were forced into home confinement and only allowed to leave for limited and documented purposes; India issued a nationwide social-isolation mandate that encompassed approximately 1.35 billion citizens (Cellini et al., 2020; Somani et al., 2020). As a result, the COVID-19 pandemic has had its fair share of influences on the environment, both good and bad.
In fear of transmission, the manufacturing and usage of personal protective equipment are being encouraged by many countries to prevent further transmission which has caused a drastic escalation in plastic consumption and waste. It is estimated that the pandemic would result in the monthly global consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves (Adyel, 2020). Plastic consumption has been further exacerbated by the increase of packaged take-out-meals and home-delivered-goods (Adyel, 2020). Instead of properly dealing with this massive influx of waste, many countries have postponed waste recycling activities which are crucial to preventing pollution, saving energy, and conserving natural resources (Zambrano-Monserrate et al., 2020). Consequently, these plastics accumulate rapidly in the environment and leach chemicals that are known to be toxic and have been correlated with adverse effects on the human body (Thompson et al., 2009).
However, there also have been many improvements global climate. Firstly, there has been a worldwide decline in air pollution. With the temporary suspension of international flights, air travel, which was responsible for 2.5% of total CO2 emissions in 2018, has dropped by 96% from a similar time last year (Ritchie, 2020, Wallace, 2020). Moreover, the demand for fossil fuels has declined, and according to the International Energy Agency, oil demand has dropped 90,000 barrels per day globally for 2020 (IEA, 2020). Scientists have predicted that at the current rate, the pandemic will curtail 1,600 metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to more than 4% of the global total in 2019 (Evans, 2020).
Secondly, there has been a significant recovery of water purity and noise pollution in all parts of the world. According to the WHO, drinking water in many countries do not meet the WHO standards; more than 2 billion people drink water with contaminants such as feces which can transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, and dysentery (WHO, 2019). However, ever since the slow of industrial production as a result of COVID-19, River Ganga in India saw a reduction in pH, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and biochemical oxygen demand, providing a brief respite from the high levels of contamination (Arif et al., 2020). Noise pollution is known to induce sleep disturbances and worsen physiological health, cardiovascular disorders, and hypertension (Kerns et al., 2018). Fortunately, with many going into self-quarantine, noise levels decreased, especially in Delhi where it was reduced by approximately 40-50% (Somani et al., 2020).
However, we must be aware that these effects will not be permanent. Sooner or later, industrial processes will resume to normal production, and the environmental situation will return to what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, it is crucial to plan and implement potential strategies to sustain the current environment.
A possible strategy is to develop eco-friendly materials and methods of production. Recently, researchers have successfully developed a highly efficient and biodegradable mask filter that fully decomposes within a month and is aided by the antibacterial property of chitosan (Xia et al., 2021). A geo-engineering experiment is also underway that tries to reduce the level of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface by releasing calcium carbonate into the stratosphere to reflect the Sun’s rays back into space (Tollefson, 2018).
Alternatively, there are many individualistic efforts that can be made to help the environment. Although it may sound counterintuitive, it is better for people to purchase goods online than traditional retailing. Studies have shown that e-commerce can reduce distances traveled by up to 93% and greenhouse gas emissions by 84% (Jaller et al., 2020). However, this is only true up to a certain extent, so people should refrain from excessive online shopping.
COVID-19 has opened our eyes to the critical condition we are in regarding the Earth’s environment and the health of millions of people that depend on its sustainability. How we deal with this situation is likely to affect millions more. For a cleaner and brighter future, we should take the environmental changes during the COVID-19 pandemic as a lesson and unite to solve this threatening problem.
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