Double Whammy: Covid-19 Impact on Public Health and Environment
In case you’ve decided to give the news a skip during the Summer, the global coronavirus pandemic has now killed over an estimated 1 million people worldwide. Multiple studies have been conducted on the health impacts of the coronavirus on various age groups. This includes symptoms such as fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath, headache, and joint pain. What’s less known however is the longer-term health impacts of contracting covid-19.
Ongoing research shows that organ operation is likely impacted by covid-19. For example, image testing taken months after recovery from a mild case reveal damage to the heart’s muscles. This likely stems from Covid-19 increasing the chances of blood clotting which gives rise to future risk of heart failure and other complications.
It is also known that Covid-19 attacks the lungs and the type of pneumonia associated with the virus can cause long-standing damage to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. However, the most worrying of all is brain damage. Even in young people, covid-19 can cause strokes, seizures, and Guillain-Barre syndrome – a condition that results in temporary paralysis. It is also suggested that Covid-19 may increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. (Mayo Clinic covid-19 (coronavirus): Long-term effects)
Noting the results from these studies, it is unsurprising that most governments’ have been forced into action to protect the health of their citizens. Some of the common measures implemented include border closures, lockdowns, institutionalising curfews, and intensifying track-and-trace models. A common concern about these measures is their predicted impact on the nation’s economy. In this article, we will aim to compare various government strategies in managing this public health crisis and in mitigating the resultant economic impact.
Above is a comparison of the UK’s Covid-19 response with that of Sweden and New Zealand. Sweden and New Zealand were on the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of responses as one didn’t officially go into lockdown whereas the other went full lockdown before there was even a single death. The most striking difference is the deaths per million people as there are (at the time of writing) only 5 deaths per million in New Zealand which is significantly lower than both the UK and Sweden. This suggests that if a country locks down early enough, the spread of the virus can be rapidly stopped. The effect of population density on this remains uncertain. In terms of economic impact, the lack of a lockdown allowed Sweden to be hit less hard than the other two however the contraction of New Zealand’s economy wasn’t much larger. In comparison, the UK had its worst economic performance on record and was the worst hit G7 nation. (BBC News UK hardest hit by virus among G7 nations)
Building Back Green
Though Covid-19 continues to threaten millions of lives, it can be credited with one positive impact: the reduction of global emissions. The worldwide anthropause, induced by the decision of many governments to introduce lockdowns, has led to a significant decrease in air pollution. According to an international team of researchers, global CO2 levels from the first 6 months of 2020 fell by 8.8% compared with the same period in 2019. This decline was larger than that experienced during the 2008 financial crisis, the 1979 oil crisis, and even World War II! (Science Daily Biggest carbon dioxide drop: Real-time data show COVID-19’s massive impact on global emissions) Similarly, a drop by 50% of nitrogen oxides emission in China has been credited with having saved up to 77,000 lives!
During lockdown, water quality also significantly improved. In Venice, the canals cleared hand in hand with the decline in boat traffic. (https://thehill.com/changing-america/sustainability/environment/488286-italys-coronavirus-lockdown-shows-what-nature)
Finally, lockdown has allowed a rebirth of wildlife in territories that were once avoided for instance sea turtles laying eggs in the Bay of Benegal.
Despite the aforementioned merits of lockdown, this period has also acted as cover for illegal activities. During lockdown, South Africa witnessed a surge in poaching of rare and expensive goods such as rhino horns and ivory while Brazil was the centre of illegal deforestation. (https://abcnews.go.com/International/deforestation-amazon-rainforest-accelerates-amid-covid-19-pandemic/story?id=70526188).
Following the positive and negative environmental impacts of lockdown, the issue of climate change has once again resurged. Thus, a fresh emphasis is being placed on building an economic recovery plan that goes hand in hand with environmental action. As governments have emerged from lockdown, they have tried to build not just short but also long term plans to reboot the economy and minimise job losses (among 300 million are at risk globally). In spite of the easy approach that a non-environmentally friendly economic recovery would represent, it is in times like these that environmental action has to be taken as it will unavoidably shape the future of environmental action. According to a study published in August 2020, an economic recovery focusing on fossil fuel investments could avoid future warming of 0.3 °C by 2050 (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0883-0). Sadly, this route of facility has always been favoured in the past as shown by the jump in emissions that accompanied the recovery from the previous 2008 economic crash.
The need for environmental action is not a new subject as average global temperatures on the Earth have been rising since the beginning of the industrialisation era. An anthropogenic impact has been witnessed with key challenges arising such as the melting of glaciers, rising sea levels, and an increased frequency of natural disasters. In addition to these pre-existing challenges, new ones have been added due to covid-19. For example, the unprecedented use of disposable face masks has induced an increase in littering and many people favoured car over public transportation post confinement due to an overarching fear of the virus.
In the short term, actions were taken post quarantine to take into account environmental concerns. To counter the expected increase in car usage post lockdown, governments boosted investments in public transportation and cycling infrastructure. An example of this includes Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo introducing major cycle routes throughout the city. Such a plan functioned as it occurred in unison with a spike in bike sales. Similarly in the UK bike sales soared by 60% in April 2020. (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/26/bike-boom-uk-sales-up-60-per-cent-in-april-as-covid-19-changes-lifestyles)
Many governments around the world have decided to pursue long term green economic recovery packages to help prevent a resurgence in CO2 emissions while the actions of others are still ambiguous or undetermined. For example, on the 30th of June 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised an American style “New Deal” of £5bn to “build build build” as he put it. Included in this is the building of two carbon capture and storage clusters (based on our Pilot Plant) by 2030. However, the historians among us will know the US “New Deal” from the 1930s involved spending 40% of GDP yet Johnson’s £5bn amounts to a paltry 0.2% of GDP. (The Guardian’s Comparison of the US New Deal and Johnson’s New Deal). More recently on the 22nd of July 2020, the UK government announced a £350 million budget to fund the decarbonisation of heavy industry and the construction, transportation, and aviation sectors. This in turn is also part of the UK’s net-zero by 2050 target. (BBC News Coronavirus: Government promises a green recovery)
At a supranational level, the European Union put in place a €750 billion coronavirus recovery package. It is stated that €500 billion of the €750 billion is grants with 30% dedicated to climate action. This came after 90 hours of intense negotiations between the 27 member states and is considered the world’s biggest ‘green recovery’ pledge. A number of European countries are also starting to set up new measures to boost the transition to clean energy. This is the case of the Netherlands which is currently undergoing a legislative process to put in place a national carbon tax or of Germany which has put in place incentives for the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles.
Other governments have also implemented clean energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in their recovery plan. The South Korean government aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and China has started additional investments in vehicles using renewable energy and infrastructure surrounding their use. In Indonesia, the government has confirmed its desire to pursue the regulation on renewable energy it had introduced before the pandemic. Other administrations are providing support to vulnerable households and businesses by making possible the deferral of energy bills as illustrated by Togo’s offer of payment deferral to households having installed solar panels. (https://www.iea.org/reports/sustainable-recovery/covid-19-and-energy-setting-the-scene).
However, such regard for the environment in economic dealings has not been the trademark of all governments. Namely, the US, Russia, and China have announced bailouts and plans to support carbon-intensive businesses that risk locking in high emissions for many years to come. For instance, the Trump administration suspended the enforcement of certain protection laws via the Environmental Protection Agency.
Even the EU’s big recovery package still isn’t without its flaws. In March 2020 the European Central Bank (ECB) announced the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme which entirely disregarded climate in its policymaking. With the rapid spread of covid-19, the EU’s focus on the aforementioned green deal was diminished. On a global scale, climate diplomacy was greatly impacted by the pandemic namely with the UN Climate change conference being postponed to 2021.
From this analysis, it is difficult to predict what will happen next as a second wave is on its way and is already leading to more lockdowns and restrictions. However, it can be concluded that the global pandemic has shed a spotlight on the environment. Yes, progress has been made to building back green but there is still a lot more that needs to be done.