As the world continues to battle what the United Nations is calling a ‘global health crisis’ that has surpassed what anyone could have predicted initially, Scientists have become curious about its effects on the environment. We know that the novel coronavirus has done a world tour, hitting some harder than others. Apart from its apparent physical health impacts and flu-like symptoms, this pandemic is sure to have brought about a host of psychological concerns. These mental health issues were quickly laid out and addressed by several nations to understand the requirements of their citizens. Since the virus continues to thrive even today, we thought it would be interesting to discuss the highly debatable environmental impacts that researchers and news outlets have reported.
We are all aware by now, and it is essential to the social distance to help curb the spread of COVID-19. It is because the infection is most commonly spread by person-to-person contact via droplets or physical contact with the virus on a contaminated surface. In light of this mass social-distancing recommendation, and the compulsory quarantine law – along with the cancellation of social, religious, sport and other types of mass gatherings in play, outstanding environmental changes have been brought to light. Coincidentally, the way forward before the pandemic to decrease the impacts of human activity was to reduce economic activity, allowing the environment to flourish slowly.
Up In The Air
After decades of manipulating our planet Earth for industrialization and urbanization, we continue to increase pollution levels, contaminating our lands and harming biodiversity as per our requirements. However, with the distancing above policies in play and a reduction in travel & industrial output, several countries have reported a sharp drop in air pollution levels.
The Global Carbon Project reported in April 2020 how carbon emissions may fall to a record low over half a century alone. In fact, from Stanford University, Professor Rob Jackson suggests we might be lucky enough to see the most significant drop in CO2 emissions since the Second World War. The data doesn’t stop here, taking a trip back to China, where SARS-CoV-2 originated, satellite data showed almost a 40% lower reading on average of Nitrogen dioxide emissions compared to the previous year. This statistic can be linked to the closure of factories, thereby the reduction of the burning of fossil fuels and energy consumption.
Similarly, positive correlations between lockdowns and a decline in air pollution levels have been observed in Europe. As per the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, both the United Kingdom and Portugal had not made use of fossil fuels for energy during the month of April. Across the globe, Jakarta in the Southeast Asian archipelago Indonesia has also reported clearer skies with a slight improvement in daily air quality since the implementation of distancing to combat the virus. Some parts of India have also been able to view the mighty Himalayas due to clearer skies.
Although this data is tied to greenhouse gas emissions, which can be further linked to global warming, independent experts question the real long-term impact of these changes. Could it remain short-lived? Will our lives go back to normal once the world begins to heal from the effects of COVID-19? Most experts believe it is highly likely that numbers will rapidly rise after this celebratory dip, just as they did in a few Chinese provinces, namely Shanxi and Zheijang. A similar case was reported after the financial crash of 2008-09, wherein emissions re-bounded two years later at an all-time high. It’s difficult to say for sure because we still do not see the finish line, and data today merely represents what could best be described as an educated guess.
Is Nature Taking Over?
Forget Earth day, maybe 2020 could be nicknamed Earth Year! Across the harsh policies, strict regulations, and scary situation that surrounds us, it appears as though animals are thriving. One of the most highly circulated videos, as documented by biologist Andrea Mangoni, shows us how the once turbid waters of the Venice canals, appears clear with jellyfish floating about. It is an excellent site to observe during the global standstill because the canals of Venice are known for their boat traffic and unpleasant water conditions. In Thailand, there were sightings of wild reptiles, and later, word got out that wild monkeys had begun roaming the streets in search of food. It doesn’t stop there; kangaroos were spotted on the streets of Adelaide in Australia, and locals in India were able to capture rare video footage of a peafowl of peacocks in the countryside. In Singapore, otters have begun popping up across the city-state at shopping centers, a hospital lobby, and at a reputable spa wherein the expensive fishpond became lunch. The precious Arowana prized species was worth tens of thousands of dollars, sparking rage and backlash across town.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
A zoonotic disease gets transmitted from an animal host to a human being, which is how the coronavirus suspected of having spread. In light of this, research suggests that both China and African nations took quick actions to prevent further hunting or trade of wildlife as food to enhance the future safety of both animal species and humans. Several countries have also begun to reconsider their wildlife protection laws, realizing the importance of ecological security.
Before the virus, our relationship with animals resulted in a one-sided benefit. The extraction of animal-based resources, ranging from meat to leather for fashion, led to the exploitation of species to the point of endangerment. For instance, approximately 66% of the global farm animals and livestock are raised in factory farms, which keep animals in deplorable and cramped conditions, making these animals susceptible to disease. When these animals get moved down the supply chain, there is a risk of consumers catching the diseases through consumption to the end consumer. Moreover, the lack of genetic diversity within the livestock can potentially lead to genetic diseases being passed onto offspring, contributing to the rapid spread of viruses.
Additionally, when land is cultivated, deforested, and converted into infrastructure for development – we must understand the impact that we have on wildlife and natural habitats. It is the driving force for the emergence of diseases from wildlife because we minimize the space and land available for wildlife to grow and thrive. By doing so, we don’t put ourselves into close contact with animals, but we bring them into close contact with each other. In order words, bacteria, viruses, and infections are a clear path of transmission at the hands of human beings themselves.
Even the underground wildlife trade brings undomesticated wildlife in close contact with humans. Animals in these unregulated markets are often traded and sold, dead or alive, typically in unhygienic conditions. These conditions create the ideal conditions for diseases to appear, which poses a threat to human health. Our economic interactions with wildlife are complex and co-dependent. However, it puts human beings at risk of catching the disease, similar to the coronavirus case. The World Health Organisation has suggested that to reduce future pandemics potentially, our relationship with animals needs to be reevaluated. Therefore, a proper balance between nature and economic activity is required to indicate that we are only as healthy as our planet and environment.
Song of the Birds
So to recap, air pollution levels have been on the decline, air & land traffic has slowed, and we have remained in the safety of our homes. All of this has contributed to the levels of another generally big polluter: Noise. Were you aware that noise pollution affects over 100 million people in Europe alone? Interesting studies have been conducted concerning animal behavior and chronic noise.
The Max Planck Institute has studied the mortality rate of zebra finch bird embryos about noise from traffic, demonstrating the chronic effect of noise. Could this mean that if the mating season of wildlife coincides with the lockdown – we won’t just see more but even healthier hatchlings? The Biology Letters journal also found that this phenomenon extends beyond bird species and may play a significant role in creatures including snakes, mussels, shrimp & fish, and other mammals.
n the city of love, Parisians have been awakened to the birds’ songs, nature’s alarm clock. The same has been reported in the city of Kolkata in India. Wherein, birds have reclaimed their territory, in both numbers and species. Avid bird watchers from The World Wildlife Fund in West Bengal claimed that the activities and behavior of these birds had changed since human interference has been eliminated.
What A Waste
Unfortunately, environmental data has reported another downside of the virus – the amount of garbage that is being generated is worse than ever before. On the one hand, recycling programs across the globe have come to a standstill because of the risks associated with the spread of the virus. So yes, we’re spewing less gas and ‘the world is breathing better’ (Tom Szasky, Founder & CEO of recycling company TerraCycle). However, we’re going to end up with the kind of waste that supply chains are not equipped to deal with.
Plastic protective gear has become an essential part of daily lives, as it is encouraged to maintain public health and hygiene. The protective equipment – including disposable masks, disposable rubber gloves, plastic hand sanitizer bottles, amongst others – have been reported not to be disposed of properly after its use. Also, due to their associated health hazards after application, most of this equipment is being dumped straight into the trash. In Hong Kong, discarded face masks were found washed up on the shore of famous beaches and found along popular nature trails, imposing severe consequences for wildlife. Plastic is non-biodegradable. It has been known to cause hazardous injuries and deaths upon ingestion by marine life, leading to adverse effects within the food chains and populations of species.
The world has come to cessation, and the maintenance of the natural ecosystems have reduced as local governments and municipalities across the globe have stopped their recycling initiatives. Consequently, since exports of poultry & fish have also been suspended, we’re left with a large sum of organic waste that we don’t know how to deal with. Melons were left to rot in Malaysia alongside fresh milk & eggs that had to be discarded across Asia due to overproduction and lack of demand. Additionally, as more consumers are spending time at home, they are increasing their purchases for e-commerce, which utilize excessive packaging. The world has started to rely on plastics again in the name of health and hygiene, putting a halt to the zero-waste movement. According to Professor Koh Lian Pin from the National University Singapore, who appeared in a podcast with MONEYFM 89.3, one of the possible long-term effects of the virus will involve a curtail in consumerism to a certain degree. Professor Pin believes that consumers will rethink their necessities, and producers will rethink the distribution of resources to maximize efficiency. Perhaps society will be able to recalibrate what is most important.
Looking to the future, we must repair our relationship with the environment, just as we should attempt to bring the positive environmental influences of the virus well into the future. Since we have been given the rare opportunity to correct our wrongdoings with Mother Nature, perhaps preparations can be made for the upcoming year in the form of revised policies, action plans, and a greater focus on waste management.