BY Khin Maung Myint
The COVID-19 has spread rapidly and exponentially all over the world. It is affecting the lives of millions of people and, also, the environment. The effects are detrimental not only for human health but also for the economy, industries, tourism, social and politics. The Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions and human mobility have been reduced, which improves air quality and encourages wild animals to come out and explore the cities. With drastic reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions since the outbreak of the pandemic the climate conditions are visibly improving, the only beneficiary is our planet.
Positive effects of the COVID-19
With many factories shutdown, major construction works ceased, most traffics at standstill and less people are out and about on the streets due to the stay home and the lockdown orders, the air, the noise and the plastic pollutions markedly decreased across the globe. I first noticed those conditions in Yangon at the beginning of the pandemic in our country. During my morning walks, I came to notice the surrounding vistas looking clean, pristine and the air fresh and pure with clear blue skies above and the streets, roads and sidewalks devoid of plastic wastes — a sight rarely seen in Yangon for years.
In China, notorious for air pollutions, where the present pandemic originated, the CO2 emissions have decreased by a quarter. Similarly, in Italy and Spain, COVID-19 has substantially reduced air pollution as the emissions of the greenhouse gases have been reduced drastically during the first two and a half months of 2020. Some experts are of the opinion that the COVID-19 pandemic is linked to the climatic conditions.
Only a few months into the outbreak of the disease, the reports from around the world widely acclaimed the great improvements in the climate conditions. One interesting news was about the sighting of a distant snow-capped peak in the Himalayan Range from a place inside India for the first time in thirty years. These incited in me an urge to mention about the positive impacts of the COVID-19 on the climate change, which I duly did in one of my articles. These are the bright sides of the COVID-19 pandemic, but how sustainable is this positive effect in the long term?
Adverse effects of the COVID-19
It is learnt that the opposite effects are also taking place; the climate change is impacting the humans adversely during the pandemic. Many had written about the impacts of the pandemic on the economy, social, ways of life and some other aspects. I may be wrong or missed them, but only a few or none have written about how the worsening climate change can affect the pandemic, in our news media.
In this discussion the scientifically complicated matters will be avoided and will be done generally and simply. First and the most important impact of the climate change on the pandemic is how the natural disasters, such as, the storms and floods are expediting the spread of the disease. When there are dangers of an eminent storm and possibilities of flooding, residents are usually required to evacuate to safe and higher grounds. Such actions taken under pandemic conditions will expose the populace to the disease, as they will have to cram into crowded transport and stay in confined and overcrowded shelters. No one can know who among those evacuees are infected or who are silent carriers of the disease.
In support of the above statement, allow me to cite some evidences of the impact that the climate change has on the spread of the disease. In late May 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading rapidly around the globe, one of the most powerful storms in decades ravaged the east coast of India. In anticipation, some 3 million people were evacuated into crowded cyclone shelters. Many refused to go there out of fear of contracting the virus. An unknown number of whom were killed as the cyclone ripped through their ramshackle coastal villages. The extent to which the virus was able to spread due to the evacuations has yet to be assessed, but surely those evacuations were not without undesirable consequences.
Another example worth mentioning is the one that took place almost about the same time as the one in India. Halfway around the world, two dams on the Tittabawassee River in the US state of Michigan were failing after record flooding from intense rains. As the waters rose a state of emergency was declared and the authorities pleaded with the residents in the floodplain to evacuate immediately. Michigan, at the time, was being particularly hard hit by COVID-19 and the state had, despite considerable opposition, implemented far-reaching lockdown and quarantine measures. Just imagine how difficult and risky those moves would be during a pandemic. There are many similar examples, but hope these two cases will suffice.
The basic logic of the risks in an overlap between the pandemic and extreme weather events is straightforward. During a pandemic, the urgent displacement of millions of people during a storm increases the risk of exposure to the virus as maintaining adequate precautionary measures becomes difficult, if not impossible; so does the effective contact tracing of new cases among the evacuees.
Once the storm has passed, residents face the grueling task of cleanup and repair, made more difficult because of necessary virus protection measures. Storm-battered health-care facilities, if fortunately they remain operational will face the challenge of accommodating an influx of storm-related cases. On top of the pandemic caseload, storm victims must be kept separated to reduce the risk of transmission. In the event of widespread storm disaster, like the one sustained during the Cyclone Nargis, the state healthcare systems could quickly be overwhelmed, seriously increasing the toll of both the pandemic and the storm.
Basically, the climate change helps create conditions for the emergence of new pandemics and for increasing their lethality. Thus, the climate change can be called a pandemic enabler, a pandemic accelerant and a multi-pathway crisis engine. COVID-19 is pointing out to us that our health and our planet’s health are inseparably entwined. The same conditions that contribute to climate change also contribute to the pandemics. Investing in the mitigation of these conditions will yield a double reward. So, it’s needless to say that failure to invest will lead to an exponential increase in the risk.
As some climate change experts are predicting, the worsening of the climate, which is the result of human activities, will definitely return to its old conditions as before the pandemic, once all these are over. People will start polluting the environs as ever before. This collision of the climate change and the pandemic is a very loud and clear alarm siren for us to be aware of the challenges ahead if the climate change is not reined in. So, now that we know the climate change and the the pandemics are inseparably entwined, all of us, humans should endeavour to fight the worsening climatic conditions. Our efforts will not go to waste, but contribute greatly to the control of the spread of the pandemics, in case we are unfortunate to encounter in the future again.
COVID-19 and Climate Change — Centre for International Governance Innovation.