Unmasking the Impact of COVID-19: Is it really the blessing we believe it to be?

As the world moves to more confined spaces, the nature seems to be healing itself. But is it really healing or are we preparing for another major confrontation?

The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted millions across the globe and has brought economies to a grinding halt. There is a lot of talk about how emissions from fossil fuel combustion have dropped radically in many countries lowering air and water pollution levels across globe. Yet this is not a substantial solution to air pollution and climate change. In fact, for all we know, the virus has conveniently taken our attention off the prevailing climate change crisis. As more people are forced to stay home and with most of the public transport being shut down, the consumption of air conditioners has increased on an individual level and people are forced to use their private automobiles, causing a rise in overall levels of carbon emissions.

An opinion piece, ‘The coronavirus is not good for nature’ written by the Director General of the World Wildlife Fund, Marco Lambertini says , “…Moreover, COVID-19 is not the only potential wildlife killer. Lockdown measures in some countries with large wildlife populations have drastically reduced the capacity of the government and the community rangers to protect wildlife, so it is perhaps unsurprising that with the onset of a global economic downturn, there has been an increase in the poaching of wild jaguars and pumas in Colombia and endangered species in countries across Asia and Africa facing heightened risks from poachers.

Marine life and trees are also particularly vulnerable in several parts of the world right now. Illegal fishing is on the rise, with fishermen reportedly taking advantage of a perceived drop in enforcement to operate illegally in Indonesian waters to give just one example. Similarly, we are seeing an increase in illegal logging as enforcement agencies are unable to conduct raids due to restrictions on movement. Government data suggests “deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose 30% in March, compared with the same period last year, while the same month saw record numbers of fires set by land grabbers in the Colombian Amazon.”

The consequences of coronavirus aren’t merely limited to affecting the environment indirectly due to lockdown and restricted movements. The pandemic also has immediate repercussions, one of the biggest being the disposable plastic masks which have increased multifold since the pandemic started. The inadequacy of proper disposal methods has raised global concern.

During a recent survey trip to Soko Islands, Hong Kong-based environmental NGO Oceans Asia found heaps of discarded single-use masks washed up on a 100-metre stretch of beach. According to Gary Stokes, founder and director of the ocean-centred NGO, which has been monitoring ocean surface trash as part of World Wild Fund’s Blue Ocean Initiative, the team has seen the odd mask here and there over the years, but this time they were spotted all along the high tide line and foreshore with new deposits coming in with each current.

“Due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, the general population have taken the precaution of wearing surgical masks. And when you suddenly have a population of over 7 million people wearing one to two masks per day, the increase in the amount of trash generated is going to be substantial,” Stokes says.

The adverse effects of such clinical debris are far reaching. Once these are left discarded in an animal’s natural habitat- be it land or water- this may cause animals to mistake this trash for food, which could lead to entanglement, choking, ingestion and death.

According to an article published in The Guardian titled ‘ More masks than Jellyfish: Coronavirus waste ends up in oceans,’ “The divers had found the Covid waste of dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminium cans.”

In accordance with this, a 2018 estimate by UNEP concludes  “As much as 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into oceans each year,”.  These numbers risk growing substantially as countries around the globe face the pandemic. “Masks often contain plastics such as polypropylene and with a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological time bomb given their lasting environmental effects for our planet,” wrote Éric Pauget, a French politician in a letter to Emmanuel Macron.

People must embrace reusable masks and swap latex gloves for more frequent hand washing. “With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from Covid. That’s the message,” said Joffrey Peltier, from a non-profit Opération Mer Propre of ‘The French’.

Apart from the enormous quantities of plastic waste, the pandemic also generated and continues to generate huge quantities of medical waste. The entire focus of the medical unit is at the COVID 19 patients, which puts certain portions of the population at risk of exposure to the virus.

For instance, According to Earth.org, “Wuhan, the Chinese city which has been at the epicentre of the pandemic and is home to over 11 million people, is reported to have generated 200 tons of clinical trash on a single day of 24 February 2020, four times the amount the city’s only dedicated facility can incinerate per day.

With COVID-19 spreading to different parts of the planet rapidly, the spotlight will soon be on medical waste management and treatment around the world and how effective the measures are. While health associations and private waste management companies in some regions are already stepping up their coronavirus-specific decontamination services, it is also crucial for governments to step up and find solutions quickly. At the same time, it is also our responsibility as individuals to follow the necessary guidelines while disposing off the masks and other medical gear.

As the engines of growth begin to accelerate again, we need to see how prudent management of nature can be a part of our new economy. One where the economy generates and fuels green jobs, green growth and a different way of life because the health of people and the health of the planet must both thrive in equal measure. And all of this boils down to one factor of “how well do we capitalize the moment.”


Vama Parakh

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding health, society and the environment. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding health, society and the environment. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

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