COVID-19 and the Environment
The novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, is a pathogen of extreme magnitude, prompting extreme change in what appears to be a landmark event in humanity’s history. Thus far, the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has profoundly impacted our society and lifestyle. It has also had unprecedented effects on the environment and wildlife, both negative and positive. Additionally, it has accentuated many of the shortcomings of humanity that must be fixed in order to progress as a society.
In the midst of lockdown protocols, tourism, industrial activity, and resource consumption have all decreased, which resulted in mostly positive, albeit temporary impacts on the environment (Rume). For example, air quality experienced a significant increase in 2020 (Sarmadi). In European countries, the actual amount of nitrogen dioxide, a harmful pollutant, was up to 61% less than the predicted amount (“COVID-19 and Europe’s…”). Overall, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 6% in 2020 (Stoll). Additionally, due to the large decrease in travel, the amount of wildlife deaths caused by airplanes, ships, and cars declined by a notable amount. In Poland, hedgehog roadkill rates decreased by over 50% (Lopucki). However, these positive effects were nearly nonexistent in 2021, when restrictions became more lenient, and travel and economic activity began to resume. Considering we have the ability to reduce pollution, it is important to take advantage of this experience and find ways to effectively limit pollutants within the ecosystem.
However, COVID-19 has also had equally detrimental effects on the wildlife. Because of the heavy focus on the pandemic, conservation efforts from governments and independent organizations have largely been set aside. As a result of the decreased supervision, illegal activity, such as poaching and deforestation, has occurred at higher rates. Other factors that drive this illicit behavior are economic downturn and unemployment, which cause the poor to turn to resource exploitation (Gardner). In Africa, the amount of deforestation increased by 136% during the early months of the pandemic (Brancalion). This brings up another important topic, the relationship between social issues and the environment. Inequality and poverty often damage the environment, while at the same time environmental harm often contributes to the continuation of poverty (McCarthy).
The coronavirus has also had drastic negative effects on the biosphere. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and single-use plastics in general has spiked, increasing plastic waste and pollution with it. One study estimates that 3.4 billion single-use face masks are disposed of each day (Benson). This plastic pollution results partially from a decrease in recycling activities, which can be attributed to the pandemic. A more fundamental reason is that people aren’t properly disposing of masks, demonstrating an alarming amount of apathy among the population when the environment is concerned. Thus, the pandemic has punctuated the need to educate the general public and enact policies that discourage or prohibit activities that harm the environment. Perhaps an even more rudimentary reason is the simple existence of an overwhelming number of single-use plastics. While these plastics are convenient, they contaminate the soil and water that we rely on to survive. Most of the plastics don’t decompose once they enter these areas, which means they stick around for extended periods of time, devastating ecosystems (Lindwall).
Pollution and environmental damage are especially concerning in the context of the pandemic because they form a positive feedback loop. As the magnitude of COVID-19 increases, the amount of pollution increases, which in turn causes more deaths and infections, thus creating an alarming cycle. Research has shown that COVID-19 mortality rates for those in heavily polluted areas are much higher than those that aren’t. Additionally, those that smoke are predisposed to suffering more severe symptoms of COVID-19. Furthermore, it has been hypothesized that air pollution might increase transmission rates of COVID-19 (“Coronavirus and Climate…”).
When analyzing COVID-19 along with other infectious diseases, it has been noted that global warming has a large impact both on the emergence and transmission of diseases. Global warming has both positive and negative effects on the vectors that transmit diseases to humans, but in general it causes more interaction between humans and the vectors, thereby increasing the number of infectious diseases (Kingsland). Furthermore, biodiversity also plays a large role in the spread of diseases. In general, biodiversity loss often increases disease transmission (Keesing). This shows how interconnected the world and its systems are. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we utilize resources efficiently and effectively to combat environmental damage. Doing so would not only benefit the environment, but nearly every aspect of society as well.
While enforced lockdown protocols have proven to have some benefit on pollution levels, it is obviously not a viable long-term solution. Nevertheless, we can still learn from this experience, and gain insight on how to emulate these positive effects in a permanent manner. For instance, this unique opportunity allows scientists to analyze how the environment reacts to different circumstances, how animals and humans interact, and how to best prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases.
The pandemic has also highlighted the environmental damage caused by current economic processes. When the economy temporarily stalled in 2020, environmental pressures decreased significantly. For example, energy related emissions declined by 7% (“The long-term…”). By making industries more sustainable, both the economy and the environment will benefit in the long run. Tremendous progress has been made in this facet of the environment, but more work is needed to really have a permanent impact.
Undoubtedly, it will take years to even begin to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic. In the meantime, there may be a limited amount of action we can take. However, we can still help heal the environment by properly disposing of masks, pressuring legislative bodies to make environmental policies more ubiquitous, increasing public awareness of environmental issues, and gaining a better understanding of the environmental impacts of your actions.
Rume, Tanjena and S.M. Didar-Ul Islam. “Environmental effects of COVID-19 pandemic and potential strategies of sustainability.” Heliyon, vol. 6 no. 9, 17 Sept. 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04965.
Lindwall, Courtney. “Single-Use Plastics 101.” National Resource Defense Council, 9 Jan. 2020, www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101.
Sarmadi, Mohammad, et al. “Air quality index variation before and after the onset of COVID-19 pandemic: a comprehensive study on 87 capital, industrial and polluted cities of the world.” Environmental Sciences Europe, vol. 33, no. 134, 5 Dec. 2021, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-021-00575-y.
McCarthy, Joe. “Why Climate Change and Poverty Are Inextricably Linked.” Global Citizen, 19 Feb. 2020, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/climate-change-is-connected-to-poverty/.
Benson, Nsikak U., et al. “COVID pollution: impact of COVID-19 pandemic on global plastic waste footprint.” Heliyon, vol. 7, no. 2, 20 Feb. 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j. heliyon.2021.e06343.
Brancalion, Pedro H.S., et al. “Emerging threats linking tropical deforestation and the COVID-19 pandemic.” Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, vol. 18, no.4, 2020, pp. 243-246, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pecon.2020.09.006.
Lopucki, Rafal, et al. “How Is Wildlife Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic? Lockdown Effect on the Road Mortality of Hedgehogs.” Animals, vol. 11, no. 3, 2021, pp. 868, https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11030868.
Stoll, Christian and Michael Arthur Mehling. “COVID-19: Clinching the Climate Opportunity.” One Earth, vol. 3, no. 4, 2020, pp. 400-404, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.09.003.
Gardner, Charlie. “Nature’s comeback? No, the coronavirus pandemic threatens the world’s wildlife.” The Conversation, 14 Apr. 2020, theconversation.com/natures-comeback-no-the-coronavirus-pandemic-threatens-the-worlds-wildlife-136209.
“Coronavirus and Climate Change.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/coronavirus-and-climate-change/.
“COVID-19 and Europe’s environment: impacts of a global pandemic.” European Environment Agency, 5 Nov. 2020, www.eea.europa.eu/publications/covid-19-and-europe-s/covid-19-and-europes-environment.
Keesing, Felicia, et al. “Impacts of biodiversity on the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases.” Nature, vol. 468, 2010, pp. 647-652, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09575.
Kingsland, James. “How might climate change affect the spread of viruses?” Medical News Today, 3 Apr. 2020, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-might-global-warming-influence-the-spread-of-viruses.
“The long-term environmental implications of COVID-19.” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 31 May 2021, www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/the-long-term-environmental-implications-of-covid-19-4b7a9937/.