How Covid-19 actually saves lives

All we seem to be hearing about in the media is how many people have been killed by COVID-19.

But it’s not all about doom and gloom.

While we may be feeling very frustrated due to cancelled flights, events and family reunions, Planet Earth is taking a much-needed break from the everyday pollution during factory closures and reduced C02 emissions.

According to a recent article in ScienceAlert, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke did some calculations on 8th March 2020 about the recent air pollution drop over parts of China and potential lives saved, posting it on a global food, environment and economic dynamics blog, G-FEED.

According to Burke, even conservatively, it’s very likely that the lives saved locally from the reduction in pollution exceed COVID-19 deaths in China. “Given the huge amount of evidence that breathing dirty air contributes heavily to premature mortality, a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself,” Burke writes. “Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.”

Wow! Take that in for a moment. The two months of pollution reduction, Burke calculates, has probably saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China. That’s significantly more than the current global death toll from the virus itself. You don’t hear the media talking about that!

Earlier this month, research suggested that air pollution costs us three years, on average, off our global life expectancy.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, there is evidence from previous coronavirus outbreaks that those exposed to dirty air are more at risk of dying. Scientists who analysed the Sars coronavirus outbreak in China in 2003 found that infected people who lived in areas with more air pollution were twice as likely to die as those in less polluted places.

According to physicist Jos Lelieveld from the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia:

“Air pollution exceeds malaria as a global cause of premature death by a factor of 19; it exceeds violence by a factor of 16, HIV/AIDS by a factor of 9, alcohol by a factor of 45, and drug abuse by a factor of 60.”

Ok, I think we need a moment to absorb that.

With the second largest number of cases occurring in Italy, and the country putting in place strict quarantine measures, satellite data over northern Italy have now shown a large drop in air pollution – specifically nitrogen dioxide, a gas mainly emitted by cars, trucks, power plants and some industrial plants.

Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager explains:

“Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lock-down in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities.”

These preliminary numbers demonstrate that this global health disaster is an opportunity to assess which aspects of modern life are absolutely necessary, and what positive changes might be possible if we change our habits on a global scale.

We know these are frustrating times. We understand how you feel as we are also in lockdowns and quarantines. But let’s look at the bigger picture here: Planet Earth is getting a much-needed break from the pollution caused by industrial manufacturing and C02 emissions. It’s quite ironic to consider that COVID-19 might actually have inadvertently saved more lives than it took.

Leslie Maliepaard and Amour Setter


The Planet Calls


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