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Indians want more clean air solutions, laws when covid-19 pandemic subsides

Findings from a recent survey across five countries, including India, show that people are well aware of the health complications related to air pollution and its links to covid-19

Schoolchildren protest against rising air pollution levels in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: AFP
Schoolchildren protest against rising air pollution levels in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: AFP (AFP)

The nationwide lockdown implemented due to the covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on India’s air quality. In April, Nasa satellite sensors had recorded aerosol levels at a 20-year low in northern India—a region heavily marred by pollution due to seasonal stubble burning. Reduced anthropogenic activities due to the lockdown was a big reason behind this phenomenon. Reduced traffic levels and industrial activity have had similar effects on air quality around the world. But the worry is that air quality will deteriorate again when economies start opening up and lockdowns are completely lifted across different parts of the world.

Now findings from a recent survey show that at least two-thirds of citizens in five countries, including India, want stricter laws and enforcement to tackle air pollution when the covid-19 crisis subsides. The YouGov poll, conducted in Bulgaria, Great Britain, India, Nigeria and Poland, was commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, a philanthropic initiative that aims to tackle air pollution around the world. The fund brings together researchers, policy makers and campaigners to find and scale solutions for clean air. Launched in September 2019, it is also a partner of the United Nations’ Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC). The findings of the poll were published and further discussed in a new briefing titled ‘Breathing Space’.

The core idea behind the survey was to understand the levels of awareness and concern about air pollution among people, and understand their perceptions of the relationship between air pollution and covid-19. According to the survey, the countries where the poll was conducted represent key regions where air quality is a known problem. In each case, the fund sees progress and public support for change, as the polling results show.

For the online poll, YouGov, a global market research and data firm, surveyed more than 1,000 adults in India in May. Findings show that in India, 94% of those surveyed wanted to see air quality improved in their immediate local area. “There is clear public demand for governments around the world to act on clean air... As lockdowns are eased and economies restarted, people are clear that they do not want a return to toxic air. That would simply replace one health crisis with another," says Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund.

With more than 7.8 million confirmed cases globally, the covid-19 pandemic has so far shown no signs of slowing down. That makes the need for reduced air pollution levels in India, and other affected regions in the world, all the more urgent. Recent research revealed that particulate matter could possibly act as carriers of the covid-19 virus and contribute to its spread. Traces of the virus, for instance, were discovered on PM10 particles from an industrial site in northern Italy. “This evidence is the first to suggest that air pollution could be a carrier for COVID-19, although more research is needed into whether the quantity and virulence of COVID-19 carried on particulate matter is enough to cause infection," the survey says.

Further, 85% of the respondents in India said that there is a need for more stringent laws and/or enforcement of regulations on air quality. The other two measures that were backed by the respondents to limit air pollution in the country were more clean air zones in cities (84%) and incentives to help people and businesses use cleaner forms of transport (84%) such as less polluting vehicles, cycling and public transport. Around 82% of the respondents also supported more investment in the e-vehicles sector.

One of the more striking findings is the fact that people in India acknowledge the direct health risks associated with air pollution: 86% of the respondents are worried about air pollution as a public health issue (ahead of issues like climate change, mental health, smoking and obesity ), while 94% think it affects their general health.

Moreover, while 87% of Indian respondents said they’ve noticed improvements in air quality since the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak, a majority of them think that living in a high-pollution area makes them more susceptible to covid-19 and would make it harder for them to recover if they were infected.

When it comes to governments tackling air pollution, the survey recommends that apart from developing joint health and environment strategies and repurposing city streets to promote walking spaces, governments should collaborate to tackle transboundary pollution. After all, just like the covid-19 pandemic, air pollution does not really know any boundaries.

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