The Impact of COVID-19 on the Environment

Coronavirus: What providers, patients should know |

After being stuck at home for several months due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, it’s been hard to focus on the drastic impact that the virus has had on the environment. There have been several social media posts spiraling throughout the internet, but it may be hard to truly grasp what’s happening. From an initial glance, it may seem that the indirect impact of COVID-19 has been nothing but positive; however, the virus has impacted the climate in several different ways. 

Positive Outcome on Environment 

The outbreak of the virus has globally kept people at home since nearly the beginning of March, and in some areas, people have been stuck at home since the start of 2020. As a result, environmental pollution has been reduced to nearly 30%. Reduction in pollution has had many positive effects on air quality, water quality, and several other areas. Images depicting the before and after effects of quarantine on the canals of Italy have virtually gone viral, illustrating just how it only took a few months of minimal human activity to not only increase the quality of the water but also bring back wildlife. The improvement of water quality and cleanliness has been a global trend since the beginning of quarantine, and lakes have particularly been doing well due to the lockdown of businesses and reduced activity. 

Deserted Venetian lagoon | Italy's efforts to limit the spre… | Flickr
Credited to European Space Agency, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA.

Not only has the quality of water been improving, but air quality and overall air pollution have also been doing well. The decrease in human activity as a result of quarantine has caused a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming is one of the planet’s greatest threats, with the most prominent cause being the emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. With an increase in the reduction of mobility, transportation through means of fossil fuel burning vehicles, such as cars, have also been reduced. As of 2018, transportation vehicles emit up to about 30% of all greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Not only transportation but the reduction of human activity, in general, has resulted in the reduction of nearly 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a decrease in pollutant gas emissions. 

The reduction of pollution due to quarantine has had several indirect effects of areas outside of the climate. As previously stated, better water quality and cleaner bodies of water are allowing more animals to find shelter and food in areas that were once polluted. Another indirect effect is the impact that clean air and better air quality has had on the planet. A study conducted by researchers at Yale School of Medicine shows that in China, improvement in the quality of air has prevented thousands of pollution-related deaths in premature babies. An estimated 12,125 premature deaths were avoided because of the better air quality, as of May 4. 

Negative Impacts of COVID-19

Levels of environmental pollution have gone down due to quarantine, and areas such as beaches are beginning to clear up due to lack of tourists and visitors. However, there have been increases in inorganic waste. Quarantine has increased the demand for online shopping and at-home delivery, which has in turn increased both organic and inorganic waste generated by households. Medical waste is also slowly becoming a greater issue as used masks and gloves are beginning to pollute the streets and certain hospitals are producing a significantly greater amount of medical waste due to the surge of patients and higher demand. 

The most harmful effect that COVID-19 will have on the environment would likely come afterward. The positive changes that have been seen in the environment are unfortunately temporary, and as more and more people grow restless at home and begin going out again, not only will these positive changes go back to the way they previously were, but they could potentially be worse. With the focus being on the attempt to end the current pandemic, funding and financial support is being transferred from environment-related organizations. The current administration is aggressively pushing to reduce funding in necessary areas, and has successfully “suspended enforcement of air and water pollution regulations, curtailed states’ ability to block energy projects, and suspended a requirement for environmental review and public input on new mines, pipelines, highways, and other projects.” (National Geographic) The effects of this lack of funding and an increase in greater human activity as the pandemic becomes less of a threat could be catastrophic on the climate. We need to use this unfortunate situation as a wakeup call. After years of warnings about the dangers of climate change, it took a global pandemic to see a positive impact on the environment. We need to continue to fight for a better future because the long term impact that the virus could have on the environment could be more disastrous than ever. 


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