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Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution. There is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. How does air pollution as an environmental health hazard contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in societies ? And how does it play a role in further affecting human health in this pandemic?

It has been widely established that air pollution compromises the respiratory system. According to the WHO, ambient air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths annually. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have discovered that excess pressure may be exerted on the patient’s respiratory system due to air pollution.  

How Air Pollution as an Environmental Health Hazard Could Contribute to the Spread of COVID-19

A previous ecological study conducted during the SARS pandemic of 2003 that affected parts of China, Hong Kong and Canada discovered a positive correlation between SARS-related deaths and ambient air pollution in both short-term and long-term exposure. Given the close relationship and similarities in the symptoms of COVID-19 and SARS, it is anticipated that a similar observation may be found in the COVID-19 pandemic. This provides an indication of how air pollution may affect a person infected with COVID-19. 

pre-print (i.e. studies awaiting peer-review) ecological study from Harvard University investigates whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the US. The study found that even a small increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 levels was associated with an 8% increase in COVID-19-related fatality.

Some scholars however, argue that an ecological study cannot be regarded as epidemiology due to ecological bias (i.e. lack of individual-level data), therefore it is unable to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. There are also multiple factors involved that may affect the results, for example, the temporal difference of the virus outbreak among the individual county, and the intervention time of the county to adopt physical distancing policies. Consequently, the study may overestimate the risk of COVID-19-related deaths owing to air pollution.     

This positive correlation between increased death rates due to COVID-19 and air pollution has also been observed in Italy. Northern Italy is one of the most polluted areas in Europe, where a higher level of mortality related to the COVID-19 virus was discovered. A study concluded that the high air pollution loading could be a co-factor causing the high fatality rate due to the COVID-19 infection.  

Prior exposure to air pollution may aggravate the health impacts of COVID-19 and increase the risk of death by suppressing immunity. A systematic review has identified that people with prior chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, respiratory system disease and cardiovascular disease could be more vulnerable to COVID-19 by triggering pro-inflammatory responses and causing immunity impairment.      

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Does Air Pollution Affect the Viral Spread of COVID-19?

It is believed that the main route of transmission of the virus is through human respiratory droplets and direct contact, according to the Joint Mission report from China in late February. Yet, it has also been hypothesised that the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted by particulate matter (PM) and aerosols. A preliminary experimental analysis was conducted which identified the gene of COVID-19 in an ambient PM sample in Italy, and concluded that PM may potentially act as a transporter of the virus, although the virulence of COVID-19 remains unknown (i.e. vitality of the virus). Scientists also suggest that PM may serve as an early indicator of the epidemic recurrence by identifying the virus genome in PM. 

Current Air Quality Improvement From Lockdowns

Many countries have been locked down to maintain physical distancing among citizens to slow down the viral spread of COVID-19. The lockdowns have not only helped to reduce viral transmission but also the air pollution. A preprint study in China estimated that the lockdown mitigated a quarter of PM2.5 emissions and improved the Air Quality Index, helping prevent monthly premature deaths of 24 000 to 36 000 people.

The NO2 level also dropped dramatically after the lockdown (NO2 irritates human airways and impairs immunity to lung infections). Another study from China estimated that the improved NO2 levels from January to March due to the imposed lockdowns helped prevent more than 8,000 NO2 -related deaths, 65% of which are due to cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Fossil fuel burning is one of the major anthropogenic sources of air pollution. A study modelled that emissions from fossil fuel combustion is one of the major causes of air pollution, which contributes to 65% of additional mortality due to the exposure. Given that renewable energy is cleaner than fossil fuel burning, a transition to renewable energy is essential to mitigate the climate crisis.    

The plausible linkage between air pollution and viral spread still requires more thorough studies to confirm the hypothesis. Air pollution, on the other hand, has long been proving its harmful effect on human health and causes a burden on healthcare systems. The preliminary studies that have shown a possible link between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 related deaths, no matter how small, should be an indication that air pollution needs to be urgently tackled. A global transition to cleaner energy will help safeguard the health of humanity and prevent these unnecessary deaths.

Local governments should focus on mitigating air pollution to address the urgent issue of deaths caused by COVID-19, rather than aspire towards eliminating air pollution altogether. The positive effects of localised lockdown regulations in alleviating air pollution can be a blueprint towards this end. Without invoking a national mandate, discriminative regulations should be introduced that focus on areas more severely affected by COVID-19 or air pollution. Measures could include designating times for motor vehicle use, reducing smoke from agricultural and waste burning around cities, and pausing activities which create dust plumes such as construction while expanding public sanitation services and related employment to keep streets cleaner. 

According to a research report by shopping comparison site, Finder.Com, the UK could be sending 53.5 million single-use blue surgical masks to the landfill every day, totalling 1.6 billion every month. 

The research found that over half (51%) of those surveyed in the UK say that they use blue surgical masks, equalling 26.7 million people. The report assumes that people are likely using at least two masks a day as they are intended to be single-use; this would result in 53.5 million disposable masks being used to slow the spread of COVID-19 every day. 

Over a month, this amounts to 1.6 billion masks being sent to the landfill in the UK, where they take between 20 and 30 years to biodegrade. This is enough to cover the whole area of London in under two days and reach the moon in two-and-a-half days. 

While this figure is shocking, it is important to note that the research report surveyed 2 000 people throughout Great Britain. However, the pandemic has nonetheless seen a tremendous surge in the amount of waste generated- be it masks or plastic takeaway containers. Take Wuhan, for example. The Chinese city which has been at the epicentre of the pandemic and which is home to over 11 million people, is reported to have generated 200 tons of clinical trash on a single day (24 February 2020), four times the amount the city’s only dedicated facility can incinerate per day. 

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Hong Kong-based oceans NGO, OceansAsia reported a stark increase in marine debris and microplastics build-up in Hong Kong since January, and found large quantities of face masks littered along beaches and rural suburbs. On a beach in Lantau Island, the organisation reported finding 70 face masks disposed across an area just 100 meters long, with an additional 30 washed up on shore. This raised concern among members as the area is relatively uninhabited and is difficult to access, providing insight into potential larger littering figures across more popular beaches.

The report also outlines ways to dispose of masks correctly and hygienically, including washing your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water before putting on a mask, covering your mouth and nose with the mask and ensuring that there are no gaps between your face and the mask, avoiding touching the mask while you are wearing it, replacing the mask with a new one when it is damp and not reusing single-use masks and removing the mask from behind and discarding immediately.

Featured image by: Flickr

 

In February 2018, a panel of experts presented to the World Health Organization (WHO) a list of diseases that posed public health risks but for which there were no countermeasures. On the list were Ebola, SARS, Zika, Rift Valley Fever and “Disease X.” This disease would be caused by a pathogen never seen in humans before and would originate from animals somewhere in the world where people had invaded wildlife habitats. It would be deadlier than seasonal influenza but would spread just as easily between people. It would be the world’s next pandemic. That prediction has been realised less than two years later; beginning in Wuhan, China late last year, “Disease X,” or COVID-19, has now infected nearly 30 million people and killed nearly 1 million people. As humans encroach on wildlife more as the population grows, zoonotic diseases will emerge more often. Can we predict and spot viruses that have the potential to become pandemics early, and stop them before it happens? The Global Virome project is looking to do just that. 

Dennis Carroll is the former US director for pandemic influenza and emerging threats; under Barack Obama, Carroll ran the US government’s PREDICT programme, that aimed to be an early warning system for future outbreaks of pandemics. By the time Donald Trump shut it down in 2019, PREDICT had collected more than two million mucus and saliva samples from thousands of bird and mammal species from virus hunters, universities, conservationists and natural history museums around the world. It has identified 949 novel viruses, created a database of known viruses in wildlife and trained nearly 7 000 scientists, lab technicians and field workers in 30 countries to look out for emerging diseases. 

However, this is a fraction of what’s out there. Dr Carroll and his team made a statistical estimate that the world’s mammals and birds are host to between 700 000 and 2.6 million as-yet unknown species from families of viruses that have shown the potential to cause zoonotic disease in humans. Of these, between 350 000 and 1.3 million could have zoonotic potential

Carroll now chairs the Global Virome project, a 10-year plan to build on the work of PREDICT and discover and genetically record all of the world’s unknown viral threats- a tall order. It has been described as “the beginning of the end of the pandemic era,” and “a change from responding to threats to proactively preparing for them strike.” 

The search itself will help reduce the risk of pathogen spillover by identifying zoonosis hotspots, most of which occur in less developed, tropical countries, and enhancing monitoring capabilities in these areas. 

The costs of cataloging what Carroll calls “biological dark matter” will be about USD$3.7 billion over the next 10 years, but this, he says, is “trivial compared to the cost of just this latest pandemic.” He says that a scaled back version- one that focuses on the highest-risk countries, the groups of people most vulnerable to outbreaks within those countries and the species most likely to be sources of spillover- might get 70% of the data for a quarter of the money. 

The goal of the project is to have an open repository of the genetic makeup of all the world’s most dangerous viruses to better predict and prepare for outbreaks of pandemics and allow drug companies to develop drugs and vaccines in advance. Until now, zoonotic disease prediction has relied on surveillance and preparedness. Carroll says, “Surveillance has primarily focused on identifying early cases of a virus, identifying the first case and then responding. But any virus that poses a future threat already exists. So why wait for it?” 

“We need to understand viruses and their ecosystems better, gain a better understanding of hotpots. Compare weather forecasting: 50 years ago it was very limited, we could forecast a hurricane two days out. Now we can forecast them on an annual basis, pick them up off the coast of west Africa, and make pretty precise predictions.”

He carries on, “We’re at the stage now with viruses where weather forecasting was 50 years ago. We have some data but we need much more and we need to run it through models like meteorologists do. We want to move the world of virology on from being a Mom-and-Pop operation. There are 4 500 coronaviruses alone. Why can’t we document them in their entirety? PREDICT showed us we could do it.”

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Why is This Project Needed?

As seen at the WHO in 2018, scientists have been warning of a zoonotic pandemic for decades. The UN warns that more of them will emerge. There are a few reasons for this: as the global human population grows, more people are infiltrating and destroying wild ecosystems, where they encounter new animal infections; there are poor systems in place for early diseases detection and containment; a lack of vaccines and drugs, and research and development for “emerging” diseases. 

Six out of 10 infectious diseases that affect us come from animals. This includes HIV/AIDS, Ebola, MERS, SARS and COVID-19. There is clearly a need to stem the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. 

The world’s response to COVID-19 has been similar to SARS in 2002 and the H5N1 avian influenza in 2005: move to a costly panic mode intended to slow the spread of the disease while scientists work to develop a vaccine. This, Peter Daszak, director of the EcoHealth Alliance, says, “is not a plan.” 

The cost of sequencing the DNA and RNA in which viruses store their genes has, since the second half of the 2000s, fallen exponentially, which has made virus hunting possible on a previously unimaginable scale. This should quell any concerns that projects to predict pandemics, like the Global Virome, would be financially unfeasible. 

How Can We Prevent Pandemics?

Richard Osfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, says that the best way to predict zoonotic diseases may be to narrow research to where humans are disturbing natural environments the most. The great zoonotic threats are not in wild nature, he says, but where natural areas have been converted to cropland, pastures and urban areas. 

Research also shows that large animal farms create the conditions conducive to bacteria and other pathogens spreading between animals and humans. Sam Sheppard, who conducted the research, says that the consumption of fresh meat- which has quadrupled since 1961- has increased the chance of animal diseases infecting humans. He says, “The overuse of antibiotics, crowded conditions, unnatural diets and genetic similarity make factory farms hotbeds for pathogens to spread among animals and potentially to emerge and infect humans.”

Other ways to predict pandemics could lie in more precise tracking of which pathogens are actually infecting humans. Some researchers say that too often, clinicians tend to diagnose many human infections as colds or diarrhea instead of identifying the pathogen. 

Further, the 2005 revision of the WHO’s International Health Regulations required countries to inform one another of outbreaks with the potential to spread. The treaty also required rich countries to help poor countries conduct their own disease monitoring, but rich countries have neglected it. 

There is also the need to plug any gaps between scientific warnings and government action. For example, in 2005, hundreds of bat viruses similar to SARS-CoV were discovered, and in 2013, it was found that some were already able to infect humans. This should have pushed governments to focus on developing coronavirus vaccines and drugs, but this did not transpire.  

Arguably most importantly, we must address the aspects of modern life that exacerbate the spread of unknown pathogens, like deforestation and consumption of wildlife. Until this happens, zoonotic diseases will continue to emerge and spread.  

Peter Daszak says, “We are in the age of pandemics. We treat pandemics as a disaster-response issue. We wait for them to happen and hope a vaccine or drug can be developed quickly in their aftermath. But there still is no vaccine available for the SARS virus of 2002–03, nor for HIV/AIDS or Zika, or a host of emerging pathogens. We need to start working on prevention in addition to responses.”

He and his team came up with a three-layered defence to predict and stop future pandemics. First, a worldwide effort is needed to find and track the hundreds of thousands of as-yet unknown pathogens that could threaten us. Second, monitoring of blood samples and other indicators from people living in places where new diseases are most likely to emerge is needed and third, a programme to employ all the data collected is needed that will get a head-start in the development of drugs and vaccines.

“Pandemics are like terrorist attacks,” he says. “We know roughly where they originate and what’s responsible for them, but we don’t know exactly when the next one will happen. They need to be handled the same way – by identifying all possible sources and dismantling those before the next pandemic strikes.”

As states begin to reopen and people start to venture outdoors, they may notice new, previously unseen forms of pollution- face masks and gloves. The world has been on lockdown for about three months, and masks and gloves are now littering the streets. Moreover, they are already starting to wash up on beaches around the world. Deutsche Welle, Germany’s broadcaster reported that conservation group OceansAsia found about 100 discarded masks on an uninhabited island a few nautical miles from Hong Kong. These items have never been spotted in that remote location before.

Gloves, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are key to keeping us safe, especially as we began to ease the lockdown rules. Yet, the environmental watchdogs worry that all that PPE will flow into the ocean. ” If they’re thrown on the streets, when it rains the gloves and masks will eventually end up in the sea,” biologist Anastasia Miliou at the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation in Greece told Deutsche Welle.

To make things worse, the discarded PPE presents a particularly nasty problem for marine life—because of how it’s made, according to John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example,” Hocevar told CNN. “The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.”

The environmentalists have reasons to worry. The world’s oceans are already drowning in plastic pollution. Every year, about 300 million tons of plastic is produced and 5 to 13 million tons of it washes into the ocean, according to the 2015 figures. The same paper lists that about 269,000 tons of the plastic floats in the ocean currents. As larger plastic debris breaks into smaller pieces, birds, turtles, and fish mistake it for food and gobble it up, which can perforate their stomachs, damage their intestines, or deprive them of nourishment, leading to starvation. Marine mammals and turtles commonly get caught into the discarded fishing gear and other items. And masks and gloves are choking hazards.

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Humans live on land, but they suffer from marine pollution too. As one study notes, Homo sapiens has lived for half a century in a throwaway society, but no “away” exists. The trash we toss away comes back to us, and as the masks example above demonstrates, it only takes a few weeks. Plastic leaches into our drinking water, too—research found that we consume a spoonful of plastic a week. And the microscopic plastic bits dissolved in the ocean water, interfere with the healthy function of Prochlorococcus—the ocean’s invisible forests that produce ten percent of all oxygen we breathe.

Some organizations are finding ways to upcycle plastic ocean-bound waste into usable materials. Fashion company Rothy’s makes bags from the plastic bottles fished out of the sea. Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) just partnered with Rash’R, a company that sells eco-friendly clothes to make masks from the plastic that once polluted the ocean.

That does divert a certain amount of plastic from the ocean currents. But while these masks aren’t single-use, they too may one day end up in the sea, if not recycled properly. Still, many face masks and gloves will remain single-use, exacerbating the pollution problem. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey prompted a discussion of how to recycle half a million flooded cars. The amount of single-use masks and gloves discarded during the coronavirus pandemic will likely make a research subject soon.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily, written by Lina Zeldovich, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, medical science and big data have helped countries navigate the crisis. Meanwhile, countries that have ignored this science have seen high infection and death rates, such as America and Brazil. As medical science is playing a vital role in returning to normal post-COVID-19, will we see similar support for climate science?

For months, the world has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic, with some countries having more success than others. Studies have been conducted to provide clear and practical guidance on how to keep coronavirus at bay. Meanwhile, scientists are trying to gain a better understanding of the virus and are racing to find a vaccine that will keep the virus at bay and allow leaders to reopen economies. 

With such urgency, science has taken the center stage. Leaders have turned to scientists to communicate the latest findings and it is these findings that are the basis of the decisions they make to contain the spread of the virus, such as when to implement lockdowns and social distancing measures and when to ease them.

Countries that have tackled the pandemic better than others are those that have strictly followed scientific advice. New Zealand, which implemented a national lockdown early, has kept infection rates extremely low, with 1548 infections, and has reported 22 deaths at the time of publishing. Meanwhile, Taiwan, an island of 23 million, has less than 500 confirmed cases and 7 fatalities thanks to its extensive efforts to incorporate big data analysis into testing, contact tracing and quarantining.

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On the other hand, there are important lessons to learn from countries that ignore science during the coronavirus crisis. The US, which ignored warnings from health experts for months, has become one of the worst-hit countries, confirming over 5 million cases and the highest death toll in the world with over 160 000 related deaths. 

Even as the virus has torn through the US, President Donald Trump had continuously ignored experts and insisted that the economy be fully reopened, a move deemed too early and dangerous. An example is California, which was the first state to order a lockdown. In May, California slowly reopened some of their counties, but as soon as the COVID-19 cases surged again in mid-July, the state reimposed restrictions.

Trump, long known for downplaying science, has drawn heavy criticism for dismissing the dangers of the coronavirus and being slow to roll out control measures, such as making test kits available, in the early weeks of the pandemic. The delayed coronavirus response has highlighted how the Trump administration belittles and diminishes the role of scientific expertise. 

Climate science, in particular, has been under attack since Trump took office. The administration has challenged environmental studies that are critical about fossil fuel industries, hindered research on human-induced climate change, and rolled back environmental regulations, such as policies on mercury and automobile pollution.

The administration has also favoured and approved works by climate denialists in federal reports. Officials who have spoken out against Trump on climate change are likely to get excluded or muted at work. This has reportedly fuelled an exodus of researchers during Trump’s presidency, which undermines the government’s ability to make effective decisions.

Despite this, public trust in the work of scientists and health experts has increased, according to a number of polls and surveys. A poll conducted by the Open Knowledge Foundation in the UK showed that 64% of voters were now more likely to listen to scientific advice from experts and researchers, with 5% stating that they were less likely to do so.

However, can this growing public trust in science extend to that of a crisis that will have far more dire consequences than COVID-19?

Both coronavirus and the climate crisis are the most pressing issues of our time that need to be addressed through international cooperation. Unlike coronavirus, the climate crisis has yet to be treated with the same sense of urgency, despite there being every indication that the planet is in dire straits.

The climate crisis will severely impact human health and the economy, and is becoming more apparent through extreme weather events, natural disasters and rising sea levels—all of which will be more frequent and severe as the planet continues to warm. 

Climate science has warned us for years about the dangers of ignoring the climate crisis. The UN has warned that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 7.6% annually for the next 10 years to meet the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement. In April, the world saw a 17% decrease in global CO2 emissions, however as countries reopen, global emissions have already surged in mid-June

If by 2030 nations fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half globally, the world economy could be ruined. By the end of the century, it could cost the world USD$600 trillion.

During these trying times, in which health systems are overwhelmed and millions are losing their jobs, there’s still an opportunity to help the economy recover while building a sustainable future, writes Stéphane Hallegatte, the World Bank’s lead economist with the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Governments can explore a wide range of investments, including land restoration, sanitation and sustainable transport infrastructure, like metro systems and bike lanes. These potential investments can create new jobs and income in the short term and put long-term sustainability goals into action.

This idea seems to be gaining traction. The EU, for instance, has reached an agreement on its $2 trillion coronavirus recovery plan, which also addresses climate concerns. The deal also designates 30% of the total package for climate spending. As the continent aims to become carbon neutral by 2050, the proposed package would improve clean energy and transport. Meanwhile, Democrat nominee hopeful Joe Biden has proposed spending USD$2 trillion over four years on clean energy projects and ending carbon emissions from power plants by 2035, as part of a series of economic plans aimed at jump-starting the US economy.

It is clear that with scientists and public health experts taking the lead in the fight against the pandemic, science has taken the reigns. We can only hope that this same trust put in science will extend beyond COVID-19 to the climate crisis. 

How can we learn from our response to COVID-19 to tackle other crises, such as the climate crisis? The virus has generated one of the most coordinated and wide-scale international responses to a global health crisis. €15 billion has been raised by the EU’s Coronavirus Global Response fund since May, which also includes countries outside of the EU such as Canada, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Governments across the globe are showing their capacity, both financially and politically, to unite in the face of crisis. The gathering and processing of information, such as through “big data” approaches, as well as approaching the crisis with the right mindset, have been crucial in tracing and tackling the virus, and it is these techniques and mindsets that must be similarly used in the fight against the climate crisis. 

Where and why have some countries succeeded where others have failed in their COVID-19 response? Key to the successes of managing any crisis is the availability and accuracy of information. While raw statistics such as cases and fatalities are vital towards impact assessment, the amount and accuracy of data are also key to running projections and making predictions to better inform policy-makers on their responses. In this regard, “big data” approaches have proved essential towards gathering this data, and some of the success stories in the fight against COVID-19 could not have been possible without its usage.

While there is no universally agreed upon definition, big data approaches are characterised by the sheer volume of data gathered, for example, Walmart collects more than 2.5 petabytes of ‘raw data’ from its customers’ transactions every hour. For comparison, an old MacBook Air holds 128 gigabytes of memory space, which means Walmart is collecting around 20 000 MacBook’s worth of information every hour from its customers.

Instead of hunting for specific data during the process of data collection itself, as much raw data as possible is acquired and then analysed afterwards in order to find the desired information and patterns. This availability of large data sets allowed scientists to quickly identify the key clinical characteristics of the coronavirus through analysing patient data in Wuhan, as well as formulate predictions for the spread of the virus which proved to be accurate.

Taiwan’s quick and effective response to COVID-19 also owed much of its success to its data collection capabilities. Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) had the data infrastructure in place to identify high-risk individuals (such as those who recently travelled to affected areas, or had underlying conditions) and track them through their mobile phones and GPS technologies. Data on the patient’s travel histories was also made available to all hospitals, clinics and pharmacies across Taiwan. This helped with resource allocation, such as ensuring protective equipment went to places most in need, as well as making sure Taiwan’s aggressive testing process was more efficient by testing the people most likely at risk. 

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In contrast to Taiwan, another country that was hit by the coronavirus but did not achieve as much success in their response was Italy. A key obstacle for Italy’s response was their initially limited data collection and dissemination, as their healthcare system is decentralised as per their constitution. This could be responsible for the virus circulating unnoticed within the country for a period upwards of four weeks before the initial outbreak, as experts now suggest. 

Additionally, this may have allowed for confirmation biases to form within decision-makers, as there was not enough data to ‘paint’ a clear picture of the situation, so people could interpret the data in ways which suited their biases. This led to some countries, Italy included, underestimating the virus and generating a lacklustre response from decision-makers for fear of over-reacting. In Italy’s case, because authorities initially only locked down the northern parts of the country, the panic caused many Italians to travel to the south of the country, spreading the virus in spite of the lockdown.

With regards to the climate crisis, big data approaches have allowed us to more accurately assess the impact of the climate crisis, such as tree cover loss and global temperature increases. Experts believe that big data systems could also result in more effective climate adaptations by better understanding human behaviours, resulting in better vulnerability assessments. Other researchers have used big data approaches to analyse perceptions on climate change on social media, which could help formulate better risk communication strategies. 

While the data is there, reactions towards the imminent threat of the climate crisis has not changed much. Data helps us gain a clear picture of the problem, but how we respond to the data is how we respond to the problem. In this regard, trust in information, among both policy-makers and the general population, is equally as important as the accuracy of the information.

One of the ways trust is reduced is when there is an overload of information regarding a problem or crisis, some of which is unverified, which fuels further mistrust and speculation. Especially in the age of the internet, spreading of information is easier and more far-reaching than ever, and false or unverified information gets spread along just as easily as real information. Tehe WHO has described this phenomenon as an “infodemic”, and has since become one of the priorities of the WHO in addressing COVID-19. 

A way to avoid this problem would be to legitimise certain information through official sources and institutions. In Taiwan’s case, the Office of the President made regular broadcasts which supported the data regarding the seriousness of the threat, fighting disinformation as well as legitimising the right sources. However, this method of fighting disinformation still hinges on public trust in the authorities and official institutions themselves. 

Placing more emphasis and importance on the role of data could result in a more objective and informed response towards the climate crisis, as it has for Taiwan during the COVID-19 crisis. While the accuracy and availability of data is steadily being improved with technological innovation, data can only be effective if accompanied by a proactive mindset that also responds properly to it. Therefore, it needs to be delivered in a manner that reduces misinformation, negates bias and reinforces trust among both decision-makers and the general public. 

The most important thing that the COVID-19 response can give towards tackling the climate crisis is the opportunity for us to learn from it and change our mindsets regarding how we respond to information, and therefore how we manage crises when they come.

How can we prevent the next pandemic? In an interview with Yale Environment 360, science author David Quammen says that the COVID-19 pandemic stems from “our relationship with the rest of the natural world, which is consumptive, intrusive, and disruptive.” Preventing the next pandemic requires that we rethink our current systems and change them where necessary.

In Quammen’s 2012 book, Spillover, he details how as we continue to disrupt the natural world, viruses are increasingly spreading from wild animal populations to humans.

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (like Zika, Ebola, avian influenza, SARS, and MERS) that was passed from animals to humans. This is corroborated by a new study that found that domesticated animals and wildlife, like bats and rodents, are responsible for many zoonotic viruses. 

How we eat, live, travel and consume energy all influence our interaction with the rest of the natural world. In a Scientific American article, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says that deforestation, intensive farming and climate change are some of the main reasons for a virus spillover into the human population. Many studies have linked deforestation, climate change and loss of biodiversity to economic situations, global production of goods and unequal resource distribution between rich and poor nations which can lead to pandemics. New pandemics will emerge unless priority is given to reducing consumption levels, eliminating wildlife trade and economic inequalities and creating sustainable production systems for people and the environment. 

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How Can We Prevent the Next Pandemic?

Ways to reduce or prevent the occurrence of the next pandemic include ensuring that our contact with wild animals is less disruptive, reducing wildlife trade, consuming less meat and lowering invasive contact with natural ecosystems. Should a pandemic still emerge, Quammen suggests real-time screening of people at airports. Matthew Gray, associate director of the University of Tennessee Center for Wildlife Health, states that the key to reducing the spread of pathogens is a ‘clean trade’ program, in which private industry and government officials work together to implement safer strategies.

In an article in National Geographic, Jonathan Kolby, who has worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service for ten years, observes that the US has no laws specifically requiring disease surveillance for wildlife entering the country, and that the vast majority of wild animal imports are therefore not tested. He adds that most countries- besides the US– lack a government agency that screens wildlife imports for pathogens.

Another crucial way to minimise or even prevent pandemics is to regulate wildlife trade and trafficking. Lee Hannah, senior scientist at Conservation International, recommends that the global wildlife trade be banned, masks and respirators stockpiled, testing infrastructure made readily available and nature taken care of, which may mean that we minimise our contact with wildlife and become more cognisant of the effects of this invasion on natural habitats.

China has announced a permanent ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, including in wet markets, like the ones at the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan. China has also banned pangolin scales that are used in traditional medicine, although this has been met with controversy despite environmental and animal rights groups generally applauding the move. Finally, the country has offered buyouts to farmers who are breeding wildlife to discourage the practice.  

Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, says that anticipating outbreaks before they occur is also important. This can mean making childhood immunisation and pre-emptive vaccination campaigns a priority or having greater investment in sanitation infrastructure. For less developed countries, a healthcare system that is able to perform basic diagnostics and surveillance services would enable them to detect an outbreak as early as possible and respond quickly. 

Another solution is the One Health approach by the World Health Organization. It is a public strategy that realises the threat from new animal viruses and taps the combined expertise of livestock and wildlife veterinary surgeons, conservationists and ecologists, medical doctors and researchers to tackle it. The One Health strategy is based on the idea that human, animal and environmental health are interrelated and demands that different fields of expertise and government departments work together; however this can result in bottlenecks caused by politics and bureaucracy, according to professionals working on One Health programmes. 

It is vital that governments cooperate on a global level to stop the trade of wildlife and the rapid expansion into habitats to prevent the next pandemic. If they don’t, we can expect to see more and more outbreaks that kill innocent people and bring economies to their knees. 

Featured image by: Dan Bennett

According to a study published in the US science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in China have identified a novel strain of swine flu, named G4, that is powerful enough to trigger another pandemic

The genetic descendent from the H1N1 strain, which triggered a pandemic in 2009 that infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed between 151 700 and 575 400 people, contains all of the key properties of being extremely attuned to infect humans, says the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC published a review in early July stating that ‘at this stage the G4 virus has not caused a rise in the risks of a pandemic compared to the past’. It adds however, that ‘reassortment and mutation of influenza viruses is common and they can cause a pandemic. At this moment there is no way to predict when, how or from where new influenza viruses will cause a pandemic’. 

How Was G4 Discovered?

Starting in 2011, researchers extracted approximately 30 000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses across 10 Chinese provinces and in a veterinary hospital in order to isolate potential viruses. From these extractions in China, 179 swine flu viruses were discovered, with the majority recognised as novel types primarily prevalent among pigs since 2016. It was noted that the G4 strain resulted from the reassortment of numerous viruses, including the 2009 H1N1 strain.

In order to examine pig-to-human disease transmission, the researchers conducted numerous experiments on animals- primarily on ferrets- in order to observe and identify early onset symptoms. These examinations revealed that prior immunity acquired from previous exposure to a seasonal flu did not safeguard affected subjects against the G4 virus. 

Upon analysis of antibodies in blood tests taken from 230 members of the Chinese public and 338 swine industry workers, 4.4% and 10.4% respectively were shown to have already been infected- highlighting the possibility of G4 being transmitted between animals and humans. However, the researchers have made it clear that there is a lack of evidence to prove the possibility of human-to-human transmission. It is therefore vital that further research is conducted to obtain enough information to prevent another potential global pandemic. 

The Threat of Factory Farming 

Such a discovery demonstrates that the threat of zoonotic pathogens is ever-looming, and that farmed animals are ideal incubators of novel strains of viruses that are capable of infecting humans. Though the trade and consumption of wildlife have been banned in China, the role that factory farming has in introducing infectious diseases to animals and humans alike, such as swine flu, is equally concerning. 

Pause the System, a local British environmentalist group, emphasise the need for governments to confront the livestock factory farming industry and to tackle the adverse effects that coincide with it- in this case, a potential pandemic. Members of the group explain that factory farming is a perfect breeding ground for diseases and infections as the tight proximity of animals, in combination with the widespread practice of injecting antibiotics into the animals, creates an optimal environment for antibiotic-resistant pathogens to emerge and replicate.

Antibiotics ensure that livestock remain healthy and well, whilst enabling them to extract greater amounts of energy from their food in order to achieve sizable growth. This common procedure in the industry is profit-oriented as it maximises the yield of meat available for trade. Though efficient in this regard, the practice of antibiotic use in factory farming can be extremely detrimental due to the impact it has on the health of workers and consumers . 

What Can Be Done?

Experts encourage close monitoring of swine workers as well as people in close proximity to such workers to observe how the G4 virus is continuing to evolve. 

Furthermore, researchers suggest that intensive factory farming should be ended, while investments into more sustainable sources of protein should be encouraged in order to circumvent another public health emergency.

Advocating for the public to implement more plant-based products into their diets may help decrease the demand for animal products, and thus factory farming. This can be achieved by increasing global awareness and advertising the many benefits of a vegan diet.

Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top influenza expert during the plight of H1N1 in 2009, suggests that the development of a potential vaccine for the G4 would be of great benefit, noting that early investment in a cure could help overcome future complications.   

Single-use plastic is one of the greatest threats to the environment. According to the Hong Kong-based NGO OceansAsia, approximately 300 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide every year, with more than 8 million entering oceans annually- ultimately threatening the ecosystems of marine wildlife. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further exacerbate the scourge of plastic pollution. 

Plastic Pollution Amidst COVID-19

Naturally, the priority over the past few months has been mitigating the contagion of the virus, which includes the implementation of collaborative protective measures. Essential components to controlling the spread include the wearing of surgical face masks and the frequent disinfection of hands. Although these two measures alone cannot stop the pandemic, they play an important role in preventing infection and are therefore vital to controlling and eliminating COVID-19. 

Why is Plastic Relevant to the Pandemic? 

Both face masks and hand sanitiser production include the use of plastic. Face masks typically contain polypropylene (PP), which, due to the microfibers’ hydrophobic composition, acts as a protective layer against bodily fluid droplets. Other more intricate and expensive face masks include polyurethane (PUR) and/or polyacrylonitrile (PAN). 

PPE Litter in Oceans 

Plastic has a lifespan of approximately 450 years, and never fully degrades but rather shrinks into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.

Joffrey Peltier, member of the environmental organisation Opération Mer Propre in France, came across large quantities of latex gloves, face masks and bottles of hand sanitiser in the Mediterranean sea upon exploration. Regarded as ‘COVID waste’, Peltier worries that this discovery indicates a new kind of pollution that adds to the already existing plastic problem, further threatening the environment. The organisation has urged the French public to use reusable face masks, and to substitute gloves with more frequent hand washing.    

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United Kingdom 

A UK-based charity, Keep Britain Tidy, fears a littering crisis amidst the relaxation of lockdown regulations and social distancing rules. With an increase in the number of people visiting beaches and parks, and gathering in public spaces, large amounts of rubbish have accumulated. Thames21, a charity that aims to maintain healthy waterways in London, suggests that people are socialising in a way that is different to before lockdown: mainly congregating outdoors. This has led to carelessness in behaviour displayed through littering, for example. Thames21 reports that the main type of rubbish found is single-use plastic, such as fast-food packaging, confectionary wrappers and drink bottles.

Keep Wales Tidy campaigners stress that significant amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) are being littered across the country. In addition to being an environmental hazard, says Jemma Bere policy and research manager for the organisation, the littering of PPE poses a contamination risk to others: many samaritans that would typically collect litter when encountering some are no longer doing so to avoid the risk of coming into contact with contaminated PPE. 

Disruption to ‘Business as Usual’ 

With the economy and ‘business as usual’ put on standby as a consequence of the pandemic, rubbish and recycling collection has been disrupted in many places. In a field experiment conducted by Cialdini and colleagues (1990) it was observed that participants were susceptible to the littering behaviour of those around them, and that people tend to litter more when in an already littered environment. The researchers explained that the littering state of an environment establishes the norm of behaviour later exhibited in said environment, such that others will tend to conform or adapt to this perceived norm. They concluded that the more litter present, the more people are likely to litter, causing a positive feedback loop. As human beings are social animals and susceptible to conformity, a way to tackle this issue is to enforce correct attitudes towards the environment through education and raising awareness. 

Shadi Moqbel, a civil engineer and waste researcher at the University of Jordan, noted that some of the patterns observed with COVID-19 are not novel, and rather mirror a similar trend observed in previous outbreaks, such as the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. As a result of the pandemic, people are gravitating towards disposable items rather than reusable ones in attempts of being hygienic. Moqbel also stated that people are using more single-use plastic plates and packaging material due to a rise in food deliveries and takeout meals. 

Hong Kong

Having previous experience tackling a coronavirus outbreak, SARS, Hong Kong citizens were quick to take health precautions after the outbreak began in China. This primarily included wearing face masks in public and communal areas, frequent hand washing and regular temperature checks.  

OceansAsia 

OceansAsia reported a stark increase in marine debris and microplastics build-up in Hong Kong since January, and found large quantities of face masks littered along beaches and rural suburbs. On a beach in Lantau Island, the organisation reported finding 70 face masks disposed across an area just 100 meters long, with an additional 30 washed up on shore. This raised concern among members as the area is relatively uninhabited and is difficult to access, providing insight into potential larger littering figures across more popular beaches.

Conservancy Association (CAHK)

Another local environmental organisation, the Conservancy Association Hong Kong (CAHK), has expressed similar uneasiness about this new type of pollution caused by careless behaviours with face masks. CAHK stresses the importance of raising awareness and educating the public on how to correctly dispose of face masks, as well as to inform on the health risks associated with incorrect disposal. Although the common consensus among medical professionals in Hong Kong is that single-use face masks are effective in mediating the spread of COVID-19, they have noted that correct disposal after use is important. The Centre of Health Protection (CHP) guidelines state that soiled tissues and used surgical face masks must be discarded in lidded bins to control the spread of the virus. 

Greeners Action 

In an attempt to tackle the plastic pollution problem amidst Covid-19, the environmental group Greeners Action in Hong Kong has urged restaurants to encourage customers to bring their own tupperware when ordering takeout. The group surveyed over 2 000 participants in early April and found that people are ordering food at a rate more than twice as high as last year, indicating a surge in single-use plastic consumption, most probably due to social distancing measures

Jac Lun, project officer of Greeners Action, suggests opting out of receiving disposable plastic materials when ordering takeout, and for consumers to pick up their food directly from the restaurant or cafe. Lun further elaborated by saying that tupperware is potentially safer than single-use plastic in terms of hygiene, and that restaurants should offer rebates to customers that bring their own food containers. The ideal solution would be to cook at home, Lun says, as this way there is less fear regarding risk of contamination and less contribution to the already troubling plastic pollution problem. 

Solutions

Short-term solutions include fines, labels on disposable items, making information on littering and how to recycle more available to the public and potentially designing more eye-catching and ‘fun’ refuse bins to encourage interaction.

As a silver-lining, Joubert and colleagues (2020) believe the environmental emphasis on plastic pollution will return to the limelight once the COVID-19 crisis is under control. In the meantime, the researchers suggest recycling single-use plastic utensils and containers, limiting food deliveries and ordering from grocery suppliers that offer more sustainable delivery packaging. 

Wearing reusable face masks, disposing of single-use face masks correctly and buying hand sanitiser contained in ecologically sustainable packaging are also here-and-now factors to consider.

With the European Green Deal underway, there is a great appeal for companies to invest in innovations that can help alleviate the plastic crisis in the long-term. Similar to the way in which ‘banning plastic straws to save the turtles’ started an influential trend, many brand owners should implement similar measures to regulate their use of plastic and to further establish environmentally sustainable products as ‘trendy’. 

Furthermore, academia should aim to best educate society, manufacturers and policymakers on how to make more environmentally-friendly decisions.

While this pandemic has forced much of the world to self-isolate inside their homes, this is simply not possible for many people. While the wealthier population is able to isolate, have goods and amenities delivered to their households and work remotely or not work at all, poorer residents who live in densely populated neighbourhoods cannot do the same. A report by the World Bank says that inhabitants of such areas are at a higher risk of being in contact with the COVID-19 virus, which illustrates the importance of addressing social equality post-virus. How do we avoid such hotspots from forming in future crises?

In places such as Africa and South and Central Asia, dense cities face a mammoth challenge during this pandemic due to their inadequate infrastructure and insufficient medical and financial resources. As many of these vulnerable populations live in informal settlements, these poor living standards restrict the inhabitants’ ability to practice proper hygiene, compelling them to use crowded public facilities (such as public bathrooms) and increasing their chances of contracting and spreading the virus. While inequality exists on a global scale and developing countries certainly face a greater challenge during this crisis, we must also acknowledge the inequalities that exist within western societies.

According to a report published by Public Health England, people belonging to Black and Asian ethnic groups face higher death rates from COVID-19 than people from White ethnic groups. There is a complex relationship between ethnicity and health, with multiple factors affecting it. Firstly, ethnic minorities have a higher chance of spreading and getting infected by the virus as they are more likely to live in urban, overcrowded, and/or deprived areas, and have jobs, such as in retail and manual labour that cannot be moved online, that put them at a higher risk. Secondly, they are also at risk of poorer outcomes after acquiring the infection due to higher chances of pre-existing health conditions in certain groups. For example, data suggests that type II diabetes is more prevalent within BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities.

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Due to these structural inequalities, we see not only different social conditions, but also different environmental conditions present within certain communities. According to a recent Harvard study, individuals who have experienced long-term exposure to fine particulates of air pollution face a higher rate of mortality if infected by COVID-19. There is an undeniable link between race and class, a claim repeatedly supported by the American Psychological Association and many others studies. Unfortunately, ‘environmental regulations in countries are not colour blind’ and some communities are more exposed to air pollution than others due to inadequate political and economic power. The concept of ‘NIMBY’ (Not in My Backyard) allows wealthier communities to refuse the construction of industrial sites in their neighbourhood. For example, in 2007, Surrey, an affluent neighbourhood on the outskirts of London was able to successfully oppose the conversion of a large residential property into a support centre for wounded British soldiers on the basis of increased traffic, noise, and terrorism.  However, lower-wealth communities of colour do not have the same power and a strong enough voice to do the same. 

All these socio-economic and environmental factors lead to the formation of hotspots during crises such as this one. Therefore, it is important to better manage our infrastructure and our relationship with nature to prevent it from happening in future pandemics. 

One way we can do this is by ensuring that governments focus on these key factors that contribute to the spread of diseases and other public health risks caused by inadequate infrastructure and lack of public services. It is critical to fund operations with people-based approaches that focus on slum upgrading and neighbourhood improvement to lower the level of inequality and ensure that everyone has access to basic hygiene services to lessen the risk of contagion in the future and also create a more socially inclusive society. 

Another way to improve our relationship with nature is to focus on the expansion of renewable energy as part of recovery plans post-COVID-19. As economies have taken major hits due to the pandemic, how we rebuild them is important. Clean energy can address some of the conditions that make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases, like air pollution. Although it comes at a great health and environmental cost, nearly half the world relies on polluting fuels for basic household duties such as cooking. Each year, 3.8 million people die prematurely from exposure to harmful fumes and the promotion and deployment of clean fuels would improve this. Renewable energy can also help fuel economic recovery in the aftermath of this pandemic. Not only would investing in green energy create jobs, it would also boost local economies by creating off-grid and decentralised energy systems that can help small local businesses succeed. Furthermore, in regions where electricity grids may be unreliable, clean energy may fill this gap. Studies have shown that switching to renewable energy in the coming years would actually save money for countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. 

COVID-19 has separated the haves from the have-nots, illustrating the true extent of the lack of equality faced by many. Therefore, to both mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to avoid future pandemics and crises from escalating, it is important to focus on creating more equality in society where everyone has access to basic services, as well as invest in affordable renewable energies to improve health and living standards. 

Featured image by: michael_swan

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