Cleaner Air, Tainted Future

Ghalia Al Alwani- Syrian Journalist
April 6, 2020
For years warnings about the environment reacting to our horrific behavior towards it in harsh and unforgiving ways have fallen on deaf ears, in favor of temporary economic gain.

For the first time, possibly in the history of humanity, we are witnessing a true ‘global conversation’. The world appears united on a multitude of fronts, collectively braving waves of panic, worry and disbelief. One question looming over our collective conscience is that of the environment, to the anticipation of scientists who have spent decades attempting to capture the attention of the masses before worst-case scenarios collapse in on our clearly ill-prepared infrastructures. Unfortunately, the subject is too often introduced alongside notions of relief, attached to romantic ideas of the earth gasping for air for the first time in a long time. Wonderful as that may be, it is a missed opportunity to place this virus within a more crucial context- namely as a fatal reaction to the violent and devastating behavior humanity has exposed the environment to for decades.

The Bigger Picture

A united effort to search for good news among a sea of grief has ensued, and graphs of air pollution drops attempt to serve as a reservoir Xanax. This isn’t to say that these findings aren’t grounded in real optimism; China, which annually contributes around 30% of the world emissions has seen a major drop in nitrogen oxide (released by vehicle engines, power plants, and industrial facilities), as well as greenhouse emissions due to slowing economic activity. Similar effects have been recorded by the likes of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) above Europe and the United States. This however, is unfortunately neither enough, nor the same for every country in the grand scheme of things.

“In many areas, you’re seeing a substantial reduction in air pollution,” Sammy Kayed, Development Manager at the Nature Conservation Center at the American University of Beirut, tells Daraj. “But in other places like in Lebanon for example, that’s not as substantial because we have generators everywhere that are still producing a lot of air pollution, and they’re not stopping because there’s Corona going on.”

There is an intense danger in likening the times we are experiencing now to a single instance of the spread of a virus; this is a consequence of a deeply rooted systemic issue that has resulted in global powers disseminating ignorance in favor of temporary profit.

Drops in air pollution since COVID19 cower in comparison to its direct connection to the mortality rate of the virus in the first place. Conditions suspected of increasing the possibility of death due to COVID-19, including diabetes, respiratory diseases and hypertension, are all likely to have been caused or exacerbated due to living in areas with higher rates of air pollution. A 2003 study on victims of SARS concludes that patients residing in areas with higher rates of air pollution are 84% more likely to die than those residing in lower rates. Regions packed with diesel vehicle fumes accumulate high numbers of nitrogen oxide and ground-level ozone in the air, harshly plummeting urban air quality; this is said to be linked to around 400,000 deaths in Europe annually.

Air pollution isn’t the only environmental issue that had been largely ignored in the past in favor of economic reward; it is now wildly believed that the birth of the COVID-19 virus ensued in a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, China, the original host suspected to be a certain species of bats. Many are now campaigning to close down wet markets all together, where wildlife is illegally sold, both dead and alive, with scientists describing the area as a “breeding ground for disease”. This phenomenon however ensues as part of a wider systematic problem with human meddling in wildlife in general, and thereby increasing our contact with these species, not merely in illegal trade.

A study done by Auburn University, outlined in their paper “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover”, discusses how widespread habitat loss as a result of human intrusion is associated with emerging infectious diseases, including both Ebola and SARS. The more human beings expand development of urban life towards forests and other wildlife habitats, processes that generally involve burning down or destroying these areas, the wildlife in those areas undergo rapid diversification.

“Once you’ve fragmented forests because you have a city that’s developing to the right or to the left, and you have these little patchworks of habitat, and what happens is they start to act pretty much like small islands,” explains Kayed. “On this island, the species is now put under new kinds of stresses, it’s not the same ecosystem that it was dealing with in its natural habitat, it’s now very closed off. Maybe the same predator doesn’t live in that ecosystem anymore, so now there’s a whole different set of limitations and opportunities for it, and this causes a more rapid evolutionary process, which has implications not only for that species, but for the pathogens and viruses that it hosts.”

This in turn, increases the diversity of disease-causing microbes, and since we’ve already maximized our contact with these species through our destruction of wildlife habitats in one way or another, disease spillover into human populations is highly probable. This is also attributed to them being forced to accommodate to our cities as their new habitats once we’ve devastated theirs, which is especially true in the case of bats. The study emphasizes the term “the dilution effect”, which stresses what wildlife conservation can do in terms of protecting human health, a notion we can appreciate given that the average person now knows that 75% of all infectious diseases come from wildlife.

“This was always anticipated and cautioned about,” Kayed tells Daraj. “That we don’t want to encroach too much on these wild spaces and that there has to be a different kind of developmental model so that we don’t run these huge risks of having massive pandemics, because you are just increasing your chances of that happening as you break into these forested areas and fragment these habitats.”

In line with the theme of ignored and desperate scientific warnings, recent reports have exposed predictions of a “SARS-like virus” nearly 13 years before COVID-19 swept the planet. Researchers at the Hong Kong University likened the culture of eating wild animals in China to a “ticking time bomb” of the re-emergence of novel SARS-like viruses, narrowing down the possibility to horseshoe bats, which often act as a natural reservoir for a large number of emerging infections.

Nature Doesn’t Discriminate, Humans Do

For years warnings about the environment reacting to our horrific behavior towards it in harsh and unforgiving ways have fallen on deaf ears, in favor of temporary economic gain. This perhaps says something about human nature, and its attachment to feelings of invincibility, as well as its capability to distance itself from the dangers looming in the background of our existence. The current worldwide pause has shaken up many of us who’d grown accustomed to the systems that seemed to have been set in stone, incapable of budging. We’ve been collectively humbled, and reminded that human-built arrangements, regardless of the depth of their roots, cower and crumble in the wake of natural forces beyond our control.

“We are very familiar with what it looks like when the air is polluted, and you have a brown haze over your city. We’re familiar, at least a lot of people are, especially in the global south, with what water pollution looks like,” Kayed explains. “We’ve just normalized it even though many people are dying. But COVID comes out of left field as a very foreign threat, and suddenly we are letting our economies collapse, we’re rethinking our daily lives, everyone is stuck at home; I mean very shocking and serious changes to our day-to-day, because the threat is one that really strikes fear, because its unknown.”

This week has seen poverty battle corona head-to-head, many refusing quarantine measures out of sheer desperation; where does a virus rank ahead of starvation?

What’s extraordinarily powerful about COVID-19 is its uncanny ability to break the barriers that have long segmented humanity. It’s almost refreshing, at least to those who have for a long time been on the short end of the privilege stick. It’s a reminder that nature does not discriminate, but humans do. In the first few weeks of the virus we saw tables turn around the theme of mobility, a powerful tool and notion familiar to many of us in the Arab region. Too often was the free passage of our bodies around the globe taken for granted by those who’s passport labels have never even pushed them to question it. Yet, a week or so into the spread of the pandemic, headlines such as “African countries shut doors against Europe, America” at first glance intuitively registered as parody. It can even be deliberated that the virus favored those of the nationality and class that allowed them motion, for it is residing in those bodies that the virus was capable of extending its grasp globally.

Still, it’s critical to note that while the infection does not see divides in nationality, class, race or sex; healthcare and economic realities do. For those inhabiting closed-off nations under harsh dictatorial regimes, a sense of comfort arose at the start, given that harsh occupational realities that have long oppressed them are now not only being felt by the rich and powerful, but also suddenly function to save them from this plague. Dense, packed, and globalized cities, once the luxurious epicenters of cultural, economic and prosperous exchange, are now the hotbeds of disease and infections. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the reality that if the spread of these diseases were to overwhelm the impoverished areas, the death toll would amass solely due to their alarmingly fragile health infrastructures; Damascus in its entirety holds only 96 ventilators, the Gaza strip a mere 60 intensive care beds, and the list goes on with escalating urgency when we enter the realm of the undocumented and refugee populations. This is not to mention the numerous health issues the world’s impoverished regions have faced that had gone unnoticed because they hadn’t affected “those who matter” just yet.

“There’s other major environmental health issues that we are grappling with that don’t gain so much attention. 3.4 million people are dying of waterborne diseases each year. That’s a major fraction of what the harm is behind poor water quality. Then we have 4.6 mil people dying from causes directly attributed to air pollution. And we have 100s of 1000s of people dying from causes linked to climate change,” Kayed tells Daraj. “Point being you have all these other major environment threats that are killing so many people, way more than COVID has killed today, but we don’t really take them seriously because normally these are issues that are dealt with by people that are very vulnerable and not in positions of power, these are the marginalized communities that are usually at the frontlines of these issues.”

Momentum

Now that we are shamefully submerged with the immense weight of the “I-told-you-so”s on part of scientists and environmental specialists, what comes next? Not enough framing of the virus has situated it in the context of an environmental reaction, one even a mild environmental activist would dare say is almost justified on part of nature. This seems harsh, given that the victims of this outbreak are tragically piling, mostly in the category of the elderly, one cannot help but come to terms with the idea that we don’t deserve the reigns to steer the oppressed’s fury. Regardless, while many are emerging from this experience more cautious agents, prepared to heed the warnings of the epistemic communities who have been ignored for the most part when it comes to governance and inferring in financial realities, others fear that once a vaccine is manufactured, the world will resume business as usual, or worse.

“What’s going to happen is, once Corona is over, the economy is going to kick start back into maximum mode,” Ahmad Mourad, a Lebanese Environmental Consultant tells Daraj. “So, the industries that were producing let’s say 50,000 products a day, now they’re going to double it. It’s going to be full-throttle.”

If nothing were to change, humanity will experience increasingly more uprooting times than these, that will alter life as we know it forever, which we now know is not too far of a dystopian future to visualize. There is an intense danger in likening the times we are experiencing now to a single instance of the spread of a virus; this is a consequence of a deeply rooted systemic issue that has resulted in global powers disseminating ignorance in favor of temporary profit. It doesn’t take much of a mental leap to go from scientists warning of virus-spreading due to human greed when it comes to wildlife and natural spaces, to believe what thousands of them have warned time and time again about climate change.

“What I want people to start thinking about when we are looking at climate change, is that it has global and planetary ramifications, and whatever has been done so far is nothing compared to the extent of the damage and havoc it can wreak, in various societies from the very rich to the very poor,” Nadeem Farajallah, director of the Climate Change and Environment Program at the Issam Fares Institute explains. “Right now, with COVID19, we may have a vaccine for it within a short period of time, a year, a year and half. With this climate crises, we have no vaccine and once it gets going you can kiss everything goodbye. No amount of money can rectify things. In Kuwait, last year the temperature got so high that the asphalt melted, so how much money can you throw at that? You cannot even commute, you’re stuck at home. This is the wakeup call that should be there for everybody.”

The range of fiscal destruction inflicted by COVID-19 in itself is colossal; it’s bled into every level of income from top to bottom, plummeting the economic fabric downward in a painful and reckless spiral. This week has seen poverty battle corona head-to-head, many refusing quarantine measures out of sheer desperation; where does a virus rank ahead of starvation? Death is agonizing regardless of the form of the grim-reaper. Given the massive damage that has ensued, frustration arises at the lack of fiscal protectionary measures. Could it really be that this was all for fleeting profit’s sake? At these costs?

“One thing that we really ought to be doing as academics is maybe model the economic effect… that really shows how much it is going to cost in terms of lives, in terms of economic welfare and social welfare,” Farajallah explains. “But of course, the bottom line is the dollar. If I show them how much it’s going to cost, just to live in a changed environment, in a changed climate versus how much it’s going to cost me now to ward off this change, then that would be what should come next. Economists should buy into this.”

“If we start framing these issues realistically this can have an effect…” Farajallah adds. “The ministry of environment has done a study on the economic impact of climate change, saying that right now they have modelled the cost to be around $2 billion for the Lebanese economy in terms of actual loses in the GDP, and by 2080, it’s going to be $140billion.”

There is no better time than now to drive this impetus forward and transform our dependency on industrial systems, given that we no longer have to simulate the dangers of the worst-case scenario. This shift shouldn’t be swift and painful the way COVID-19 has demanded, for regardless of their detrimental consequences, the current systems in place put food on the table for many, sustenance that has since been yanked out of their hands by force.

“A lot of people right now are out of jobs and are burning through their savings trying to stay afloat, but there’s no air pollution, right?” Kayed comments. “That’s why I really believe in these different causes joining forces, you have to address them at the same time.”

“So, there are ways to transition in this critical period, the next 10-15 years… to make gradual changes in these courses of air pollution, water pollution and other major things that the economy is churning out and damaging in many instances, but it shouldn’t be through these forced nasty ways of getting it done,” Kayed continues. “To try and keep it ethical it should be done in a way where you aren’t hurting too many people, there has to be this gradual phase out of these practices and these modes that are causing this damage so jobs are still kept.”

One thing is certain, we are comprehensively feeling the scope of the damage a deadly respiratory virus can ensue on humanity, in addition to the harm the equally deadly dissemination of ignorance and shunning of relevant epistemic communities can do on part of ruling measures. The average person has now seen with glaring blatancy that the “Trumpification” patterns of global governance has never exposed a more direct and fatal effect than they do now. These warnings can no longer be ignored at leisure, nor be left to the whims of those who have less to lose.  

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