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  • Bryan Jun Pin Koh

Environment & COVID-19

Learn about how a global pandemic completely changed the world's environment.

Over the past year, COVID-19 has devastated communities across the globe, resulting in an immense loss of life, extreme economic hardship, and increasing social unrest. The severity of the pandemic demands that government leaders and healthcare professionals focus their attention on immediate response, relief, and thereafter, recovery. However, these actions have inadvertently impacted another key determinant of public health: the environment.

The effects of lifestyle changes and preventive measures have had a significant impact on single-use plastic production and waste management. On March 4, 2020 Governor Newsom of California issued Executive Order N-54-20, which suspended the state’s plastic bag ban and recycling center regulations for sixty days. The order was issued to minimize risk for essential workers and to limit contact spreading at recycling stations. Although enacted with good intentions, the order caused a shortage of recycled paper bags and a huge demand in virgin plastic production. It is estimated that 1 billion plastic bags, all made with non-recycled content, were distributed in California within the two-month lift on the ban. Additionally, due to the necessity of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and gowns, both health facilities and households have had a surge in waste output. Cities such as Bangkok and Manila have produced 150 tons more of daily medical waste compared to before the pandemic. The surge in plastic and hazardous waste strains the capacity of standardized disposal; lack of manpower, along with infection regulations, restricts collection, recycling, and treatment. Waste produced from the COVID-19 response crowds landfills, leaks into the ocean, and is incorrectly segregated and incinerated, leading to toxic air pollution.

The economic growth and development of nations have exacerbated the emission of air pollutants. However, according to a study published by the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection, the lull in factory production and decrease in vehicle traffic has reduced the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and improved overall environmental air quality. Furthermore, there is an increase in surface water conditions, a decrease in noise pollution, and a decrease in energy consumption. On the surface, it appears that the coronavirus pandemic is indirectly contributing to the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, the progress made is only temporary, and fails to consider the decrease in indoor air quality and a decline in waste recycling. There is also an increase in ecological risk due to plastic production and use of disinfectants. Additionally, once the pandemic is resolved, it is likely that air pollution will worsen, undoing any progress achieved over its course.

COVID-19 has taken an enormous toll on the physical and mental health of society. Although resolving the pandemic must and should be prioritized, it is important not to lose sight of the environmental impact of our daily actions. During quarantine, make an effort to reduce water consumption, reuse or recycle non-biodegradable products, and avoid unnecessary disposable items. Through our collective actions, we can prevent an environmental public health emergency. For environmental news and more ways you can get involved, visit resources such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


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