The global outbreak of COVID-19 has affected every facet of human life, including the physical world. The measures taken to control the spread of the virus as well as the economic slowdown the world has faced have had significant effects on the environment, which can be construed as both positive and negative. To control the spread of the virus and reduce death rates at the height of the public health emergency, governments of affected countries initiated to restrict the movement of people in the form of quarantine and lockdown restrictions. In April of 2020, the World Economic Forum reported that nearly 3 billion people were faced with some form of lockdown globally and movement was being restricted by respective governments to control the virus. Except for emergency services (e.g medical, fire, police, food supply, etc), all other organizations including educational institutions were closed to encourage people to stay at home. Additionally, all public transport services (e.g, bus, truck, train, airplanes, etc) were suspended, with exceptions to the transportation of essential goods and emergency services. Overall, the pandemic caused a huge global socio-economic disruption that directly or indirectly affected the environment. As industries, transportation and companies closed down, it brought about a sudden drop in greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions. For example, levels of air pollution in New York were reduced by nearly 50% because of measures taken to control the virus; it was also estimated that a nearly 50% reduction of N2O and CO occurred due to the shutdown of heavy industries in China. Additionally, NO2, which has been reported to cause acid rain and several respiratory diseases, is emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, 80% of which comes from motor vehicle exhaust. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) reported that because of the COVID-19 lockdown, NO2 emission dropped from 30-60% in many European cities including Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Rome, and Paris.
The measures taken globally for the containment of the virus have also had a dramatic impact on the aviation sector. Many countries restricted international travelers from entry and departure and worldwide flights were canceled by commercial aircraft companies. For instance, China’s restriction of departing and domestic flights due to the pandemic reduced nearly 17% of national CO2 emissions. Overall, much less consumption of fossil fuels lessened GHGs emissions, which is helpful in combating the global climate change crisis. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), oil demand dropped 435,000 barrels globally in the first three months of 2020, compared to the same period of 2019. Furthermore, global coal consumption was also reduced because of less energy demand during the lockdown period; studies report that coal-based power generation reduced 26% in India and 36% in China, which is the largest coal consumer in the world.
In developing countries like India and Bangladesh where domestic and industrial waste is dumped into rivers without treatment, water pollution remains a pervasive phenomenon. However, the lockdown period proved to play a beneficial role in reducing the pollution load. For instance, the drop in industrial pollution during this time allowed the river Ganga and Yamuna in India to reach a significant level of purity, which can be found in the fact that from among the 36 real-time monitoring stations of river Ganga, water from 27 stations met the permissible limit. Moreover, owing to the reduction of export-import businesses, the movement of merchant ships and other vessels reduced globally which also reduced emission as well as marine pollution. The movement restrictions and global travel ban that was imposed also paved the way for the ecological restoration of many tourist destinations. Such areas where there are a lot of hotels, markets, motels, restaurants, and bars consume a lot of energy and natural resources, and visitors tend to dump various waste which destructs the natural beauty and creates an ecological imbalance. However, due to covid, the number of tourists has reduced around the world.
On the other hand, covid has also adversely impacted the environment in a number of ways. For instance, since its outbreak medical waste generation has increased globally, which is a major threat to public health and the environment. In Wuhan, China, 240 metric tons of medical waste was produced every day during the time of the outbreak, which is almost 190 tonnes higher than the usual amount. In the city of Ahmedabad in India, the amount of medical waste generation increased from 550-600kg per day to around 1000kg per day at the time of the first phase of lockdown.
Moreover, the use of face masks, hand gloves, and other safety equipment for protection against the virus has increased the amount of healthcare waste globally, including plastic-based PPE (personal protective equipment). Despite this, due to a lack of knowledge about infectious waste management, most people haphazardly dump these in open places and in some cases with household waste, which creates clogging in waterways and worsens environmental pollution. In fact, it has been reported that face masks and other plastic-based PPE are the potential sources of microplastic fibers in the environment. In addition, Polypropylene is usually used to make N95 masks, and Tyvek for protective suits, gloves, and medical face shields, which can persist for a long time and release dioxin and toxic elements into the environment. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that quarantine policies have increased the demand for home delivery, thereby increasing the waste products from shipped package material generated by households.
All in all, environmental changes are arguably the most vital and severe challenge of the twenty-first century. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic created a simultaneous challenge for governmental and non-governmental organizations, which both advertently and inadvertently affected human life and the global economy, which ultimately affected the environment and climate. Though it adversely impacted the economic sphere, the pandemic allowed for the restoration of the environment to some degree and proved the mutually effective link between nature and humans. At present, it is important to continue to control the disease, reduce the transmission, and proactively save lives. Although the positive impacts on the environment may be temporary, the pandemic demonstrates the continued need for a global, united effort for sustainable environmental management that can reap long-term benefits and help solve the prevailing climate crisis faced by the world.