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Opinion piece by Sustainability Experts, Lungile Manzini and Lerato Moja

While no person would choose to go through the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers worldwide are keen to investigate the effects of this crisis global experiment. Sustainability experts, Lungile Manzini and Lerato Moja, write about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the quality of air, nature and environment.

Around half of the world’s population is on lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, a public health emergency that has claimed thousands of lives and sparked fears of the worst global recession since the Great Depression. This has brought about a profound change on the quality of air, water as well as the environment.

Globally, people have been on lockdown which has brought some changes in the way people behave, work and have fun. Noticeably, many countries including South Africa have seen some positive change on the natural environment side of things. Countries have seen a drastic reduction in air pollution as industries shut down with less cars on the road and flights suspended during this period.

Media reports also concur and point out that changes on the environment have been noticed in Northern Indian state of Punjab, where people have been able to see the Himalayan Mountain from more than 160 km away because of the reduced air pollution during the COVID- 19 lockdown, a first in more than 30 years. In South Africa, The Guardian newspaper reported that lions at the Kruger National Park have been seen sleeping and lying around on the road as people remain in their homes. Academic research journals state that satellites have shown cleaner air across Europe, North America and Asia. In a study by Masum and Pal (2020), measuring air quality in Bangladesh, the results indicated that there was a notable reduction of 40%, 32% and 13% compared to the daily mean concentrations of previous dry seasons for PM2.5, PM10 and NO2 respectively during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The reduction in air pollution has been welcome as researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that dirty air makes COVID-19 more lethal. The study found that the tiny pollutant particles known as PM2.5, breathed over many years, sharply raise the chances of dying from the virus. Additionally, the dangers of air pollution have been highlighted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimating that more than 4.2 million people die worldwide due to the exposure of ambient (outdoor) air pollution.

This observation, however, should not be viewed as a silver lining of the COVID-19 as many people have lost their lives and incomes with communities disrupted in many ways; but should rather be seen as thought provoking for decision makers to trade-off the tangible air quality benefits with ongoing development strategies and policies.

These improvements in air quality are going to be temporary, however it gives a glimpse into what air quality could look like in the future should society commit to a cleaner and sustainable future. Post-lockdown as the economies open, the impact on the environment might be dire unless alternative sources of energy and public transport amongst other matters are adopted.

As we look forward to the research findings and recommendations on the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, it is imperative to note that while no person chooses to go through this pandemic, the power to truly transform the environment and make the best decisions for the future generation begins and ends with us.