Pollution and Public Health in the Age of Pandemic

The level of air pollution exposure in India poses a serious threat to public health. The national environmental policies must acknowledge this problem to prevent a full-blown national health crisis. Quite a significant part of the Indian population is exposed to this poor quality of air which is deemed worse than nationally and internationally accepted guidelines. There is enough evidence to demand action against air pollution. Air pollution has a severe impact on health in India across all states and socio-demographic groups. These impacts can be quantified through mortality and morbidity rates, or by measuring the reduction in life expectancy, especially among the elderly and children. The current pandemic scenario even though played a part in halting the pollution level for some time due to enforced lockdown across the nation, a long-term plan is needed. According to an article published in World Development, Volume 135, there is emerging evidence that supports the link between chronic health conditions and associated with air pollution and the vulnerability of individuals to COVID-19. Air pollution exposures have become a reality for most urban and rural Indian population. The primary source of household pollution is the burning of solid fuels such as wood and dung. The rural areas still largely rely on these solid fuels as the source of fuel for cooking, with the highest numbers in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand. The government needs to realize and act on this issue as soon as possible before it is too late.

HOW POLLUTION IS AFFECTING PUBLIC HEALTH?

According to estimates published in the Lancet study, in 2017, air pollution is estimated to have contributed to a total of 1.24 million deaths in India. Besides the drastic impact on mortality, air pollution reduces the quality of life by increasing the incidence of a range of illnesses. The Lancet study also indicates that air pollution has contributed to more than 38 million years of healthy life lost in India. The metric used to measure this data is called Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) which includes both years of life lost due to premature death and the number of years lived with less than ideal health.

The impact of air pollution on newborn babies and infants under the age of five years is a serious cause of concern. According to the WHO report in 2016, 100,000 children under the age of five die annually due to the quality of air in India. Air pollution is also responsible for various chronic respiratory diseases and lung cancer, especially among senior citizens. A similar profile is also emerging for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However, few epidemiological research indicates a much wider range of health impacts such as child growth, birth weight, bladder cancer, cognitive abilities, and obesity.

According to an article published in World Development, Volume 135, during the peak pollution period in November and early December in the region of Northwest India, rice residue burning is a significant source of pollution that drastically affects rural and urban communities. Even if India somehow avoids the worst of the pandemic in the near future, seasonal air pollution spikes caused by rice residue burning could coincide with an anticipated COVID-19 resurgence in January, potentially making the public health impacts more severe by a huge increment in morbidity and mortality rates.

CONCLUSION

The aforementioned pieces of evidence send a loud and clear message that there is a severe health crisis unfolding in India amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the available knowledge gathered is more than sufficient to take the necessary steps to reduce the air pollution level in our country. The reality of the situation is that we are subjecting both the current and the future generations of our country to conditions that increase the burden of airborne diseases, impact on child mortality, reducing life expectancy, impact on cognitive skills, and life-long medical life dependencies. Even though India is facing backlash from an ongoing pandemic and the country is currently economically strained, the gravity of the current situation cannot be ignored and authorities need to act before it’s too late. We can no longer afford a lackadaisical response to a threat that is eroding rural and urban health across the nation.

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