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The Unspoken Side Effect of COVID-19 

By Sohum Tripathi

It is important to realize that humanity’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact not only on efforts to solve impending disasters but also on how humanity will fare into the distant future. For this reason, it is important to understand fully the pandemic’s effects on the environment to comprehend accurately whether this pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the Anthropocene’s existential crisis: climate change.

 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic  on the planet and human civilization have been nothing short of astonishing. Various global changes have occurred or have been exacerbated by the ways in which each nation dealt with the pandemic. However, one area where COVID-19 had a profound impact but one that is rarely discussed is the environment. It is important to note that the pandemic had both positive and negative effects on the environment; therefore, it cannot be viewed as either good or bad for climate change, given the context of these events and their respective longevities.

When nations began instituting restrictions on travel and other types of human activities, carbon emissions that are an effect of harmful human practices drastically decreased. In fact, according to a report prepared by the National Institute of Health, emissions of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂) and Cobalt (CO) decreased nearly 50 percent because most of the heavy industrial facilities in China were closed or operating at reduced capacity. NO₂ causes acid rain by reacting with other elements in the atmosphere, so this decrease in NO₂ emissions was indeed beneficial for the environment. 

Although this may seem like an isolated incident, the degree to which human activity was halted during the pandemic resulted in a widespread decrease in all kinds of carbon and other gaseous emissions throughout the world. In Delhi alone,  NO₂ emissions decreased nearly 72 percent, and that number was between 30 and 60 percent in European cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, and Paris. Imagine, for a minute, that you are in one of those cities during the height of the pandemic sometime in 2020. You observe the outside world and can see a noticeable difference in the quality of air, the quality of local water bodies, and the general atmosphere of the city. This is hard to imagine, considering the fact that human activity was at an all-time low and that the general consensus was largely negative, but it is important to consider the positive effects in this situation, just like in any situation.

The pandemic brought a massive decrease in water pollution and air pollution as well. In New York City, the water pollution dropped by 50 percent compared to 2019, and global emissions caused by airplanes dropped by a staggering 17 percent because of the Chinese government’s restrictions on travel. The collective restrictions of multiple nations produced an astonishing result, where the Ganga River, famous for being one of the most polluted and dirtiest in India, shone crystal clear! In addition, because of the reduction in eating outdoors, food waste became less an issue, preventing a lot of soil pollution and littering. Through all these metrics, it is evident that many positive effects have come from the pandemic and that, for the most part, the environment experienced far fewer negative effects from human activity.

 

However, amid all the reduction in pollution and emissions as a result of the pandemic, we also must be mindful of the negative impacts that the pandemic produced in terms of pollution. Single-use plastics saw a huge uptick during the quarantine period, as various precautions and guidelines termed them necessary. According to PNAS, upward of 8 million tons of PPE plastic were generated by 193 countries between March 2020 and August 2021, contributing to the total of over 22 million tons of plastic deposited into the oceans from other sources. Some 1.56 million face masks were reported to have been detected in the oceans alone; and along with other hardy single-use plastics, they proved to be even more harmful to the oceanic biosphere because they were easier to get caught in and harder to get out of. Therefore, entrapment, entanglement, and ingestion of these plastics became more common and a greater threat to animal life. Furthermore, propagation of invasive species, facilitation of hostile bacteria, and the risk of toxic chemicals oozing from decaying healthcare equipment have presented a new array of problems for the oceanic wildlife. Here is where it can be seen that the pandemic’s effect on the environment was not entirely positive. In fact, the new dangers presented by PPE in the ocean should be of great concern because the plastic in the ocean is an absorbent of heat radiation from the sun, which contributes greatly to global warming. This is a key example of an adverse effect that the pandemic had on the progression of the Anthropocene.

 

Another negative ramification that the pandemic had on plastic pollution that should not go unnoticed is the sudden reversal of many environmentally friendly policies and regulations because of the associated safety hazard. A prominent example is a return to single-use disposable plastic bags in many supermarkets and retail establishments across the United States. According to a poll conducted by the University of Loma Linda’s Health Department, reusable bags—and purses, for that matter—are more likely to carry COVID-19 pathogens because of their prior contact with other objects and surfaces in other locations. Because single-use plastic bags have been exposed to only one environment, they are logically the better option when viewing the situation from a sanitary standpoint. Yet again, another negative effect of the pandemic on the progression of the Anthropocene can be seen, although it is merely a return to past practices rather than an amplification of these practices.

 

The effects of COVID-19 on the environment have not been identified as either beneficial or detrimental, but the one thing that can be discerned from the analysis is that it is never a good idea to consider the effects of an event on the environment as a whole because, as can be seen with the pandemic, certain areas of the environment were affected more than others. So far, however, only about 5.4 percent of the total carbon emissions were prevented, an insignificant number when discussing climate change. Therefore, we should not view COVID-19 either as a godsend that helped purify the planet or as an event that significantly accelerated humanity’s headlong race toward oblivion. Rather, the pandemic should be viewed as what it is (from an environmentalist perspective): a minor disruption in the general trends of global climate change that had no real impact on the progression of the Anthropocene’s existential crisis.