During the lockdown, there was sharp fall in the number of people with chronic respiratory illnesses, and it looked like masks and distancing to prevent Covid-19 protected many from other infections.
But Raju Pangeni, pulmonary specialist at HAMS Hospital says the numbers went up as winter set in, and vehicles returned to the streets. He says, “In the last two months we are back to nearly as many patients as we did this time of the year.”
There are solutions to the Kathmandu’s worsening air quality. The municipalities have not been able to relocate brick kilns, or promote alternative building materials. Green stickers can be ‘bought’ under the counter for Rs1,000, and there is no control of open garbage burning.
Prime Minister Oli promised that foreigners would come to Nepal to “breathe clean air”. Not likely. Two years ago, he pledged to make 20% of vehicles in Nepal battery-powered by 2020, that deadline has come and gone. In fact, Oli’s favourite finance minister hiked the tax on electric cars in last year’s budget.
“Air pollution is a long-term problem that needs policy level change. It should go hand in hand with education and awareness which are the precursors to clean air,” says Shisir Sharma of the group Dhristi Kathmandu that has been monitoring air quality since 2016.
The good news is that this week’s pollution emergency has increased public concern about the health risks, especially its links with Covid-19. Demand for battery-operated vehicles will rise if there is a tax rebate, and room air purifiers are flying off the shelves.
Says Bhushan Tuladhar: “People have a choice to ride Safa tempo, or bicycle. Brick kilns can be cleaner. Truck emissions can be controlled. There is a solution to pollution.”