However, the lower concentration of particulate matter and pollutant gases in the air were not outcomes of effective implementation of environment-friendly public policy or innovation. Nor were they a result of voluntary changes in societal behaviour. They came about because of social containment measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Strict lockdowns forced vehicles off the roads for months, industries and the service sector shut down, reducing sources of most pollution. But this came at enormous cost as economies were brought to their knees. Millions of jobs and livelihoods across South Asia were lost. Migrant labourers, domestic helpers, cleaners, drivers, guards, in construction and factories, crop harvesting, brick kilns – all trudged back to their villages in the biggest movement of people in the Subcontinent since Partition in 1947.
Over the past decades, our countries have invested billions on social safety nets, in food security, safe drinking water supply, primary health care. Yet, at a time of greatest need, those most affected by the emergency had no access to food, water, medical care.
The plight of migrants during the pandemic reflect a deeply divided socio-political landscape and failure of governance.
It is a warning that we must transit to more frugal ways of living, minimising our environmental footprints, and engendering both structural and behavioral changes for a greener, healthier, and more inclusive future.
Before the lockdown, pollution levels exceeded permissible levels, and mitigation received only lip service. There was a stark dichotomy between public concern about the health impact of pollution and state intervention to address it. The main reasons were procedural lapses, inadequate regulation and poor policy implementation. In short, the failure of politics to improve governance. The crisis has shown that there must be more accountability.
Increased investments in clean energy sources guided by creation of new jobs, mitigation of air pollution and balancing the natural ecosystem should be cornerstones of the new order. Action to stem air pollution will not just remove a persistent urban hazard, but also reduce the spread of Covid-19 into the future. Studies have shown that dirty airworsens pre-existing medical conditions, and can also elevate coronavirus risk.