Report: Coronavirus’ Impact on Pollution Could Have Saved Almost 80,000 Lives

This aerial photo taken on March 16, 2020 shows a view of an empty road at night in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. - China reported on March 17 just one new domestic coronavirus infection but found 20 more cases imported from abroad, threatening to spoil its progress against …
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A website devoted to the study of so-called climate change is adding to the narrative that the global economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has helped to reduce pollution and, in turn, saved lives — as many as 80,000.

An article posted on Forbes magazine’s website cited the study on the Global Food, Environment and Economic Dynamics website that used data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to propose the lifesaving theory, albeit the piece also said any notion a pandemic is good for health is “clearly incorrect and foolhardy.”

And yet, the G-Feed writer made the claim in the analysis, which said, in part: 

Putting these numbers together yields some very large reductions in premature mortality.  Using the He et al 2016 estimates of the impact of changes in PM on mortality, I calculate that having 2 months of 10ug/m3 reductions in PM2.5 likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China.  Using even more conservative estimates of 10% reduction in mortality per 10ug change, I estimate 1400 under-5 lives saved and 51700 over-70 lives saved.  Even under these more conservative assumptions, the lives saved due to the pollution reductions are roughly 20x the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus (based on March 8 estimates of 3100 Chinese COVID-19 deaths, taken from here).

What’s the lesson here?  It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. Again I emphasize that the effects calculated above are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of social and economic disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms could exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution.  But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e. the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.

Might COVID-19 help us see this more clearly?  In my narrow academic world — in which most conferences and academic meetings have now been cancelled due to COVID-19, and where many folks are cancelling talk invitations and not taking flights — it might be a nice opportunity to re-think our production function with regard to travel.  For most (all?) of us academics, flying on airplanes is by far the most polluting thing we do.  Perhaps COVID-19, if we survive it, will help us find less polluting ways to do our jobs.  More broadly, the fact that disruption of this magnitude could actually lead to some large (partial) benefits suggests that our normal way of doing things might need disrupting.

The Forbes author, who wrote a book about Kim Kardashian, tries to tie a bow on the idea coronavirus can help us believe in and fight climate change, in part thanks to Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg:

When the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, we must become a culture that is more conscious of our planet. Consider telecommuting more, reconsider what consumer goods we need, rethink frequent long-distance travel, do whatever you can. I know these activities only contribute to a small percentage of the source of carbon emissions. But don’t let that deter you. Humans are nature; we’re not separate from it. And when we hurt the planet, we hurt ourselves.

She’s a perfect example of what I call the super woke generation. Thunberg took the world by storm with her passionate calls for adults to do more about the climate crisis. I loved how she forced the world’s statesmen to listen to her at the United Nations and locations across the globe, only to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in March 2019 eventually. Her passion calls for climate action demonstrates how deeply young people are willing to do whatever it takes to spur action.

He goes on to praise the radical Extinction Rebellion movement based in the U.K. and concludes that the “good thing” about the pandemic might make the world “address climate change with the same enthusiasm as addressing the pandemic.”

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