Coronavirus and pollution: a disease re-teaching us about the dangers of burning fossil fuels, in a way we can’t ignore.

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As one of the nations hit hardest by Coronavirus, Italy can offer a lot of lessons for the rest of the world to learn. Perhaps the most important lessons come from the highly polluted, industrialized north of Italy, where infected patients were three times more likely to die of coronavirus than elsewhere in the country. Unfortunately this stark fact is a lesson that it will be too late for many to learn, thanks to the heavy fossil-fuel reliant societies and economies in which we live.

Fossil fuels, in many ways, are like any other addiction. We keep using them because they’re the quickest, easiest, most familiar way to achieve a certain goal. With drugs, alcohol or sugar  that goal might be feeling amazing, or good, or even just ok. With fossil fuels that goal is conveniently satisfying everyday practical needs: getting from A to B, staying warm, using plastic in its infinite applications, from single-use straws to the sneakers on your feet. On a broader scale fossil fuels might be the quickest, easiest, most familiar way of giving the economy a ‘shot in the arm’ to create jobs and win popular favor. 

As is the case with most addictions, much of human society is in a state of denial around the greatest threats associated with continued fossil fuel use. Climate change, like lung cancer or heart disease, is considered by many to be a ‘future problem’ that we struggle to believe will really affect us, and that we think there’ll be time to address later, if we can just use our crutch to get through the tough time we’re facing right now. But every addiction has its moments of immediate, scary clarity, and COVID-19 could and should be exactly that for human society and our addiction to fossil fuels. 

While climate change still feels to many like a ‘future-people’ problem there’s no ignoring coronavirus. This global pandemic has stopped the human world in its tracks. We’re locked down, sheltering in place, quarantined, isolated, socially distanced, staying the heck away from each other in the hopes that we can slow the unstoppable wave of disease and death that’s washing through human society. It’s this very real, very ‘present-people’ problem that should give us all the warning we need that the human race continues to burn fossil fuels on industrial scales at our peril. Why? Because burning fossil fuels pollutes our air and the negative effects of polluted air have never been clearer or more scary than right now.

Clean energy offers an alternative to fossil fuels that's sustainable for a stable climate and human health.

Scientists in Italy have suggested that the coronavirus spreads quicker and further in areas where it can ‘hitch a ride’ between hosts on particles in the air that are caused by industrial pollution. A team of researchers based at the University of Bologna has offered this hypothesis as an explanation for why the virus spread so rapidly through the north of Italy relative to the rest of the country. The idea is a relatively simple one. When the air we breathe is heavily polluted it contains high quantities of tiny particles, suspended in the air. When coronavirus leaves a host, say in an uncovered cough, it attaches itself to these tiny particles suspended in the air and travels until those particles are inhaled by another host. When the virus literally piggy-backs on particles in the air, those carefully maintained six feet of social distance won’t be enough to stop the virus reaching you. The scientists in question showed that the daily rate of new infections in Italy’s north correlated closely with the levels of particulate pollution in the air, supporting their hypothesis that pollution was directly related to the virus’s spread. But that’s not the only, and not even the worst of the pollution’s effects on the situation. 

As if the idea of the virus spreading in particle-dense air wasn’t scary enough, things get even worse when you consider people’s ability to struggle for survival when they live in polluted areas. In the industrial north of Italy the death rate has been as high as 12% compared to the 4.5% in the rest of the country. Even as pollution levels have now dropped, with economies going into shutdown, the damage of high levels of air pollution has already been done. Nitrogen dioxide, released by burning coal, oil, gas and diesel, is seriously damaging to the lungs - the organs most immediately affected by the coronavirus. That damage doesn’t disappear in the space of a couple of weeks. Communities who live exposed to high levels of pollution are those most likely to develop conditions that put them at risk of dying from the virus. This was a lesson the world should have learned from the SARS outbreak in 2002, when people living in areas of higher pollution were more than twice as likely to die from the virus compared to those living in low pollution areas. Perhaps with the scale of the damage done to human life by Coronavirus things will be different this time around.

There has been a lot of talk about the positive effect of the coronavirus on reducing pollution, but perhaps the biggest impact it could end up having would be to open our eyes to the things that truly make us weaker as a society, like filling the air we breathe with pollutants by burning fossils. Whether we as a species will sit up and take note is up to us.