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Environmental Impacts of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched people’s lives in a number of ways, some more immediately evident than others. Beginning in January 2020, a series of lockdowns around the world closed businesses, put restrictions on domestic and international travel, and kept millions of people at home. These disruptions to everyday life continue to affect the world around us. COVID-related restrictions and activities had notable environmental impacts, both positive and negative. 

With pandemic-related restrictions limiting worldwide travel, there were fewer vehicles on the road and fewer aircraft in the skies, resulting in a noticeable decrease in carbon emissions. A 2020 study compared carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 60 countries, all 50 U.S. states, and 30 Chinese provinces from January to April 2019 and January to April 2020. Taken as a whole, these territories represent 97% of the planet’s total CO2 emissions. The study found a 17% decrease in emissions in the same four-month period between 2019 and 2020. Another study, published in September 2020, found that lockdown measures also had a significant positive impact on air quality. The restriction or suspension of non-essential travel by car, bus, train, and plane reduced emissions dramatically, both improving the air quality in major cities and reducing water pollution. A comparison of emissions in New York City between 2019 and 2020 revealed a 50% drop in emissions. The same study noted that the European Environmental Agency recorded significant drops in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in several major cities. NO2 is produced by the burning of fossil fuels, which declined considerably at the height of the lockdown measures. During this period, emissions dropped by 30% to 60% in European cities including Milan, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris. In the United States, the average decline in NO2 was 25.5%. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the decline was as much as 54.3%, and in Delhi, India, it was almost 70%. 

The global decline in emissions had noticeable environmental impacts around the world. However, these impacts were only temporary. The reduction in emissions was connected to the global decline in travel under various lockdowns and restrictions. Once the measures were lifted, the reductions became unsustainable. Further, there are other factors affecting the data gathered in studies of COVID-related emission reductions. Most studies focused on only a few cities or countries, possibly due to a lack of data from other locations. Variations in meteorological conditions across years and locations may also impact the data gathered.

While the emission reductions, however temporary, had a positive impact on the environment, other COVID-related activities had a decidedly negative effect. In the course of mitigation efforts and treatment of patients, enormous quantities of medical waste were produced. Common waste items include disposable masks, sample collection supplies such as swabs, and cleaning supplies used in disinfection of surfaces. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 87,000 tons of PPE were used in the global COVID response between March 2020 and November 2021. This figure only includes the amount purchased and used by governments and by the WHO itself. It does not include PPE used by private individuals or businesses. Were we to add that second figure to the 87,000 tons, the problem would only become more striking. The drastic increase in potentially-hazardous medical waste, including needles, syringes, bandages, and PPE places greater pressure on the already-strained medical waste management systems. Healthcare professionals stress the importance of proper handling of these types of waste, to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

While many cities, states, and countries have lifted the most stringent restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, and its environmental impacts are not yet fully understood. Experts are already pondering possible ways of learning from the pandemic’s environmental impacts. Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director for Environment, Climate Change and Health, noted that “significant change at all levels, from the global to the hospital floor,” in healthcare waste management is needed to address the current problems. 

Sadly, the production of medical waste and fossil fuel emissions are ongoing problems that need to be addressed outside of pandemic conditions. The overall reductions in emissions during the height of the pandemic were “temporary and not sustainable.” As long as current fossil fuel-burning activities persist, they are likely to remain so.