WORDS BY AGNEE GHOSH
The COVID-19 surge across India has killed hundreds of thousands. The country’s long-standing air pollution crisis may be playing a role. Local climate activists are calling for change.
Sahana Bhattacharya, 53, tested positive for COVID-19 in April. Initially, she dealt with only the cough and usual cold symptoms. But Bhattacharya lives in Gurugram, a city in northern India that’s been named the 24th most polluted in the world. She was fearing the worst.
“The normal medicines did not work for me, and I had to get on steroids,” Bhattacharya said.
Unfortunately, her ordeal was far from over. Bhattacharya suffered from breathlessness for more than a month and continues to face side effects, such as dry cough and fatigue. This is broadly known as “long COVID” where patients experience fatigue weeks or months after infection.
Bhattacharya is only one among India’s more than 27 million COVID-19 cases. The country has seen a terrifying explosion in COVID-19 deaths, which has puzzled scientists. Many believe it’s due to a number of factors: the B.1.617 variant first reported in India last year, low vaccine coverage, and social interactions. On May 25, 2021, India saw the world’s highest number of deaths in a single day. Some health experts and advocates are worried the country’s long-standing air quality issues are contributing.
The country’s rising rates of chronic respiratory disease has been linked to India’s worsening air pollution. Nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world reside in India, according to the latest report by IQAir, a Swiss tech company that monitors global air quality. A study by The Lancet found that, in 2019, 1.67 million deaths in India could be attributed to air pollution, accounting for nearly 18% of all deaths.
Research is still in the early stages, but scientists in India have already begun to speculate on the link between the country’s air pollution and COVID-19 rates. A preliminary report published in January 2021 by Kuldeep Singh, an assistant professor at the Malaviya National Institute of Technology in Jaipur, found a “significant” correlation between weather factors, such as humidity, temperature, and air pollution, and the spread of COVID-19 in the Delhi state of India.
The study demonstrates that higher concentrations of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide have a positive link with COVID-19 cases. Singh’s study is supported by earlier research on polluted communities around the world that suggest exposure to poor quality air may aggravate COVID-19 symptoms and increase the likelihood of death.
“Limited exposure to outdoor air pollution may reduce the chances of contracting coronavirus,” Singh said.
Health professionals have pointed to policy changes that would lower air pollution, help combat the coronavirus, and build healthier cities in the future. In India, leaders have yet to heed that call. In fact, while the International Energy Agency projects the country will reduce the amount of coal it burns, India will likely increase its reliance on gas, which comes with its own air pollution concerns.
“The government must listen to the youth when it comes to formulating any environmental policy because it is us who will inherit the future.”
Local climate activists haven’t let the pandemic stop them from raising awareness to their concerns around air pollution and fossil fuel expansion. They’re even using this energy to respond locally to the surge in COVID-19 cases. Joel Blah-Kyndiah, the coordinator of Fridays for Future Shillong who’s been organizing since 2018, has been helping distribute hand sanitizers and face masks alongside his climate work.
“[Nearly] 50% of the population in India is below 25 years of age, and yet, the government does not factor in the youth when it comes time to formulate environmental policies,” Blah-Kyndiah said. “But things are changing now.”
On January 19, 2021, Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer and environmental activist, called for a week-long action against the Adani Group, an Indian multinational company that’s banking on coal. In India’s first commercial coal mine auction last year, Adani Group placed the highest number of bids. Over 25 environmental youth organizations across the world, including Fridays for Future India and Extinction Rebellion India, took part in a week of online events that included video screenings and musical performances later that month.
Meanwhile, Mithila Prabhudesai, a medical student in her second year, has spent over a year protesting against another Adani Group interest: the Sagarmala project. The federal government approved this plan back in 2015 to import and move coal along the coast of Goa, a state in western India that houses the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park. That project—which threatened to exacerbate local dust pollution from handling and transporting coal—may soon be on pause after the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee recommended on April 23, 2021, that the court cancel the project, stating that its ecological costs outweigh any benefits.
Lately, Prabhudesai has been busy on Twitter where she and her friends have been sharing information on hospital bed availability, fundraisers, and mutual aid during the second COVID wave along with updates on the project.
Sainka Walia, a member of Fridays for Future Delhi, lives in Delhi and has been demanding government officials reduce urban air pollution by developing strategies around construction dust, vehicle pollution, and coal. “Delhi consistently ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world, and we are fed up with it,” Walia said. “The government must listen to the youth when it comes to formulating any environmental policy because it is us who will inherit the future.”
On March 19, 2021, she marched toward the Delhi Central Secretariat as part of a global day of action. A month later, the city was under lockdown. TheWashington Post described the rising number of COVID-19 cases in India (and in Delhi, particularly) as “not a wave, but a wall.”
For these Indian climate activists, this “wall” has made one thing clear: Their environmental battles cannot be separate from their country’s current public health emergency.
Correction, June 1, 2021,11:20 am ET: The story has been updated to correct Sahana Bhattacharya’s last name from “Das” to “Bhattacharya.”