COVID-19’s impact on the environment has been mixed. Although the pandemic resulted in improved environmental conditions, there have been other negative effects, some of which are obvious, others less so.
In brief, the positive effects have been reduced GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, improved water quality, reduced noise pollution, improved air quality and in some cases, wildlife restoration. Negative effects have been increased medical waste, haphazard disposal of PPE, increased municipal waste and reduced recycling efforts.
Whilst the world has agreed on an international inquiry into the origins, handling and response of the virus, of which the results are likely to be years away, many have reached the conclusion that the cause of the global pandemic is the result of human activity, such as deforestation, animal trades and increased urbanisation. Whilst advances in medicine have kept many epidemics managed, many speculated that it was only a matter of time before a global pandemic of this magnitude was to occur.
COVID-19 became one of the most widespread zoonoses, which led to 1,5 million deaths in less than one year
COVID-19 is the latest of several recent zoonotic diseases1 in humans and demonstrates how human health and nature are closely intertwined. Interaction with nature could expose humans to a range of animal diseases. In fact, about three to four new infectious diseases occur every year, most of which originate from wild animals. Over the past 30 years, approximately 60-70% of new human diseases have been of zoonotic origin. The growth of zoonotic disease outbreaks is a sign of a breakdown in the relationship between humans and nature and is likely to worsen.
The drastically increasing amount of domestic and medical waste is one of the key negative outcomes of COVID-19. Coronavirus waste became a new form of global pollution. The adopted quarantine, isolation, and social distancing led to a corresponding increase in the amount of solid household waste (15-25%) and a significant increase in the generation of medical waste in healthcare institutions (from 10 to 20 times).
From the beginning of 2020, a huge amount of disinfectants has been applied to roads, commercial, and residential areas to exterminate the COVID-19 virus. These disinfectants can kill non-targeted beneficial species and create ecological imbalance. Much of the disinfectants and antiseptics, such as hand soap which contains a high percentage of the hormone-disrupting pesticide Triclosan (TSC - Triclosan converts to dioxin, a highly toxic compound when exposed to sunlight), is naturally finding its way into our water systems.
COVID-19’s increased waste also affected waste management (WM) systems. Reduced employment / workers reduced recycling efforts which further compounded challenges in the collection and disposal of general waste. Municipal budgets were weakened as a result of increased healthcare costs and implemented social security regulations. Several governments introduced limitations to the volume of recycling activities in order to reduce the risk of virus infection.
There have been so many more direct and indirect consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, of which will be realised in the months and even years to come, but what is evident even in the short-term, is the urgency for all us all to stand up and work out how we can play a part in protecting and rehabilitating the earth’s biodiversity which is currently balancing on a knife-edge.
Building back with sustainability in mind will be critical for our future prosperity. Below are eight possible strategies that should be considered by all levels of government, business and communities –
1. Sustainable industrialisation
Focus on using less energy-intensive industries, cleaner fuels, technologies, and building strong energy-efficient policies.
2. Green and public transport
Promoting usage of public transport instead of personal vehicles, popularisation of public bike-sharing as environmentally friendly and healthy transport.
3. Renewable energy
Increasing share of renewable energy sources — solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal heat, and biomass.
4. Wastewater treatment and reuse
Control of water treatment both in industrial and municipal use, reuse of treated wastewater in road cleaning, toilet flushing, etc.
5. Behavioural change in daily life
Introducing new work habits, like full or partial remote work mode, as well as promoting a healthy and green way of life in society.
6. Waste recycling and reuse
Conducting extensive awareness campaigns about proper waste segregation, handling and disposal methods, controlling that hazardous and infectious medical waste is disposed due to guidelines of WHO.
7. Ecological restoration and ecotourism
Strengthening ecotourism practice and promoting sustainable livelihoods, cultural preservation, and biodiversity conservation.
8. International cooperation
Active participation of international authorities (UN Environment programme) in the preparation of new policies and the coordination of their implementation
The report (download button below) produced by BDO Centers offers more insights into the trends and impacts of COVID-19 on the environment. Please download and share with your colleagues.