NJust a few days after the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an initially three-week lockdown, the sky cleared over Delhi. The people in the Indian capital, one of the cities with the worst air in the world, have been able to breathe deeply for a long time now. For the first time in many years, some speak of decades, the sky is so blue and the view is so clear that the capitals see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. The changes in the city are also noticeable elsewhere. “Instead of the traffic noises and the endless honking of the horns, people heard birds, bulbs, blessings and even peacocks from their inner-city balconies,” commented journalist Aarti Betigeri.
Because of the curfew, most residents don’t get much of it because they can’t go outside anyway. In addition, Delhi is still not a climatic health resort. Pollution fluctuates between “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”. But at the moment it is no longer reaching the usual “dangerous” level. According to the World Health Organization, 21 of the 30 cities with the poorest air are in India. In Delhi, the air is usually poisoned by cars, construction sites, factories and slash-and-burn. Schools were closed and flights canceled in November due to the high levels of pollution at the time of the year. According to a study, a total of 1.24 million Indians died prematurely from the effects of air pollution in 2017.
Clean like not in decades
The corona pandemic has done what the authorities have failed to do for years. Satellite images from the American Space Agency (NASA) are said to show that the air in northern India is cleaner than it has been in two decades. Local measurements show that the concentration of fine dust in Delhi has halved. It is of course a high price that India pays for this positive side effect. The country with 1.3 billion inhabitants currently has the most extensive curfew in the world. Factories, construction sites, shops and temples stand still, public transport has come to a standstill. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and day laborers suddenly found themselves without work. They left the cities in crowded buses or even on foot. It is now feared that the subcontinent could face a hunger crisis.
And there is no end in sight to the curfew. In an interview with the country heads, Modi is said to have agreed on Monday that the lockdown in the heavily affected areas should be extended beyond the planned end on May 3. On the other hand, high levels of air pollution in India had become a permanent problem – and it could also exacerbate the pandemic. Research is currently investigating whether there could be a link between air pollution and a high mortality rate from Covid-19. This is not yet conclusively proven.
The air is getting better everywhere
A better Lockdown air quality is observed not only in India but also in Europe, the United States and other countries in Asia. In a report, a Swiss company measured the particulate matter levels in ten selected cities before and during the Covid 19 outbreak. According to this, a “drastic fall” in the level of air pollution was found a year earlier in almost all cities where there was a lockdown. It was 60 percent less in Delhi, 54 percent in Seoul (South Korea) and 44 percent in Wuhan (China).
China has older insights into how air pollution develops in the Corona crisis. There, the authorities had initially put the city of Wuhan and then almost the entire province of Hubei and other parts of the country to sleep to prevent the spread of the corona virus that first appeared there. Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation program, has compared particulate matter levels in the air over the past four years. Result: In February 2020, when the restrictions came into force, the pollution of the air with these tiny particles in large parts of China was 20 to 30 percent less than in previous years.
According to a preliminary study by Norwegian researchers, air improvement could prevent over 100,000 premature deaths in China. The prerequisite for this, however, would be that the low air pollution persists throughout the year. It is more likely, however, that with the gradual loosening of curfews, air pollution will also return. And it could even exceed the pre-crisis values - if companies try to make up lost production time.