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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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How Coronavirus Is Saving Lives

While the headlines for the last few weeks have been a lot of COVID-19 related doom and gloom, one study has really stood out. It turns out that there is at least one serious silver lining to the coronavirus outbreak, and that silver lining is saving lives. 

A new analysis from a Stanford University scientist has shown that China’s austere measures that essentially shut down the country and brought the Chinese economy to a grinding halt over the last several months have slashed the country’s staggering air pollution by such a large degree that the epidemic has actually saved lives. And not a paltry number, either. By Earth Systems Professor Marshall Burke’s calculation, China’s coronavirus lockdown has saved tens of thousands of lives.

Burke based his analysis on U.S. government sensor data gathered in four cities across China. The data measured particulate levels of PM2.5, which is the particulate most linked to deaths caused by air pollution, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The study averaged a decrease of PM2.5 in the four cities and calculated how the drop would impact Chinese mortality rates on a national scale. The results? According to his calculations, the drop-in pollution has most likely saved the lives of 4,000 small children under the age of 5 and 73,000 elderly Chinese adults over the age of 70.  Related: Saudi Arabia’s Oil War Could Bankrupt The Kingdom

And, believe it or not, these numbers are a conservative estimate. Very conservative, in fact, as Burke did not consider any deaths for people between the ages of 5 and 70, who are less vulnerable to death caused by air pollution. Even with the most conservative calculations, reports Forbes, Burke “still emerged with 1,400 kids saved and 51,700 elderly.”

NASA

Source: NASA

This means that China has actually lost fewer lives over the course of the coronavirus pandemic than it would have under business as usual, without COVID-19. “Even under these more conservative assumptions, the lives saved due to the pollution reductions are roughly 20x the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus,” Burke wrote in his report published on the G-FEED blog. It should be noted, however, points out Forbes, that “his numbers do not include other negative consequences of the lockdown.”

This impact is not limited to China. Northern Italy happens to be the region of Italy that suffers from the highest rates of air pollution in the country, as well as the region that is hardest hit by the coronavirus. Italy, which is the country with the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside of China (with the caveat that Iran’s numbers are likely extremely underreported and could be as bad or worse than Italy), has also experienced a significant reprieve from air pollution since shutting down the nation’s economic center and largest city of Milan. The shutdown has now spread to the rest of the nation as well.  Related: OPEC+ Scraps Meeting As Oil War Heats Up

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reported that Italy’s greenhouse gas emissions have subsequently plummeted, as shown in a video released this week. The agency's Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite “has seen a sharp decrease in emissions of nitrogen dioxide over Italy during the first two and a half months of 2020,” reports Space.com

The lesson here is not that COVID-19 is not a tragedy, but that we need to take a much closer look at our status quo and what Burke refers to as “the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.” While the disruption of COVID-19 will have sweeping and long-term economic impacts that will undoubtedly be devastating in a number of ways, especially for more vulnerable populations, Burke writes that “more broadly, the fact that disruption of this magnitude could actually lead to some large (partial) benefits suggests that our normal way of doing things might need disrupting.”

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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