- A new study has underlined the link between exposure to air pollution and fatality from serious respiratory illness, such as Covid-19
- If the Hong Kong government is serious about managing public health, it must tackle air pollution more proactively
Yes, the global environment and air quality have improved due to reduced human activity during the coronavirus pandemic. But it will not last long if we return to business as usual.
Recent scientific reports confirm that reduced human activity has had a positive effect on the environment. Clean Air Network analysed the data from Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department and found a reduction in roadside air pollution of up to 32 per cent since the Lunar New Year, attributable to more of the workforce switching to working from home.
In the short term, we may continue with social distancing and therefore derive benefits such as reduced traffic and hence cleaner air. On the other hand, academics and policymakers across the world have begun to debate how to strike a balance between combating disease and protecting the economy. This may suggest that the world is not ready to stay indoors indefinitely, while ensuring the normal functioning of society.
With cities on the verge of resuming activities, we may look at a recent study by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Earlier studies have shown a strong association between exposure to air pollution and increased risk of developing acute respiratory distress syndrome. This analysis went further and showed that an increase in air pollution levels in the years before the pandemic was associated with a 15 per cent increase in the Covid-19-related death rate.
We have to realise that any mismanagement of air pollution would put additional strain on our tight public health resources.
The University of Hong Kong’s Hedley Environmental Index estimates air pollution in Hong Kong caused an additional 130,000 hospital bed days, 2.3 million doctor visits, 1,700 premature deaths, and HK$21 billion in economic losses in 2019 – a gigantic societal cost that can be prevented.
In recent weeks, the Hong Kong government has demonstrated the magnitude of authority and resources it can manoeuvre to benefit public health. The general public wants to see the government display a comparable level of determination to tackle air pollution, one of the top environmental health risks affecting everyone.
There are some opportunities for the government to act decisively.
Formulate an aggressive “clean air plan” that sets a high bar for our regional counterparts to follow. Develop a competitive road map for electric vehicles, so we can catch up with other global cities. Move towards zero-emission buses, trucks and other vehicles. Limit the growth of Hong Kong’s vehicular fleet.
Achieving these goals will keep our air clean for a little longer.
Patrick Fung, CEO, Clean Air Network
This piece of letter was also published on SCMP on 14 April 2020