In India, air pollution is a far worse threat than Covid-19

11 November 2020

India has been battered by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s not the only threat to the respiratory health of millions of people in the country. So is chronic air pollution, which has reached “severe” levels for days in New Delhi, the capita.

The city’s air quality index, which measures harmful particulate matter, stood at an alarming 477 on November 9, several times the limit deemed safe. It came after several days of similarly high rates of airborne pollutants in the overcrowded metropolitan area.

A thick haze of smog engulfed the city and locals venturing outdoors “felt an itching or burning sensation in the eyes and throat,” the Times of India reported.

Exhaust fumes from vehicles on roads, toxic industrial emissions, and the burning of stubble in nearby agricultural areas have all been contributing to the city’s appalling levels of air pollution.

Nor is New Delhi alone in the country when it comes to miasmas of toxic airborne pollutants. Air pollution is a constant health hazard across much of the vast nation and at least two-thirds of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. Around half of that pollution is caused by industrial emissions while fumes from vehicle exhaust and stubble burning account for most of the rest.

And therein lies the problem. Reducing the amounts of pollutants from these sources will be a Herculean task in India, one of the world’s most populous nations with a need for economic growth to improve the quality of lives of its poorest citizens, hundreds of millions of whom languish in dire poverty.

The country has so far recorded more than 8.5 million coronavirus infections and nearly 130,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19. These deaths are tragic. Yet last year alone long-term exposure to outdoor and indoor  air pollution resulted in more than 1.67 million deaths in India.

As many as 116,000 infants in India died as a result of toxic air in 2019, according to the State of Global Air 2020 report by the US-based Health Effects Institute.

Globally, an estimated 6.7 million people died of air pollution-related causes last year with India and China accounting for half of those fatalities, according to the report, which states that air pollution in India is “the fourth highest cause of death among all health risks.”

Vaccines for Covid-19 are expected to be rolled out worldwide soon, yet there is no vaccine to protect people in countries like India from the harmful airborne pollutants that can blight their lives and destroy their health.

Only well-considered and rigorously enforced long-term efforts will succeed in reducing the country’s appalling levels of toxic air.

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