What happens when #COVID19 meets toxic air? India is about to find out India is now struggling with two major health challenges that are both assaulting the respiratory system and peaking at the same time 👉
NEW DELHI — As a thick quilt of smog wrapped itself around New Delhi on Thursday, signaling the start of the fall pollution season, doctors and scientists warned that the deteriorating air quality could make the city’s Covid-19 problems even worse.
One of the most common symptoms of severe coronavirus cases is breathing difficulty. And doctors say that if the ambient air suddenly becomes more toxic, as it does every year around this time in northern India, then more people who become infected by the virus might end up in the hospital or die.
“If two people are shooting at the lungs, then obviously the lungs will have more problems,” said Arvind Kumar, a chest surgeon and founder of the Lung Care Foundation in New Delhi, a group that raises awareness about respiratory problems.
Coronavirus cases are spreading far and wide, putting the country on track to have the largest reported virus caseload in the coming weeks. With 7.3 million reported infections, it is just behind the United States’ 7.9 million. And each day, India outpaces the United States in new infections by around 10,000 more cases per day, even as India’s death rate remains much lower.
In the background is India’s vexing air pollution, which shoots up in the fall and winter. The rapid economic growth of the past two decades — and along with it, increased urbanization and congestion — has left Indian cities horribly polluted.
Last year, India was once again home to 14 of the 20 cities with the most hazardous air globally, and health experts have detailed how such conditions can lead to brain damage, respiratory problems and early death.
In the fall, air temperatures and wind speeds drop, condensing pollutants over India’s cities, especially in the north. And farmers in the surrounding rural areas burn the stalks and refuse from their crop, sending up huge clouds of black smoke that drift for miles.
This year there have been five times the number of farm refuse fires in northern India as the same period last year, and experts say it is a bad sign of what’s to come.
The agricultural sector has been a rare bright spot an Indian economy that has been shattered by the pandemic, and pollution experts fear that more farming will mean more burning.
“My gut is it’s going to be a bumper, bumper harvest and a bumper, bumper combustion event, probably the biggest of our lifetime,” said Jai Dhar Gupta, an Ivy League-educated environmental activist and entrepreneur.