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Here's Why India's Air Quality May Fuel COVID-19 Cases Every fall, air pollution spikes in India; experts weigh on it will mean for coronavirus patients across the country

By Prabhjeet Bhatla

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As a thick quilt of smog wraps itself around India, signaling the start of the fall pollution season, experts warn that the worsening air quality could make the country's COVID-19 problems even worse.

One of the most common symptoms of severe coronavirus cases is breathing difficulty. And doctors are of the belief 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 on hospital beds.

Air pollution inflicts a massive toll on the Indian economy. Its scale, complexity and urgency necessitate a strong, coherent, and coordinated fiscal response by the government. However, recent relief and stimulus spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled the Indian economy and led to a massive spike in public debt. With limited room available for fiscal manoeuvre, the Indian government faces the colossal challenge of funding procedures to improve air quality.

"Air pollution increases the risk of non-communicable diseases—the same underlying conditions that make people more likely to experience severe illness or death from COVID-19," said epidemiologist Sumi Mehta from the global non-profit Vital Strategies told AFP in an interview with Daily Sabah.

India is now struggling with two major health challenges that are both mugging the respiratory system and peaking at the same time.

The coronavirus cases are spreading far and wide, putting India on the pathway to have the main accounted virus caseload in the impending weeks.

"There are serious worries that during winter when higher air pollution levels, in any case, worsens respiratory illness and increases hospitalization, the vulnerability to COVID-19 may be further enhanced," added Anumita Roy Chowdhury of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment said in a statement made to the Daily Sabah channel.

The chief medical officer of Gurugram city near New Delhi, Virender Yadav, told the channel some recovering COVID-19 patients were experiencing a reoccurrence of respiratory conditions prompted by the heightened air pollution.

There are various policies and programs that have been implemented in India to address the issue of air pollution. Like any other policy measure, the success and efficacy of these programs has been contingent upon collaboration and coordination across various stakeholders.

One of the most recent policies launched to tackle air pollution is the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) launched in early 2019. The NCAP calls on 122 cities across India to develop city-level Clean Air Plans to implement mitigation strategies for ambient PM concentrations.

In the background is India's worrisome 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 overcrowding has left India dreadfully polluted.

This time last year, India was habitat to 14 of the 20 cities with the most dangerous air worldwide, and health experts have detailed how such conditions can lead to brain damage, respiratory problems, and early death.

Far from passing its COVID-19 peak, India is creeping toward one of the worst phases of the ongoing pandemic. The smog's return in the winter, a festival season with no mob management, and approaching political campaigns marked by large election rallies all pose an acid test for India. The upcoming months will determine if the nation finally shifts on the way to normalcy, or sees an additional spike that pushes it past the US as the nation with the most cases of coronavirus.

Prabhjeet Bhatla

Former Staff

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