With a new lockdown being introduced in the UK and many other countries still under stringent coronavirus restrictions, the virus, almost a year later, is still playing a major and significant role in our day to day lives. It has affected countries, businesses, and livelihoods, and continues to change the ways in which we interact with each other and the world around us. Though less talked about, one way the virus has had a significant impact is its impact on the environment. The environmental repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic are understandably less prominent topics on people’s mind and, after an initial surge in interest early on in the pandemic, has ultimately moved to the background of the global consciousness. The focus is rather on getting the virus under control and the speed at which a vaccine can be administered. Given that, I thought I would devote some time and take a step back to look at the impact that these lockdowns and restrictions have been having on the environment, climate change, and their potential impact in the future.

Sentiments such as “the virus is good for the environment” and that the earth was healing while the population stays at home were prominent in the early stages of the pandemic as all industry shut down and people were required to remain indoors. These words were said in amazement as people watched the smog and poor air quality disappear from major cities such as California and Delhi, allowing people to see the horizon and various monuments from a distance in a way they had never seen before – clearly! This reduction in air pollution was due to many factors and the pandemic induced lockdowns led to many positive, and negative, outcomes. This article will look at some of these outcomes and will aim to provide an answer to the question “Was Covid-19 good for the environment?”

What were the positive outcomes?

As a result of the lockdowns, industrial activity, transport, tourism, manufacturing, sports, entertainment, and many other industries had to be completely shut down. This led to rapid improvements in air quality as environmental pollution significantly decreased in many countries. For example, Beijing has a population of around 21.5 million and is severely affected by air pollution. During the first months of the pandemic Beijing experienced a drastic decrease in air pollution compared to the same period in 2019. PM2.5 and PM10 levels decreased by 6.48% and 79.07% respectively. Similar decreases were also seen in the other major provinces such as Shanghai and Guangdong. This phenomenon of improved air quality and a decrease in pollution was also seen globally as cities such as Delhi experienced reductions in smog levels.

The social distancing and stay at home mandates also had the added benefit of allowing beaches around the world to be cleaned up. Beaches are essential resources to many country’s economies in the form of tourism, fishing, etc. The drastic drop in tourism and the significant reduction in the number of people visiting beaches, and other tourist attractions, around the world was responsible for the considerable drop in beach pollution. Tourism accounts for large amounts of pollution each year and the pandemic has put the effect of this into perspective. 

In addition to the improvements to beaches, there were also positive benefits experienced in terms of water quality. Water pollution is a regular occurrence in developing countries, such as India, for example the dumping of industrial waste into rivers etc. As a result of the pandemic, the major industrial practices and sources of pollution were either stopped or reduced. This led to a massive reduction in dumping of industrial effluents and overall water pollution throughout the world. For example, there was a significant improvement in the water quality in major rivers in India such as the Ganga and Yamuna. This is also due to these rivers being closed to the public for religious reasons, such as holy baths and the leaving of flowers, which has greatly contributed to the overall cleaner look of the rivers.

Additionally, due to the reduction in the amount of people using private and public transport, as well as travelling abroad, there was also a significant reduction in noise levels in major cities and countries during the lockdown period. Noise pollution can lead to adverse health issues in both humans and other living organisms such as wildlife. The lack of commercial, economic, and everyday activities also facilitated this decrease in noise levels and provided positive benefits to the environment and the wildlife in it.

Negative repercussions

While there were many positive outcomes as a result of the lockdown, there were, however, negative outcomes that came as a result of global shutdown and stoppages. The possibility/risk of spreading the virus led to cities, companies, and countries making decisions that negatively impacted the environment. For example, recycling programs in some US cities were suspended and, in some European countries, sustainable waste management was temporarily restricted. Recycling and waste management are important and effective ways of reducing pollution and conserving natural resources and, due to the pandemic, was seriously reduced leading to increased waste and pollution.

Another area significantly affected by the pandemic was the medical industry, specifically medical waste. Medical waste comes in the form of needles, bandages, masks, gloves, discarded medicines, etc and is associated with increased risk and adverse health effects. This is especially true for the people coming in contact with this waste such as cleaners, medical staff, and trash collectors. This results in the virus spreading rapidly and key workers being at an even greater risk. For example, it was seen that within the first months of the pandemic, Wuhan, China, produced over 200 tons of medical waste greatly exceeding the capacity of the waste disposal facilities within the city.

A direct consequence of the pandemic has been the increase in demand of online shopping. More and more people have been utilising online commerce as an effective alternative to in person shopping for things like clothes, groceries, everyday essentials, etc. This had led to a larger amount of household and municipal waste, both organic and inorganic, being produced. This waste negatively impacts the environment in the form of increased air, soil, and water pollution. In normal circumstances, however, this increase in online shopping wouldn’t be an issue but, due to many countries suspending/ postponing recycling activities and programs in an attempt to manage infections and transmissions, there has been a disruption in regular municipal waste management and a subsequent increase in landfilling and environmental pollution worldwide. Additionally, there is also a lot more individual waste being produced in the form of disposable masks and gloves that aren’t being disposed of effectively. 

Final thoughts

As we examine the effect that the corona virus has had on the world there is a lot to look at. The number of infected and deaths, the way different countries have tackled the handling and containing of the virus, and how different leaders have dealt with managing the expectations of both their governments and populations have been interesting to observe. Equally as interesting, in my opinion, is the effect that the virus has had on the environment and the ways in which we look at the world around us. The virus impacted the environment in many ways, both positive and negative, and overall shed an even brighter light on the ways that humans are influencing the environment. Improvements in air quality, water quality, and noise levels were all very public positive impacts of the virus that were celebrated by the public and governments alike. Less public was the increase in medical, hazardous, and municipal waste due to increased medical requirements and a need for equipment and medicine, as well as an increase in online commerce and shopping from home.

This pandemic has also proved that the only way to slow down climate change and reduce our global emissions is through large industrial and country wide changes, and not individual measures. While taking ownership of your environment and engaging in positive practices such as recycling, driving less, and using less plastics, is very important and should be encouraged, it has become clear through this pandemic that the largest and most significant change can only be accomplished by business and countries altering the ways in which they operate and acknowledging the role that they play in protecting the environment. Once restrictions had eased and businesses were allowed to return operation there was a resultant spike in pollutants and emissions almost up to post lockdown levels proving that, unless big business and governments alter their ways, the earth will continue its warming trend and will be harder to reverse in the future.