Updated: Oct 4, 2020
While global air pollution levels plummeted during the weeks of COVID-19 lockdown, as restrictions ease they seem to be quickly heading back to pre-pandemic levels. Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the UK Green Party, draws on her experiences with asthma to illuminate just how critical it is that we legislate for cleaner air.
Year after year I visited the doctor with a persistent cough, and every time I spoke to a new doctor they listened to my chest and sent me away saying that I didn’t need antibiotics and it would just clear up. It never did. It wasn’t until last November when visiting a new doctor that the problem was finally spotted. Listening to my chest he said there was no infection, but he wanted to eliminate all possible causes of my cough and occasional painful breathing. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to have this investigation that eliminated all the possible issues, leaving me with the one diagnosis that was easiest to help with - asthma, which is triggered by pollution and cold air. I am now one of 5.4 million people in the UK being treated for asthma, at a time when deaths from asthma have risen by 33% over the last ten years. In my own diagnosis, the link between air quality and my condition was obvious. Not only is it clear that air pollution increases the chance of asthma developing, particularly in children, but research has also found that poor air quality causes 40,000 premature deaths in the UK in total.
This year, COVID-19 arrived to raise the stakes in the most deadly way imaginable. As a respiratory virus which attacks the lungs, those forced to breathe filthy air where they live or work are one of the groups this pandemic is harming and killing in greater numbers. A study in April found that 80% of Covid-19 deaths across Europe were in the most polluted regions.
The Public Health England report investigating higher levels of COVID-19 mortality among BAME people which was published this month completely neglected to investigate the issue of air quality
Here stark racial and class divides enter the picture. We know that in London, for instance, people of colour are disproportionately exposed to illegal levels of air pollution, in large part owing to the fact that cheaper housing is placed nearer busy, dirty roads (where people of colour, who are disproportionality lower paid, are likely to live). Despite this, the Public Health England report investigating higher levels of COVID-19 mortality among BAME people which was published this month completely neglected to investigate the issue of air quality altogether. Councils are also failing to join the dots between toxic air and public health, with city after city delaying clean air zones owing to a pandemic which attacks the lungs.
Lockdown has given us a glimpse of how different things could be. With less polluting traffic on the roads, reports have suggested that over 10,000 lives across Europe have been saved in this short period alone owing to cleaner air, while 2m of us with asthma in the UK are experiencing fewer symptoms. I myself have not needed to use my inhaler for weeks now.
As we recover from this crisis, we need to build this into our economies and urban centres by design, rather than as a side effect of an emergency response to a global pandemic. We see some signs of this, with £2bn announced from the Government to invest in walking and cycling. On the other hand, we see that China has already bounced back to pre-crisis levels of pollution, with Europe purported to follow. To make sure we don’t backslide and lose the air quality improvements we have seen in recent weeks, we need to legislate to enshrine clean air as a human right in a new Clean Air Act.
This would have to go far beyond just getting the dirtiest vehicles off our roads. A purported scrappage scheme set to offer motorists £6k towards a new electric car lacks ambition. Electric cars still clog the air up with particulate matter (and, at the risk of sounding obvious, they can also still run you over). We don’t just need cleaner traffic. We need less traffic.
We need radical social and economic action to ensure that decent housing and schooling is available for all on streets which are not causes of death
We need radical social and economic action to ensure that decent housing and schooling is available for all on streets which are not causes of death. This means spending even more on walking and cycling than the £2bn being offered (we’d propose £30 per person, taking money from road building schemes) closing roads around schools, rewilding as much urban space as possible, and investing in public transport which is cheap tending towards free.
Eventually, the immediate health risk of Covid-19 will be behind us, but there won’t be any less reason to focus on tackling air quality as a critical public health issue, with 10,000 people in the UK diagnosed with a lung problem every week. The side effect of cleaner air seems to have been received as one of the upsides of the lockdown – the ability to hear birdsong in the middle of cities, and see far into the distance on a dazzling day. Locking in these benefits won’t just make life a bit nicer. It will save thousands of lives a year, long after this pandemic has passed.
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