Coronavirus waste may pose additional threat

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By: Gyan Pathak

With worst ever surge of COVID-19 in India, 3.55 lakh new cases and 2807 deaths on April 25, reaching the new global highs, is also generating unprecedented high level of coronavirus waste for any country in the world. It may soon pose worst additional threat to the country. India thus needs a simultaneous plan for disposing of the overload in the safest way possible. A sharp increase in additional packaging needs for delivery of goods for ensuring safety from the pandemic may also become problematic in near future.

Coronavirus has become a new form of pollution. To reduce the transmission of the virus, people have increased the consumption of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially single use PPE. However, PPE, including surgical gloves and masks, is usually made of nonwoven materials that will likely degrade into smaller microplastic pieces. Thus, the disposal of such items in open fields will endure the “never-ending story” of plastics in the environment. Furthermore, the dramatic increase in medical waste is overloading the capacity of the country to manage it adequately.

In a recent ADBI working paper titled “Building Forward Better: Enhancing Resilience of Asia and Pacific Economies in a Post-COVID-19 World” the problem of disposal of medical and non-medical waste has been highlighted. Due to the persistence and high contagiousness of the virus, many economies are classifying all hospital waste as infectious waste, which needs to be incinerated under high temperature, to allow for sterilization, followed by landfilling of the residual ash. However, not all economies have the capacity to do this. For instance, some Indian municipalities allowed the disposal of medical waste by landfilling and local burning. The paper has mentioned that some of the medical waste has even flooded into the oceans. Even in Hong Kong and China, face masks were found on its beaches and nature trails.

While analyzing the situation in the Asia and Pacific reason, the paper said that the pandemic has increased the demand for online shopping and food delivery, resurrecting single-use plastics for packaging purposes. However, such wastes cannot be disposed of overnight. It is precisely one of the reasons, for instance in Singapore, where companies have been given an extra year before they must submit plans for reducing the amount of packaging they use.

The lack of progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development left the Asia and Pacific region unprepared to deal with the pandemic, the authors of the paper said. For instance, a lack of public investment in the health systems revealed the insufficient capacity of healthcare services. The prevalence of the informal sector and lack of social protection have exposed vulnerable employees in terms of losing jobs and income, and being forced into extreme poverty.

Despite significant adverse socioeconomic impacts, COVID-19 seems to have given the environment some breathing space. A temporary suspension of business activities mostly pursued in an unsustainable manner, closure of public places, reduced air travel, and lower demand for oil and gas induced by reduced human mobility have resulted in a substantive reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, reduced outdoor air pollution, and released land and wildlife pressure. However, such environmental gains are likely to be short-lived. The paper said that the level of emissions and other environmental externalities will likely rebound, and perhaps increase, once the restrictions are relaxed, due to the need to restock depleting supplies and for general economic recovery.

The study also mentions about the climate risks, which it says, has aggravated. While the stimulus given during the past financial crises appeared green on the face of it, the real green investment was minimal. Persistent rise in carbon dioxide emissions and the ever-increasing use of natural resources have worsened the adverse impacts of climate change. Between 2015 and 2020, 45 per cent of global disasters occurred in the Asia and Pacific reason. The reason is home to five of the world’s ten economies most affected by climate change in the past ten years. India is also one of the most threatened countries in the world.

COVID-19 has worsened the poverty level in the region, and India housed most of the poor. The pandemic has worsened the situation, and if Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna is any indication, acute poverty in India has doubled. Under PMGKY, it has just been announced that 81 crore poor in the country are going to get food supply under Food security Act. It means, COVID-19 has more than doubled acute poverty among people. India will thus need to do much more to protect the poor from the vagaries of climate change also, apart from protection from the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is imposing economic and broader development challenges as never before. Policy lessons from past experience in dealing with shocks show that focusing on economic growth alone is not enough. Rising inequality and environmental challenges have increased the vulnerabilities. In addition to using the traditional macroeconomic policies, governments should deliberately increase public investments in Sustainable Development Goals, reduce inequalities, provide decent work, and green the economic activities and financial systems. All stakeholders, including governments, business, and general public, need to play their integral role to “build forward better”. The general public needs to choose a mindful lifestyle to live in harmony with the nature. (IPA Service)

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