We cannot stay healthy in a world that is sick, Pope Francis reminded us in his recent “Urbi et Orbi” Easter address, echoing the themes of “Laudato Si’.” Released five years ago to international acclaim, that encyclical noted that we are all interdependent, forming one human family with a moral responsibility to care for each other and our “common home.”
Francis is right on both the spirituality and the science. During the Synod on the Amazon, the first-ever synod with a biosphere as its topic, he reminded us that the Amazon ecosystem forms the lungs of the planet, and we all are sicker when our environment is polluted. In “Laudato Si’,” he reminded us of the spiritual sickness that harms the planet and its inhabitants and urged us to “listen to the cry of our ailing planet.”
Air pollution is a cause of many of the preconditions that make Covid-19 more lethal, including lung and respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The coronavirus pandemic bears out the connection between human health and environmental health. As the world grapples with the pandemic, one key point of “Laudato Si’” has largely been ignored: Improving air quality saves lives.
A Harvard University study has found that Covid-19 death rates are higher in places with poor air quality. Covid-19 attacks a person through the respiratory tract and targets lung cells. Pneumonia may ensue, and it is more dangerous than “regular” pneumonia, as it appears in all sectors of the lungs—and because it is not caused by bacteria, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at the end of March that over 70 percent of Covid-19 patients in intensive care units had one or more pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease (including asthma) and cancer.
Air pollution is a cause of many of the preconditions that make Covid-19 more lethal, including lung and respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease and diabetes; in fact, air pollution kills an estimated seven million people every year, according to the World Health Organization. People who contract Covid-19 have much higher death rates if they have these preconditions.
Around the world, areas with worse air quality are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The Lombardy region of Italy has some of the worst air quality in Europe, and it has among Italy’s highest death rates from Covid-19. Six months before Wuhan, China, became the first center of deaths from Covid-19, residents there protested air pollution. And one study showed that people living in areas of China with at least moderate air pollution were 84 percent more likely to die from the previous SARS coronavirus than those living in regions with cleaner air.
According to the Harvard study, among the areas in the United States with the worst Covid-19 outcomes so far are metro areas with relatively high levels of air pollution, including New York, San Francisco, Detroit, New Orleans and Seattle. Areas with better air quality have seen fewer Covid-19 deaths, even adjusted for population size.
Social distancing policies, including workplace closures, improve air quality by decreasing the pollutants released by traffic and factories. Restrictions to protect against Covid-19 safeguard our lungs and the planet. Satellite photos show cleaner air over areas with restrictions on activity due to Covid-19.
Unfortunately, the United States is marking the fifth anniversary of “Laudato Si’” and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by abandoning environmental protection. Rather than protecting our lungs and air quality, President Trump has stopped the enforcement of environmental laws when we need them most, making us more vulnerable to Covid-19.
Unfortunately, the United States is marking the fifth anniversary of “Laudato Si’” and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by abandoning environmental protection.
The Trump administration has weakened environmental protections before in order to boost manufacturing. But sweeping new Environmental Protection Agency guidelines allow companies to not comply with environmental laws, report on pollution or pay penalties for violations during the pandemic. Occupied with surviving the pandemic, few people are aware that our environmental protections have been stripped away, with no guarantees of them returning after the pandemic has passed.
As I discuss in my new book, Global Issues Beyond Sovereignty, disease and pollution cross borders without passports. As governments around the world prepare economic stimulus policies to respond to the pandemic, they should also invest in clean air, scaling up the use of many available new technologies to heal our economy, our lungs and our planet.
Creative approaches include the smog free tower, a vacuum created by an artist that sucks in dangerous particulates in the air that harm our lungs and condenses the pollution into gemstones. CityTrees are vertical panels that deploy hardy, pollution-eating plants like moss and lichen into cities and near major highways. Each unit cleans as much air as a forest of 275 trees at a fraction of the space and cost. And vertical forests incorporate plants on buildings to clean the air and bring greater natural beauty to structures. Installing solar panels and other renewable energy units reduces demand from energy sources that harm our lungs, like coal-fired power plants.
While the economy is shut down, we can clean our infrastructure. Small work crews, maintaining social distancing and operating around the clock, could get it done, enabling people to return to cleaner, greener businesses and infrastructures that help the community, the planet and the economy.
Not polluting our air in the first place is the best way to safeguard public health. Coal-fired power plants are terrible for our lungs, producing particulates (smog) as well as lead, mercury, arsenic and a host of other harmful pollutants. Government investments can help transition these sites to provide renewable energy jobs, converting both current and decommissioned sites. Government stimulus money can attract private investors and employ workers to make these transitions.
“Laudato Si’” calls us to conversion, to heal sickness in ourselves and our planet. Protecting our common home yields health benefits for years to come and helps us all breathe a little easier in the battle against Covid-19, as well as the next pandemic.