The Covid-19 pandemic has already cost more than 250’000 lives worldwide (1). This scourge has not only created a global health crisis but has also disrupted the functioning of our society, our economy and our way of life. However, can we identify any positive sides to this pandemic?

Some aspects suggest that it could bring about positive changes for the planet and for society, although it is still a little early to say.

1/ What are the benefits identified for the environment?

The overall ecological impact of the pandemic is difficult to measure to date as it will depend on the duration of the measures taken. Moreover, the data currently available to us are not sufficient and have not been enough studied to find direct correlations with this crisis (2).

Despite these shortcomings, in highly industrialized areas, a clear improvement in air quality has been observed. In most countries of the world, containment measures are unprecedented and are forcing a large part of the population to stay at home, which has slowed down the economy and reduced traffic, leading to a decrease in air pollution (3) (4).

Here are some concrete examples:

  • A massive reduction in air pollution (especially NO2) over several cities in China was measured by NASA as a result of an economic slowdown in that country during the month of February(4).

    Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China

    Figure 1 : Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China

     

  • In Switzerland, a reduction in air pollution was also observed by EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research) at several sites during the second half of March. However, the experts indicate that this reduction cannot be attributed with certainty to the consequences of Covid-19-related measurements because the observed concentrations of air pollutants are strongly dependent on meteorological parameters such as wind and dispersion (5).

    Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China

    Figure 2 : Covid-19 and Switzerland’s air quality

    Improving air quality is good for the environment and therefore for human health. Some scientific articles report that air quality would have a positive impact on the healing of Covid-19 patients. On the other hand, polluted air would increase the spread of the virus through fine particles (6).

    We will have to wait until the end of the crisis and continue with the observations in order to draw conclusions, as the data obtained are only preliminary at this stage.

2/ Will this crisis bring positive changes to our society?

Containment measures to combat Covid-19 have required half of the population, around 4 billion people, to stay at home, leading to a slowdown, particularly economic (2). This measure has disrupted our daily life and the functioning of our society. Many questions arise during the crisis, and will also arise after the crisis.

Should we expect more pandemics? Are we prepared for them? Are the states collaborating enough with each other? Do we need to rethink the way our society, our health system, our supply system, operates ?

It is probably these questions that are positive despite this crisis situation. Below are some other examples of positive situations that this crisis has brought us:

  • Numerous demonstrations of solidarity towards the most vulnerable. These links between people and organizations will probably remain there.
  • Families have probably had to reorganize themselves differently, with a better division of tasks (work, childcare, food, household, health, leisure, etc.).
  • Teleworking, where possible, has made it possible to spend more time with the family, to strengthen ties, etc.

In economic terms, the consequences are far from over. In spite of this, we can still list some positive points:

  • Increased local consumption and short economic circuits.
  • Change in consumption patterns (less food waste, less compulsive purchases, digital billing without paper or ink, etc.).
  • Questioning our economic model, which is more profitable than sustainable, etc.

All these questions will probably not be answered without a good understanding of this crisis, its consequences in the months and even years to come and its causes.

3/ Can we really know the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Although the Chinese government has claimed that the Covid-19 virus spread from a wildlife market in Wuhan, it is difficult to know with certainty and precision its origin (7).

What is better known to researchers, however, is the emergence of new zoonotic diseases as a result of human occupation of increasingly large areas of land (8) (11) (12). The disturbance of virgin forests (9), logging and mining, urbanization, population growth, irresponsible tourism, intensive livestock farming, etc., are all activities that increase this risk. Animals and especially wildlife are thus confined in increasingly restricted spaces, which contributes to the transmission of pathogens between them (8).

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals (10). In 2008, a team of researchers identified 335 diseases that appeared between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which originated from animals. According to this team of researchers, these zoonoses are linked to environmental changes and human behaviour (11).

Even more recently, 120 scientists, including thirteen from EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne), state in an article published in the newspaper Le Temps and on the EPFL blog that the eruption of pandemics such as COVID-19 is the result of the destruction of our ecosystems (14).

It is clear that these pathogens have always been present, and what has changed are our interactions with them. With our means of transportation, the risk of propagation resulting in pandemics is high today.

All this suggests that we must prepare ourselves to face new zoonoses but also become aware of the consequences of our activities and our relationship with nature and with the species that inhabit this planet with us.

4/ Unfortunately, there are also strong negative consequences. What are the negative environmental impacts of Codiv-19 at this stage?

According to Nathalie Chèvre, an ecotoxicologist, lecturer and research professor at the University of Lausanne, an expert in chemical substances, the water pollution has not decreased. Pesticides, cosmetics and medicines are still being detected in surface waters. Hormone disruptors are still present in plastics, and additives, such as titanium dioxide, are still on the spot regarding the danger they pose to our health, especially that of our children (15).

Avec la pandémie actuelle, de nombreux médicaments et désinfectants sont utilisés, aussi bien dans les centres hospitaliers, les cliniques, mais aussi par les commerces, ainsi que chez les particuliers.

With the current pandemic, many medicines and disinfectants are being used, both in hospitals and clinics, but also in shops and in private homes.

The measures taken by governments to combat Covid-19 are not without consequences for the environment. For example, it would appear that “the Senegalese government has just suspended one of the provisions of the anti-plastic law: the ban on water sachets. The application of this provision, which has a strong economic and social impact, will only be reinstated after the Covid-19 pandemic.” (16)

Exposure to chemical substances poses a risk to humans and the environment. Decreased fertility, early puberty, certain cancers or degenerative diseases, and obesity. And many of these diseases are aggravating factors for Covid-19.

To the list of pollutants is added the presence of Coronavirus in wastewater. A team of researchers from EPFL and EAWAG was able to detect traces of this virus in the wastewater from Lausanne, Lugano and Zurich. The aim of the research is to develop “an early warning system for a possible resurgence of infections. “ (17)

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