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  • Sabina Griebel

COVID-19's Impact on the Environment


The COVID-19 pandemic will cause ramifications across the world even after its eventual declared end. This article examines the effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had - and will have - on the environment.

Art by Sophia Hidalgo

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world almost a full year after it first began, with California specifically seeing 50,000 or more new cases each day. Still, as vaccine rollout continues - regardless of the bureaucratic mishaps - many are beginning to look to life after the pandemic. Experts across every field are asking themselves, how will things change? Economically, socially, and, of course, environmentally.

Earlier in the year, a number of photos went viral on social media depicting the clean skies of Chinese cities, swans in the canals of Venice, and other such images of nature and animals flourishing. The cause, reportedly, was the widespread lockdowns of cities and their residents. The narrative was clear: as humans stopped engaging in travel and commerce, ecosystems negatively affected by human activity recovered to some extent. As summed up in a phrase quickly mocked on social media, “nature is healing, we are the virus”.

A screenshot of the now-deleted tweet, via @AurelBoriciBT on Twitter.

The photos of swans in the canals of Venice, now deleted but that had hit one million likes on Twitter, turned out to be a sham. The swans are regulars in the canals, and similar photos of animals soon turned out to be misconstructions of the truth.

There is some truth, of course, in these claims of environmental recovery. Without human disruption, animals who live in and around Lake Michigan were able to extend their hours of activity during the nine-week-long lockdown in Chicago earlier this year. Places where human activity would scare away most animals saw an increased animal presence.

Those picturesque blue skies seen in China - sometimes for the first time in years - have even more truth to them. An article from mid-February found that China’s carbon emissions fell by about 25% to lows not seen for four years or more. In India, where stories of being able to see the Himalayas due to a lack of air pollution hit social media, nitrogen dioxide levels fell by 71% in New Delhi.

A comparison of the skies around India Gate, a monument in New Delhi, before and during COVID-19 lockdowns via CBS News.

Unfortunately, these gains are all temporary. As soon as lockdowns end and businesses reopen, both animals and air will return to their damaged norm; in fact, the pandemic has also had detrimental environmental effects.

Deforestation in the Amazon increased more than 50% in the first three months of 2020, as the coronavirus provides cover for illegal loggers. Deforestation in the Amazon affects the water supply in the region, local temperatures, and the indigenous people who live there. A lack of tourists and safari guides means that poachers in Eastern Africa have upped their activities as parks suffer from the loss of ecotourism and the money it brings. These animals, most of them already endangered, are having their populations severely damaged by poachers.

The consumption of single-use plastics has also drastically increased. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the form of masks, gloves, gowns, and hand sanitizer bottles has grown exponentially. As dine-in eating is banned, takeout containers are used more and more. Online shopping, more popular during the pandemic, comes along with its own disposable packaging. Low oil prices, too, have encouraged manufacturers to use new oil rather than recycled materials to produce plastics, contributing to the further burning of fossil fuels.

As we all look toward the future, we all hope that something like this will never happen again, that we will be better prepared, and that we’ll take measures to prevent another pandemic. Sadly, this is probably not the case.

COVID-19 is most likely a “zoonotic disease”, meaning it is transmitted from animals to humans - like 75% of new diseases. This phenomenon is ever-increasing as animal rearing grows more concentrated and intensive to keep up with demand. As animal agriculture only grows, so will the chance of a new disease.

With worsening climate and human health, pandemics such as COVID-19 will probably continue and get more frequent.

That is why action now is so essential. Knowing the chances of such a pandemic occurring again means that governments around the world must implement plans for early detection, prepare their healthcare systems, and work to pass climate change legislation. The European Union’s plan for pandemic economic recovery is focused on transitions to green energy and commerce. The idea is for the economy to recover toward a greener, brighter future.

Hopefully, actions such as these become widespread, actively encouraging (and requiring) countries, companies, and people to restructure their lives in a more climate-friendly way. While the next decades hold harsh truths, they also have the potential for recovery and improvement.

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