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A farmer burns straw stubble in a field near Jandiala Guru in Amritsar, India on October 16. Sameer Sehgal / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

A familiar scene takes place in northern India. Vast fields are burning, flames engulf the bare stems of crops already harvested. Swirling smoke crosses state borders. In cities, the air is thick with yellow haze.

Stubble burning, the practice of intentionally setting fire to cultivated fields to prepare the land for its next harvest, is one of the main drivers of India’s so-called annual pollution season, which begins every winter.

This is particularly serious in cities like the capital New Delhi, where smog from burning crop fields, vehicle emissions, power plants, construction sites and smoke from Diwali firecrackers combine to create a toxic cloud. which persists until spring.

Authorities have been trying for years to tackle this serious public health risk – but there is a new urgency this year, with fears that pollution may exacerbate the danger of Covid-19.

India’s coronavirus outbreak has infected nearly 7.6 million people and killed more than 115,000, according to the country’s health ministry. India went into a total nationwide lockdown for months in an attempt to contain the virus – but with little success. Currently India has the second highest number of infections in the world, after the United States, and the third highest number of deaths.

Experts and politicians now fear that the onset of pollution season could pose a double threat, putting people at increased risk of serious infection, while increasing pressure on public health services.

“The combination of air pollution with Covid-19, and especially since it is going to happen during the winter months, is something that we really need to be concerned about and take adequate measures, so as not to not let a huge spike happen. in the number of cases, ”said Dr Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

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