At 7 a.m. in mid-November, the New Delhi air smells of acrid smoke and the sky is covered in a grimy brown haze. The air quality is comparable to that of Beijing on its most polluted days, and will deteriorate further as temperatures and winds drop, covering the national capital region in smog for months.
On-farm stubble burning, vehicle emissions and the overwhelming winter have pushed the city’s air quality index into the severe category as more than 5,000 cases of coronavirus are confirmed daily.
Doctors said the pandemic has revealed how pollution has made populations more vulnerable to disease, warning that an influx of coronavirus patients with severe symptoms, made worse by dangerous air, could overwhelm Indian hospitals .
“There is a definitive association between mortality from Covid and air pollution,” said Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist in New Delhi. “More people with respiratory illnesses will develop symptoms.”
Long-term exposure to air pollution is linked to 15 percent of “potentially preventable” deaths from Covid-19, the researchers behind a new study published in the journal Cardiovascular Research said.
“Air pollution acts as a super spreader for Covid,” said Thomas Münzel, co-author and cardiologist at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He said the particles made the lungs more susceptible to coronavirus infection.
The pollution season in India poses an ongoing problem for authorities who have failed to develop an effective strategy to reduce emissions. Every year, blankets of smog cover northern India, home to 10 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world.
Last year when the index hit 1000 – it is expected to be below 50 – Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi State he told me the capital had “become a gas chamber”.
Mr Kejriwal’s government last month launched a ‘green war room’, tasked with monitoring pollution levels in the nation’s capital region and deploying law enforcement agencies to crack down on environmental offenses such as burning garbage and illegal industrial activity.
One of the first recruits to the war room was Aashima Arora. Ms Arora quit her high-paying job at Citibank to join the Air Pollution Action Group, determined to tackle the toxic air that kills more than one million Indians each year.
As a child growing up in New Delhi, Ms Arora didn’t even know the color of the sky until she went on a family vacation to the Himalayas when she was five.
“I don’t remember seeing a blue sky in Delhi. They are as rare as rainbows, ”said the 24-year-old, who blames the heavy smog that is choking the city for her asthma and severe allergies.
“In winter I am [usually] afraid to leave my house. Now with the coronavirus. . . it’s absolutely scary, ”she said.
Inside the War Room, a series of giant screens display air quality indicators as well as satellite maps that identify fires.
There is also a dashboard to track complaints about pollution that could exacerbate smog, with the public encouraged to alert authorities to non-compliant construction sites, garbage fire, or illegal industrial work with a new app. .
Pollution has also boosted entrepreneurship. Jai Dhar Gupta, managing director of New Delhi-based mask maker Nirvana Being, said this year’s sales were up 3,000%.
“We already have a respiratory virus [Covid-19] that we don’t understand, now we’re adding tons and tons of poison to the air, ”said Mr. Gupta, who founded his business in 2015 after his lungs collapsed while training for a marathon in New Delhi.
“We are going to experience an unprecedented public health disaster.”
After hitting major cities, the coronavirus is now sweeping through rural areas of India, where most of the population lives and medical infrastructure is weak.
The nation of 1.4 billion people has the second highest number of coronavirus infections in the world with more than 8.85 million cases and has recorded 130,000 deaths.
A government-appointed panel of experts recently concluded that the outbreak in the country may have peaked and could be under control by February. But the claim has been disputed by experts who point out that test data and deaths may be underreported.
It is not only in the capital that fears are mounting. Puneet Singh Perhar, a pulmonologist based in Jalandhar, northern Punjab, said: “Every winter the condition of patients with respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary bronchitis and bronchitis worsens due to of air pollution in northern India. ”
“This time there is also the coronavirus infection,” he added. “The number of patients will increase. It’s scary. “
Video: Why India is struggling to cope with Covid-19