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What the Coronavirus Pandemic Means for Our Earth

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an integral part of our lives around the world for several months now; and while it has been a terrifying and tragic time for many, the earth has been given a moment to breathe. Therefore, it is the right time to look at the environmental implications of COVID-19, both in the short and long term. 

A dirty mask and piece of paper in the middle of the road

Source: Clément Falize [10]

We want to make it clear that our aim here is not in any way to minimize the suffering that the pandemic has caused. However, we believe it is important that we take every opportunity to analyse the environmental impact of important events and learning from these for the future.

Medical Waste

In Wuhan, the first city that was significantly impacted by the disease, the authorities reported that medical waste had increased by around 480% from 50 tons per day to 240 tons per day at the peak [1]. This type of waste, especially in times of COVID-19 is usually incinerated in facilities either attached or nearby to hospitals [8, 9]. However, waste management experts in Indonesia are very concerned that there is a dangerous lack of medical waste treatment facilities near a majority of Indonesian hospitals [6, 8]. Thus, the staggering increase in medical waste is not only bad for the environment, but increases the potential for the virus to spread [5].

Household Waste

While global data doesn’t appear to be available yet, Chinese authorities have reported that during quarantine, Chinese citizens have been producing significantly more household waste than before. The most common explanation for this seems to be an increase in online shopping, including food and clothing, which produces a lot more waste than buying in person [7].

Further, researchers also fear that fears over contracting COVID-19 may push consumers to buy more single-use plastics and individually wrapped items, due to them appearing more hygienic than their multi-use variants [1].

Improvement in Air Quality

The most significant environmental relief has been the increase in air quality around the world. In China, there has been a 25% reduction in CO2 output, as well as a large decrease in the emissions of other harmful gases [1].

Marshall Burke of Stanford University estimates that these increases in air quality have saved the lives of over 75,000 people living in China, mostly toddlers and the elderly.

A similar picture has been recorded in Italy and New York, where the latter has seen a 50% reduction in emissions compared to last year [2]. How did these numbers drop so quickly? For starters, air, ground, and sea travel have decreased significantly due to travel restrictions and less overseas trade [3]. Furthermore, output from high-pollution production plants such as coal have also decreased due to a fall in overall power consumption.

A road full of cars

Source: Alexander Popov [11]

Potential Changes in Corporate Norms

One of the biggest opportunities that has been created by COVID-19 is the potential for a large scale restructuring of corporations. Despite the required technology existing for many years, businesses have been unwilling to run large-scale experiments with increasing hours employees can work from home, until they were forced to now [4]. By granting employees much more home-office time, this would decrease rush hour traffic in big cities immensely and therefore aid in cutting emissions and air pollution.

Further, one thing that has also become very clear during this pandemic is that while heavily globalised supply chains are very effective economically, they have the inherent weakness of crippling the economy when an important manufacturing country faces a pandemic. Some non-Chinese companies have already announced a renewed effort to increase their local production, resulting in greatly diminished shipping emissions [4].


While these measures have given us short-term positive impacts, this pandemic and its measures will not last forever and emissions will start to steadily climb back up to pre COVID-19 levels. However, environmental action is about helping all humans, especially those that are affected the most by climate change. 

Despite their effects, the current actions taken are not the answer for environmental issues because people are losing their jobs, livelihoods and, frankly, lives. Therefore, we need to use this pandemic as a chance to think and reflect on the effect we have on our planet, and what we can do to change that. 

Within weeks and across the entire globe, millions of people radically changed their lives and isolated themselves from family and other loved ones.

We need to realise that the same level of commitment and effort needs to be put into protecting the planet we all share. 

If we can move nations to take bold actions to contain COVID-19, then we can definitely move against climate change. Although we cannot directly feel the effects of climate change as strongly as COVID-19, it does not mean that it is not present. They both deserve the same sense of urgency because the Earth does not heal overnight.






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