Coronavirus lockdowns gave our cities cleaner air

Written on 14 October 2020

Lockdowns have started again all over Europe and we can’t help but remember how traumatic our first experience with them was. While there are no silver linings in a pandemic, some interesting data emerged from several European studies during the first wave of the Coronavirus epidemic and the subsequent lockdowns and movement restrictions imposed in most countries. From such data, we might draw useful insight on how to make our urban landscapes healthier and safer.

Lockdown reduces air pollution

What nobody expected was for the European lockdowns to reduce air pollution across the continent in a measurable way, with a significant impact on nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels. According to calculations made by comparing data from previous years, this reduction in atmospheric contamination caused a 40% drop in deaths from pollution-related diseases. In essence, it is estimated that 11,000 fewer people died because of the cleaner air across the continent.

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How pollution damages our health

It is calculated that everyone loses an average of two years of life just because of fine particles and pollutants released into the atmosphere by transport, industry, and practically every other human activity. This is why the absence of traffic, combined with a sharp drop in demand for electricity, which has led to the decommissioning of many coal-fired power stations, has had a more than positive impact on the collective health of the European population.

Have we learned something?

Of course, this is no time for celebration. There are no positive sides to Covid: whereas 11,000 alleged deaths have been prevented throughout Europe, the virus has caused over 40,000 in Italy alone. However, we can learn a basic lesson: our society could, if it wanted to, reorganise itself towards sustainability and substantially reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The economy could benefit from this too. Lockdowns paralysed several businesses, but it is estimated that cleaner air has prevented the loss of over a million working days due to respiratory diseases (especially asthma). This does not mean, of course, that there is anything to be happy about: the lockdown measures were temporary and pollution levels are rapidly returning to “normal”. However, many people hope that the widespread tendency of businesses to let employees work from home and the persistent mistrust for crowded spaces that makes many people cycle to work rather than take public transport may still encourage society to explore options for sustainable development.