New Delhi: The pollution levels which rise quickly in the Indo-Gangetic plains with the onset of winter could worsen the Covid-19 situation in India, doctors and environmental experts have said.

Doctors say that since Covid-19 is a respiratory disease, rising pollution levels, which also affects one’s lungs, would aggravate Covid-19 infection in affected people.

Dr K.K. Agarwal, senior cardiologist and former president of the Indian Medical Association, told The Sunday Guardian, “Pollution which is caused by Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and PM 10 affects the lungs and so does Covid-19. With increase in pollution levels, as we have seen every year during the winter months, all of us need to be extra cautious as the recovery rate from Covid-19 could be impacted severely since both Covid-19 and pollution affect the lungs. Covid-19 patients could take longer to heal because of weak functioning of the lungs amid a heavily polluted atmosphere.”

Dr K.K. Agarwal said that the use of N-95 masks will be crucial during the pollution period rather than the regular three-layer masks, as N-95 masks are best suited for pollution and could provide further respite to people.

Several studies conducted by reputed institutions have also linked pollution with its effect on recovery from Covid-19. A study done by the Harvard Institutes’ School of Public Health has found that even a small increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 levels was associated with an 8% increase in Covid-19-related fatality.

Another study published by various scientists from institutes like the Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research, Cochin University of Science and Technology, Ernakulam; The Department of Atomic and Molecular Physics, Louisiana State University, Los Angeles, U.S.; among others, in a research titled “Potential link between compromised air quality and transmission of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in affected areas”, published in the Environmental Research journal, has also found a possible link in rise in spread of Covid-19 infection when pollution levels are high.

Pollution levels in cities that lie on the Indo-Gangetic plains rise to extreme levels every winter. States like Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, among others, face one of the worst pollution levels during the winter season when air circulation in the upper atmosphere is poor, leading to heavy smog.

Every winter, Delhi witnesses one of the worst pollution levels in the world, when the PM levels in the air reach around 600 to 700, making the air highly toxic to breathe. High pollution levels in Delhi are due to many factors including stubble burning by farmers in the neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab, industrial pollution, and vehicular pollution.

Anumita RoyChowdhury, Project Director at the Centre for Science and Environment, told The Sunday Guardian said that the problems of pollution need to be handled in a strategic manner in the entire Indo-Gangetic plains.

“Beginning from November, when the onset of winter happens in the Indo-Gangetic plains, pollution levels in the entire area increase and this is because of several conditions, prime among which is its geographical position. The entire plains are land-locked with poor ventilation and very slow air movement, making the air dense and, therefore, leaving little scope for the particulate matter to move into the upper atmosphere. This creates a condition of smog. The rising pollution level this year is of more serious concern because of the times we are living in with Covid-19. Covid-19 is a respiratory disease and pollution, too, affects the lungs and certainly pollution is going to make people more vulnerable as weak lungs cannot fight strongly,” RoyChowdhury said, adding that the problem of pollution will have to be dealt with by both the state and Central governments strategically.

On the question of stubble burning–which has already started in some parts of Punjab and Haryana–which also contributes in a big way to rising pollution levels in north India, RoyChowdhury said, “Stubble burning is an episodic occurrence which takes place from October to November and when it happens, it contributes a major chunk to air pollution. What governments need to do is provide farmers with machines so that the straws are not burnt, but mixed with the soil. Secondly, an incentive scheme for farmers needs to be put in place under which their straws are collected and taken from the farmers by paying them some money. This year, the NTPC is procuring straws from the farmers which would be used for power generation; the Indian Oil Corporation is also soon going to set up plants where these straws will be brought from the farmers and plants will be set up to produce bio CNG.”