Citing studies in Europe and the US, the Union government has admitted that long-term exposure to air pollution has a link to higher COVID-19 fatalities.
According to Professor Balram Bhargava, Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research, these studies have found that "virus particles remain suspended with PM 2.5 particulate matter, but they are not active viruses". “It could be dead as well.”
Bhargava was referring to the study done by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston. The analysis was done in 3,000 US counties covering 98% of the population. The study had found that an increase of only 1μg/m3 in PM2.5 particles is associated with a 15% increase in the Covid-19 death rate.
India happens to lead the list of 10 countries with the highest weighted average exposure to particulate matter. Hundred percent Indians breathe in toxic air, suggests a report called the State of Global Air 2020.
Likewise, a study done in Italy had found that atmospheric pollution was a major co-factor in extremely high level of SARS-CoV-2 lethality in northern part of the country. “The high level of pollution in northern Italy should be considered an additional co-factor of the high level of lethality recorded in that area,” the study had concluded.
Every winter, the air quality in north India, especially Delhi, dips to an abysmally low. Asserting that high levels of air pollution can aggravate the COVID-19 pandemic, Bhargava said that the most inexpensive prevention for COVID-19 and pollution is widespread adherence to wearing of masks.
In some cities with high pollution levels, people wear masks even when there is no pandemic, he pointed out.
"So, following COVID-appropriate behaviour is a must -- be it wearing of masks, maintaining social distancing, adoption of respiratory etiquette and adhering to hand hygiene; these do not cost us anything. Wearing a mask has a double advantage as it can protect one from COVID-19 as well as from pollution," the ICMR chief said.
About the spread of coronavirus infection among children in India, he said the country's overall figure shows that of the total COVID-19 positive cases, only eight per cent are below the age of 17.
"For those below five years, the figure would be probably less than one per cent," Bhargava said, adding there is some evidence that children "can be spreaders, rather super-spreaders".