Looking at the Positives: COVID-19 & Our Environment


Ashley Fisher

With the coronavirus ruining the economy, people’s social lives, and life as we know it, there are some positive outcomes of the pandemic. The biggest one is that scientists are seeing improvements in the environment and air quality as a result of people staying in their homes and economic shutdowns. 

The first positive changes were noted at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. Officials stated that the city had a return of blue skies in their usually smog-filled city. Many animals returned and trees were green again. Satellite images captured by NASA showed a major decrease in nitrogen dioxide over China since the beginning of this year as a result of a decline in industry and the use of vehicles. Pieternel Levelt from the Dutch Met office KNMI and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands reported that nitrogen dioxide levels within the last couple of months in China were 35 percent lower compared to the same amount of time last year. In some individual cities, these levels are 50 to 60 percent lower.

Stanford University scientist and Earth Systems Professor Marshall Burke used China’s emissions data to determine what effect reduced pollution can have on the health of residents. He used data from US government sensors in Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing that measure air pollutants. His calculations revealed that the reductions of these harmful emissions could potentially save 77,000 Chinese residents’ lives. Professor Burke stated that “having 2 months of 10ug/m3 reductions in PM2.5 likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China.” According to Professor Burke, the lives saved from pollution reductions are about twenty times the number of lives that have been lost due to the coronavirus.

Major improvements have been seen in Italy as well. Levelt’s study also reported that nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased by forty percent in many of the country’s largest cities like Milan. Also, due to the decline in tourism and the absence of visitors using boats, the canals of Venice are now clear and fish have been seen swimming.

The effects of quarantine seem to have an impact on wildlife all across the world. In Japan, sika deer living in the popular tourist attraction Nara Park were seen in urban areas foraging for food after restrictions on visitors were implemented. Typically, tourists buy snakes to feed to the deer but now the animals have found a way to survive without these treats.

James Parkhurst, an Associate Professor of Wildlife Science at Virginia Tech, suspects “there likely will be far fewer food resources available in these urban environments as people are gone, restaurants have closed, businesses are slowing down or shuttering, and as a result, dumpsters remain empty and trash on the streets vanishes—could be an interesting study as animals that have come to rely on such resources now have to scramble to find alternate options.”

In Thailand, monkeys grew accustomed to living off of food given to them by tourists. But due to a large decrease in visitor numbers, a mob of monkeys was seen fighting over a single cup of yogurt in the city of Lopburi. Residents of Lopburi have begun to help these monkeys by leaving food out for them so they do not have to fight over a small yogurt cup and fear starvation. While this is entertaining now and can be seen as a growing relationship between animals and humans, it could become a dangerous issue when life returns to normal and streets are filled with cars, buses, and tourists again.

While there have been many positive impacts on the environment, there are some negatives as well. For example, there is an increase in online purchases and meal deliveries due to stay-at-home orders. This has caused an increase in the disposal of single-use plastic packaging as well as more fossil fuels burned for the delivery of these products. There has also been an increase in medical waste. For example, hospitals in Wuhan produced over 200 tons of waste per day, four times the amount of waste prior to the pandemic during the peak of their outbreak.

It is important that these progressions with our environment are highlighted and encouraged even during this time of economic distress. Hard economic times could cause many to turn away from environmental protection. For example, if consumers stop purchasing solar and electric vehicles, the progress made toward decarbonization could be stalled.  

While this is a hard, devastating, and confusing time for everyone, it is important to find the positives in this situation. Even after this pandemic is over, it is essential that we continue to practice some of the same precautions in place to continue this environmental progress that has been so quickly made.