The capital city of Delhi has reported the largest COVID spike in the last week. In the month of November along with approaching winter winds that make the suspended particulate matter stay in the air for long the city is also the unwilling recipient of noxious chemicals originating from the stubble burning in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana. Despite many warnings from the Delhi state and Punjab administration, it’s the same story every year.
But this year this annual pollution scenario has exacerbated the Covid-19 caseload and number of deaths in November. There are several studies that have linked air pollution to the high number and severe COVID cases. A Harvard University study shows that an increase of only one microgram per cubic metre in PM 2.5 – dangerous tiny pollutants in the air – is associated with an 8% increase in the Covid-19 death rate.
PM2.5 levels in Delhi have averaged around 180-300 micrograms per cubic metre in recent weeks – 12 times higher than the WHO’s safe limits.
Another study by scientists at the UK’s University of Cambridge also found a link between the severity of Covid-19 infection and long-term exposure to air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and ground-level ozone from car exhaust fumes or burning of fossil fuels. “Such pollutants can also cause a persistent inflammatory response and increase the risk of infection by viruses that target the respiratory tract,” Marco Travaglio, one of the co-authors of the study, told the BBC.
According to Dr. Arvind Kumar chairperson, Centre for Chest Surgery at Sir Gangaram Hospital (SGRH), New Delhi, – The record-high number of new COVID-19 cases being reported in Delhi is a “direct effect of air pollution”.
Virus particles piggyback on particulate matter in the air, and enter the lungs, Kumar explains, adding that pollution is also related to heart disease, hypertension, etc., all of which increase the risk of mortality from COVID-19.
“If this deadly cocktail–the festivities which will occur over the next few days, coupled with the steep rise in pollution–has an effect on COVID and we see a massive spike, it will be disastrous for the people as well as for the healthcare sector because the ICUs are almost choked, at least in all Delhi hospitals,” Kumar says, emphasizing the need to wear masks, maintain physical distance and practice hand hygiene, in addition to doing everything we can to reduce pollution.
Kumar is also the director of the Institute of Robotic Surgery at the SGRH, and founder of the Lung Care Foundation.
Doctors said that due to low temperatures and increased air pollution, the particulate matter remains suspended in the air for a longer period and this increases transmissibility of the novel coronavirus, making people more vulnerable to the disease.
“The second mechanism linking increased COVID-cases and mortality due to air pollution is that exposure to polluted air is known to cause inflammation and cellular damage, making it easy for the virus or any other pathogenic microbe to invade our lungs and also that this process of inflammation may suppress the early immune response to infection, making an individual more susceptible,” Dr. Nangia said.
“It has been observed that in areas with poor quality air, not only do the number of people developing COVID increase but so does the death rate. With every 1 micron/cubic meter increase in the PM 2.5 particles, the mortality rate increases by 8%. A direct relationship exists between air pollution and COVID-19 infection. There is a positive association of PM2.5, PM10, CO, NO2 and O3 with COVID-19 confirmed cases observed,” he said. Vivek Nangia, Principal Director and Head of Pulmonology at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Saket in Delhi.