‘Bad air leading to Covid-19 spike; respite soon’: Arvind Kejriwal
Kejriwal’s comments come at a time when the city has recorded persistently grim Covid numbers – it logged the most single-day fatalities on Thursday and, a day earlier, the most number of new cases.
Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Friday identified high levels of air pollution as “one of the biggest factors” for the spike in Covid-19 infections, linking the two crises the Capital is currently reeling under, but said that the third wave of the coronavirus disease outbreak in the city was likely to come under control in another 7-10 days.
Kejriwal’s comments come at a time when the city has recorded persistently grim Covid numbers – it logged the most single-day fatalities on Thursday and, a day earlier, the most number of new cases. The city’s hospitals have been swamped as active cases rose from 21,490 on October 13 to over 43,000 on November 13.
At the same time, the air quality in the Capital has been several times over the safe limit for most of this month. For six days from November 6, it remained in the “severe” zone – above 401 – with the reading at some monitoring centres maxing out.
Exposure to high levels of air pollution may exacerbate a Covid-19 infection, particularly since the virus as well as the particulate matter affect a person’s ability to breathe once they enter deep into the lungs. For every 1ug/m3 increase in exposure to PM2.5, the increase in mortality risk due to Covid-19 rises by 11%, a group of researchers from Harvard University said in a recent study.
“Whatever necessary steps are needed, we are taking them. There are steps we will take over the next few days, next week and we believe within the next 7-10 days, the outbreak will be brought under control,” the CM said in a video press conference.
Kejriwal did not elaborate on the options being considered by the government to control the outbreak, but according to senior government officials who asked not to be named, the administration has asked the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) to convene a meeting by Tuesday.
Experts said they feared it might take longer for the city to turn the corner from its current peak.
“By the current trends, it looks like cases can go up for at least another three weeks unless the government imposes certain restrictions on non-essential activities – that can concern market timings, size of gatherings, etc,” said Dr Lalit Kant, former head of the epidemiology and communicable diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
“We are seeing slightly more severe cases that are taking longer to recover. There are different theories but the most plausible seems to be rise in air pollution levels as this trend is largely seen in Delhi where pollution levels are the highest,” said Dr Rajesh Chawla, senior consultant, respiratory and critical care medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital.
“Both, severe pollution and festive season is contributing to the spread and severity of the disease, and how the outbreak pans out we will get to know exactly once the festive season gets over. The cases will eventually come down but I don’t see it happening in days; it will probably take weeks,” he added.
The spike has been particularly pronounced due to the festive season. In the week ending October 25, when the city held muted Dussehra celebrations, there were an average of 3,663 cases every day. As on Thursday, this number rose to 7,196.
In comparison, the number was 2,627 in the first week of October.
In his address, the chief minister spoke at length about the air quality crisis, which he said has played a big role in driving the epidemic. “One of the biggest reasons for Covid-19 spike in Delhi is rise in pollution,” Kejriwal said.
The 24-hour air quality index according to Friday’s 4pm bulletin stood at 339, in the “very poor“ category, worse than the 314 on Thursday, and weather experts expect the number to worsen over the weekend when at least some people are expected to defy bans to burst firecrackers.
“Even though we have forecast that this Diwali is likely to be better compared to the last few years, the weather is expected to be unfavourable. If people in the city burst crackers, then the pollution level could slip to ‘severe’ on Diwali day and a day after,” said VK Soni, head of IMD’s environment monitoring research centre.
The crisis prompted the National Green Tribunal to ban the use of firecrackers across the National Capital Region (NCR), a decision that was also based on research showing a strong link between Covid-19 severity and bad air quality.
“This time, the period of hazardous air seems to have arrived even before Diwali. The relationship of air pollution with severity of pneumonia is well established. Therefore, it is expected that there will be an increase in positivity and severity of Covid 19. Instead, all efforts should be made to curb pollution,” the tribunal said on November 9.
The link between pollution and coronavirus disease was first made in Italy where officials discovered almost 40% of documented cases and a third of fatalities in the northern region of Lombardy.
The epicentre of the outbreak also turned out to be a heavy industrialised and polluted region.
The findings were backed by a statistical analysis of Covid-19 case and mortality spread across the 3,089 counties of United States. The team of researchers from Harvard University discovered that regions with worse air quality recorded more serious numbers.
“We found that an increase of 1 ug/m3 in the long-term average PM2.5 is associated with a statistically significant 11% increase in the county’s Covid-19 mortality rate,” said the authors in their report, published in Science Advances on November 4.
The air quality crisis has been an annual event for the last decade, Kejriwal said in his briefing on Friday as he devoted a sizeable chunk to one of the major causes of air pollution: farm fires in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
Kejriwal shared results of an experiment with a bio decomposer – developed by the Pusa Institute – that can be used to dissolve crop stubble that farmers usually burn.
Last month, he said, the bio decomposer was spread over 2,000 acres of farm lands in Delhi and results of the experiment – based on samples collected from 24 villages -- showed that 70%-95% of total crop stubble have been decomposed.
“Now we have a solution. I urge other states, the central government and the Supreme Court to take note of it. The Delhi government will file a petition along with this report to the central government’s air safety commission urging them to issue directions to states to use the bio decomposer,” said Kejriwal.