Air pollution led to 1,73,500 deaths in Bangladesh last year, according to a global report. The country's air is becoming increasingly poisonous in the absence of effective measures to control the release of pollutants. We remain among the countries with the poorest air in the world during winter. Despite witnessing fresh air and clear skies during the lockdown early this year, it seems pollution has come back for the worse. We are witnessing a worrying surge in Covid-19 cases again, even though winter is yet to set in. Poor quality air causes inflammation in the lungs, making people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases and infections like Covid-19. Researchers at Harvard University associated an increase of only one microgram per cubic metre of air in fine particulate matter called PM 2.5 with an eight percent increase in Covid-19 morbidity.
Why have we allowed air pollution levels to deteriorate to such an extent? What is more worrying is the fact that a study from last year found the air quality in surveyed schools to be hazardous for children— affecting their neurodevelopment and cognitive ability, damaging their lung function, and putting them at greater risk of chronic diseases. Even though the educational institutions are closed, the AQI is around 10 percent higher than it was a year ago, which makes indoor pollution quite high.
There are a number of things that reduce air quality. As traffic has picked up with the reopening of the economy, vehicle exhaust fumes cause high concentration of NO2. Noxious fumes are emitted from brick kilns and traditional stoves, which affect women especially. Dust from construction sites is also a major contributor to both outdoor and indoor pollution. Thus, children and adults with respiratory problems such as asthma are at greater risk during this pandemic.
It is high time that our policymakers take concerted steps to improve air quality. The number of vehicles on the roads must be reduced; unfit vehicles emitting toxic smoke must be taken off the streets, there should be regular water spraying on the roads to reduce dust, particularly during winter, brick kilns cannot be built near schools or homes and widespread use of fuel efficient stoves have to be initiated. These are not ambitious tasks and can be implemented with proper coordination. At a time when we are in the grips of a virus that viciously attacks the lungs, poor quality air that weakens the respiratory system will be even more deadly.