India | Doctors exchange knowledge and strategies to protect air quality as lockdown eases

In a first-of-its-kind webinar, doctors across regions and specialities in India came together to build a strong health sector response to ensure clean air as India begins to reopen. Titled Air Pollution and COVID-19: Strategies for Health Experts to Engage on Air Pollution post Relaxation of COVID-19 Lockdown in India, this webinar hosted by Health Care Without Harm’s partners in India received over 230 registrations, with 1,800+ views through the live stream on Facebook (available here) and 200 individuals joining live through Zoom.

Dr. Poornima Prabhakaran, additional professor and deputy director at the Centre for Environmental Health at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), set the stage with an introduction to India’s struggle with air pollution. Speaking to the unprecedented times we are currently in, and addressing how India had become the air pollution capital of the world, Dr. Poornima was quoted saying that “we have the dubious distinction of housing 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities in our country.”  Dr. Poornima further spoke about how most people think that air pollution only has impacts on the respiratory system, but increasingly we know now that it is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, neuro cognitive development, and mental health issues. COVID-19 has just added another layer to all of this.

Following this the webinar discussion centered around how air pollution increases vulnerability to the coronavirus; the disruption of environmental regulations and its effect on the health of communities; and what governments, public health professionals, and healthcare workers can do to educate communities around the negative effects of climate change on one’s health, especially as we think about what “recovery” post lockdown will look like.

According to Aarti Khosla, Director of Climate Trends, the lockdown in India has shown that “once emissions are in the atmosphere, cleaning them up is a lost battle. Better to manage urban emissions at source to tackle the crisis.” She further noted that while India has seen blue skies, birds, and clean streets, even with the lockdown 30-40% pollution still remains. This points to the fact that it is equally important to make sure that emissions are managed, or not created in the first place.

Ideas around green stimulus efforts were brought forth. Green stimulus efforts are those that provide financial support to clean alternatives and sustainable development alternatives. These strategies could be implemented for a safe re-opening of the country.

“We need to avoid the temptation, in the name of recovery of the economy, to go back to intensive use of fossil fuels or intensive use of cars,” warned Dr. D.J. Christopher, Professor and Head of Pulmonary Medicine at CMC Vellore. 

Further, Dr. Arvind Kumar (Chairman, Center for Chest Surgery, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Founder and Trustee, Lung Care Foundation) alluded that because of an urgency to rectify economic issues, there will be a tendency to say goodbye to pollution principles and deforestation at massive levels will occur — and if we do this in a reckless manner, we will regret it tomorrow. Loosening of environmental norms for factories, coal plants, and mines may appear to help in the short term, but it will have debilitating economic and health impacts moving forward. 

The implementation of green energy in health centers was also discussed. India could solarize 39,000 un-electrified primary health centers serving 230 million rural Indians. These green efforts can go a long way to promoting good health and clean and green environmental practices, while also moving the economy forward.

A key take away from this webinar was that health professionals can use their trusted voice to stress the vulnerability to one’s health and comorbidities due to air pollution, poor environmental regulations, and more broadly climate change, so that patients realize the importance of the issue and make personal efforts to create awareness, educate, and make changes. They can help people realize that behavior change amongst citizens can ensure good policies by the government. Dr. Kumar rightly said, “this is the most defining moment in the history of mankind where our actions today will define our future on this planet.”

Shweta Narayan (Coordinator, Healthy Energy Initiative, India) wrapped up the webinar with an emphasis on health. “This entire conversation brings to the center that there is a push and an agreement that health should be at the center of all decision making from now on”. 

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