The gas chamberUnchecked pollution has made Kathmandu a dangerous place to live.
As if the dip in the temperature was not enough, Kathmandu on Monday felt like a gas chamber as the city dwellers found themselves suffocating, their eyes burning, and the sky clouded by thick fog. Ditto with the dwellers of two major cities in the east and the west respectively, Biratnagar and Nepalgunj. AQ AirVisual, a Swiss group that collects real-time air-quality data from around the world, said Kathmandu was the most polluted city in the world on Monday, with PM2.5 levels reaching 488 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) at 5:45 pm at Ratnapark station as per the United States Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index. The air became slightly better on Tuesday and Wednesday, although it remains unhealthy for most of the population of the country, raising concerns among city dwellers, health professionals and government officials.
While preliminary analyses have shown that the recent spike in air pollution is the result of the weather and is fairly temporary, it is not a completely natural phenomenon. Rather, it also points to a larger problem of the longstanding pollution problem in major cities in Nepal, primarily Kathmandu, where the burning of fossil fuels has gone unchecked for the longest time. As a result, the health—and life—of the citizens are at stake. The governments of all three tiers of the federal structure must come up with an immediate action plan to mitigate the problem. The federal government has said it has been mulling various actions to mitigate the risks caused by the pollution, including imposing odd-even rules for vehicles. That, however, may not be enough, as several reports from the experience in New Delhi over the years have shown that it offers only a minor respite from air pollution.
The direct effect of the recent spike in air pollution level is already evident in how doctors from various hospitals have reported that the number of people suffering from respiratory complications has spiked in the past few days, some of whom are at a critical stage and are admitted in intensive care units. Air pollution causes millions of premature deaths every year, but it is especially punishing for Covid-19 patients with respiratory problems and other serious ailments as it exacerbates the symptoms, leading to increased mortality. Researchers have confirmed air pollution has a direct correlation with coronavirus infection—the higher the pollution level, the greater the risk of Covid-19 mortality. Air pollution particles are also considered to be acting as agents of coronavirus transmission.
Air pollution is never a good thing. But it becomes worse when it comes coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic. As the government scrambles to find ways to mitigate the problem, the citizens are well advised to follow the Department of Environment’s request to children and the elderly suffering from respiratory problems, cough and heart ailments to stay indoors. Citizens must also become self-aware about the dangers of air pollution, and find ways to mitigate it at the community level by reducing different forms of emission, including a complete halt to the burning of firewood and straw to beat the chill, because even a small increase in PM2.5 particles has huge effects.