The Covid-19 crisis, after being declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, nothing is as normal as it was and the world is now getting accustomed to the ‘new normal’. The pandemic has affected almost all the facets of human life and each and every community in the world today is in the battle against the global emergency. Yet, the fatal spread of this novel virus isn’t anywhere finished. In this scenario, it is noteworthy to channel our thoughts into the most lethal impact of the pandemic – the emerging environmental emergency. Human health and health of the environment are not mutually exclusive matters of concern. So healthy is the nature, so healthy are the human beings.
THE GARBAGE CRISIS: OUR SOLUTIONS CREATING POLLUTION
In the tussle for tackling the Covid-19 crisis, priority is given to health, hygiene and safety of the human beings. Face masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, etc. has become the effective tools to protect lives from the spread of the disease. However, nowadays, we are less concerned about the health, hygiene and safety of our environment. The environment amid the pandemic is suffering from suffocation due to the pollution created by the increased production of waste all over the world, necessitated by the urgent medical response to the pandemic. The unestimated amount of garbage accumulated daily has reached at its peak with the exponential growth in the number of COVID-19 patients around the world.
The medical wastes from houses, hospitals, quarantine centres, health centres, etc., get mixed with the domestic garbage and this massive amounts of waste are often disposed by open burning or uncontrolled incineration. This unscientific handling of hazardous medical and chemical waste poses a serious and dangerous threat to the environment as it releases high toxins in the environment and causes marine pollution when it reaches water sources. A medical waste incinerator releases a wide variety of pollutants including particulate matter such as fly ash; heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury, manganese, nickel, lead, etc.); acid gases (hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, sulphur dioxides, nitrogen oxides); carbon monoxide; and organic compounds like benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chlorophenols, trichloroethylene, toluene, xylenes, trichloro-trifluoroethane, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, vinyl chloride, etc.
According to 2019 data of WHO, safe management of health care waste is already very limited. The data representing 560000 facilities from 125 countries indicate that 40% of health care facilities do not segregate waste. The absence of proper identification, collection, segregation, storage, transportation, handling and disposal of biomedical waste not only impede the efforts to check the spread of Covid-19 but also jeopardize the environment. Therefore, addressing the lack of a sound waste management system is very crucial for every nation today as without a healthy environment any effort to reinstate a healthy population would be futile.
Another challenge is even though the governments have specific laws and sound waste management system for addressing the biomedical waste crisis, the implementation and monitoring of the same are at sake nowadays. Most of the systems lack man power due to the surge in the number of patients. India has specific rules as to BMW Management Rules, 2016 and the recent guidelines issued by the Central Pollution Control Board. Also a mobile application called COVID19 BMW has been launched to deal with the garbage crisis in India. Nonetheless, the successful implementation of these measures are at question still in many remote places.
THE DANGER OF SINGLE-USE-PLASTIC CULTURE
Hygiene, being the premier principle in the COVID era, has compelled the people to suspend their recycling and reusing habits and inculcated in them a practice of use and throw culture. The plastic has become synonymous to hygiene and safety. In line with the efforts to counter the spread of disease, recently, the prominent enterprises such as Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Pacific ocean and many others have called off their eco-friendly programs like bring-your-own-cup and started providing the customers disposable articles. This growing trend of disposability is being exploited by the plastic industry all over the world and it is an assault on the efforts of environmentalists to make the planet plastic-free.
The Plastic Industry Association in US has asked the government to make public statement on health and safety benefits of single-use plastics amid the pandemic. The Greenpeace has responded to the issue- “Industry groups have seen this crisis as an opportunity to exploit people’s fears around COVID-19 to push their pro-pollution agendas. Even in the short term, plastic does not inherently make something clean and safe, and we should not confuse corporate public relations with factual medical research….What we do know is that there is no substitute for strict hygiene. Just because a material is made from single-use plastic does not make it less likely to transmit viral infections during use; in fact, plastic surfaces appear to allow coronaviruses to remain infectious for particularly long periods compared to other materials”.
Today, people prefer to buy disposable items out of fear of spread of the disease without taking into consideration the amount of plastic in them or its environmental impacts. The recyclable plastics are being dumped in the land or ocean and causes bio-accumulation. This will have a long-term impacts on the environment and our biodiversity.
IMPACT ON POST-2020 GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT STRATEGIES
Being the end of a decade and the year preceding a new decade, 2020 was expected to be a strategically very crucial environmental year with pivotal National and International conferences and negotiations which could have been decisive in mitigating the current environmental issues and challenges. However, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic most of these meetings have been called off and as a consequence the united efforts to combat major environmental issues are being delayed. The following is a list of such notable conferences;
1. UN Conference of Parties on climate change: This is one of the most important Global Conferences of Parties by UN on climate change called COP26 and was scheduled for November 2020 but now stands postponed due to the outbreak of the pandemic. It was an international endeavour to combat the consequences of climate change and was supposed to be a critical step in curbing global emissions in line with the 2015 Paris agreement.
2. IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020: The World Conservation Congress 2020 organised by International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Government of France is a conference held once in every four years, which brings together several thousand leaders and decision makers from governments, social society, indigenous peoples, business and academia with the goal of conserving the environment and harnessing the solutions nature offers to global changes. It was scheduled for June 2020 and postponed.
3. UN Ocean Conference 2020: This conference was scheduled for June 2020 in Lisbon, Portugal and it is a critical time as the ocean is facing unprecedented threats as a result of human activities. As the 2020-2030 decade was declared to be the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development this conference was supposed to be a decisive one.
4. UN Biodiversity Conference 2020: It was the 15th conference of parties after convention on biological diversity and its theme was Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth.
5. International Maritime Organization: The meetings of environmental protection committee of International Maritime Organisation was expected to negotiate and decide on proposals relating to energy efficiency of ships as ships are held to be responsible for a substantial amount of anthropogenic greenhouse emissions.
Besides, many other international and national organisations such as WTO have either postponed or cancelled their 2020 initiatives, which are of great significance for the coming decade’s biodiversity framework, climate change solutions, etc., in the light of COVID-19. Even though those decisions are unavoidable amid such a deadly pandemic, it will have decelerating effects on the efforts on global environmental protection initiatives.
Every challenge against the nature is a challenge against the human existence itself. Health of human beings is proportional to the health of the environment. In the wake of Covid-19 world governments are hard-pressed to give more effective and speedy remedies and solutions to the worldwide crisis. It is to be always remembered that only nature-friendly endeavours can help us to survive in the long run. Therefore, at every step we should be conscious about our mother planet and the solutions which lead to pollution must be avoided. Further, the habits of reusing and recycling should be instilled into our lifestyles as environmental hygiene is equally important as personal hygiene. Today, the battle is not only against the novel coronavirus but against the existing and emerging issues and challenges for the protection of our environment. It is unwary to wait till post-covid period to address and act on these environmental issues as the end of the pandemic is still uncertain.
This article has been written by Anitta Varghese, a Law student pursuing 4th year BA LLB at St Joseph’s College of Law, Bangalore. She is interested in Maritime Law and Intellectual Property Laws.
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