Emma Heins

Every time you look at the news, people seem to be talking about the coronavirus. Whether it be prevention tips, action plans of what to do when/if it spreads to your city or analyses of how various governments are handling it, every time I open the news, there’s another story.

Unfortunately for all of you I suppose, I am going to add to that frenzy of stories. However, I’m going to approach it in a different way that will hopefully make you think more.

I read an article from NASA a few days ago that was discussing COVID-19 in China and where it first popped up, but in relation to atmospheric gasses. Seemingly unrelated? Sure, but like many things in life, they are actually deeply connected.

In response to COVID-19, China shut down transportation in and out of Wuhan and many local businesses in order to try to prevent the disease from spreading. This is pretty standard practice actually — the less people that are traveling to and from the city as well as inside the city means you come in contact with less people, lowering your chance of getting the virus.

But with a population of 8.3 million people just in the city of Wuhan — roughly the same size as New York City — that is a lot of cars taken off the streets. Imagine walking through Times Square or across the Brooklyn Bridge and not seeing any cars or businesses open. Spooky, right?

But thinking environmentally: just as it is in New York City, people out and about, driving cars and living their lives puts a lot of pollution into the atmosphere, so removing a lot of traffic and pollution from industry in Wuhan and across many other areas in China where they have implemented similar ‘self-quarantine’ protocols is radically affecting the atmosphere.

These pollution levels are not easy to change, which is how we can contextualize the size of the economic slowdown, to the point where we ought to be concerned. That level of a dip in an economy that is heavily production based is actually causing a physical and visible change in the air around them.

If you look at the pictures in the NASA article, it shows the size and density of large nitrogen dioxide clouds that are continually hanging over China. Using the same technology that they have in years past for consistency, you can see exactly how small the clouds have gotten in the major cities and how they have actually disappeared in more rural areas. After just a few months and without any new, formal climate change policies, there has been extensive and noticeable change in atmospheric quality.

But let’s clear up one thing quickly, I am not arguing that COVID-19 is a good thing. This change in air quality is coming at the expense of the unregulated sliding of the Chinese economy towards a recession and the health of 80,000 people in China alone. This disease, much like the flu (which is statistically more deadly than COVID-19), will disproportionately affect older adults, young children and people with compromised immune systems. I am merely asking that people consider the unique ways in which the environment, human health and the economy are intertwined.

Much like the flu and sustainability, there are small things that you can do every day that make a big difference: wash your hands, skip meat once a week, try carpooling to class with your roommates and stay home if you’re not feeling well. If we all work on incorporating these things into our daily lives, I think we’d be surprised at how much better of a place the earth could be.

Emma Heins is a senior majoring in environmental studies. She can be reached at eheins@vols.utk.edu.

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

UT Sponsored Content