Guest Post: Will coronavirus be the catalyst for lasting air quality improvements?

By Freddie Talberg

‘Unprecedented’ has been the word of the moment as we find ourselves living through a health pandemic, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.

Who would have thought, even last month, that we would be faced with school closures, panic buying and huge bailouts of the economy that make Boris Johnson’s government look like Clement Attlee’s?

We will not know the long-term impact of this pandemic for months, maybe even years, but in the short-term as business braces for a bumpy ride ahead and our health system prepares for its most pressurised moment since the founding of the welfare state, we can look for some glimmers of light in the darkness.

In both China and Italy, there have been significant and immediate reductions in levels of air pollution in response to government lockdowns to tackle the virus outbreak. Research suggests a 25% drop in energy usage in the former that could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. In Italy, the vision of Venice’s canals running clear puts into perspective how quickly a reduction in human activity can positively improve air quality.

Looking around London, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just days in. Almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre significantly down. This is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.

We should be careful about the conclusions that can be made from this. These positive environmental effects are down a significant government intervention that has essentially shut down all economic activity in response to a major public health emergency. These measures are going to take a toll on our wellbeing and can in no way be considered a sustainable solution.

But it makes me wonder. Can we possibly balance economic and social wellbeing whilst having a meaningful impact upon pollution levels in our cities? We will not be able to see the long-term legacy of this pandemic for years, but we should think about what we want it to be.

In my opinion, if one thing emerges above all else as the one thing we learn from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures it has enforced, is that we must reconsider certain aspects of our lives that we deem necessary and the long-term impact that our actions have on air quality. Seeing how much more vulnerable those with underlying health issues, including chronic lung conditions, are to the coronavirus says so much about the importance of good air quality.

We have to emerge from this crisis with a completely different attitude on how we tackle air quality issues and how we protect lung health.

The excellent quality open source data, such as that provided by the European Space Agency showing Italy and by NASA showing China, allows us to monitor the impacts of lockdown measures and track air pollution in real-time. This sort of tracking has to continue  once restrictions are lifted and include specific remediations, in order to prevent a spike in pollutive activity.

Families are going to travel to visit loved ones not seen for months across the country and the world, or they will take that holiday they had to cancel. Businesses meanwhile will look to make up for lost time and industrial production will ramp up. ‘Flatten the curve’ has been the government’s motto around coronavirus, and should be the world’s motto regarding emissions after this is over.

We therefore must have practical solutions in place. Taking control of emissions is difficult at the best of times, but technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and act on air quality, on a scale that works for them – it is not just a job for the world’s largest space agencies.

EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific, actionable evidence about emission breaches delivered straight to their mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps every day to improve air quality.

It may not seem the priority right now but this pandemic does not change that we are in an ongoing climate crisis. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and it is a wake-up call for London and big cities around the world about the importance of good lung health.

When all this is over, I hope to see our political and business leaders make the legislative changes necessary that mean we can track and reduce our pollution levels for the long-term.

Freddie Talberg, CEO and co-founder of Emsol

Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.


Idox Transport solutions enable traffic managers to model, monitor and control the environmental effects of travel as well as reducing congestion to maximise the use of a limited road network, all using UTMC, RTIG, SIRI and other recognised industry protocols. Idox Transport was also funded through the UK Government’s Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial to explore the use of real-time data tools to change driver behaviour, reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.


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Guest post: Economic effects of coronavirus lockdowns are staggering – but health recovery must be prioritised

By Pushan Dutt, INSEAD

In all my years as an economist, I have never seen a graph like the one below. It shows unemployment claims in the US – observe the spike for the week ending March 21. The global financial crisis, the dot-com crash, Black Monday, oil price shocks, 9/11, none of these historic shocks are even visible in the graph.

Figures: US Department of Labor

 

The spike in unemployment claims is the proverbial canary in the goldmine. We should expect a swathe of bad economic numbers coming down the pipeline. The head of the St. Louis Fed expects a 30% unemployment rate and a 50% drop in US GDP by summer. More importantly, as the health crisis rises and crests at different times in different parts of the world, the horrifying numbers on GDP growth, unemployment, business closures are not likely to let up in the near term. Multiple countries are in a recession, and eventually, the whole world will fall into a deep recession.

The plunge from prosperity to peril will be as swift as the switch to lockdown protocols in most countries. We cannot even rely on the data we have to reveal the speed and depth of the crisis since this is collected and updated with lags. For instance, the US monthly jobs report for March collects data in the second week of March, failing to capture the massive spike in unemployment claims that appears after March 12.

In the meantime, sources such as restaurant booking website OpenTable can offer some insights into the magnitude of things. The figures below show the recent plummet in diners eating at restaurants in four countries. Observe a sudden stop in the entire restaurant industry by the third week of March.


Annual % change in restaurant diners from end of February to end of March.

Data: OpenTable

 

Combine a black swan event with missing data, and it is not surprising that markets are swinging violently.

Deep freeze

The question is not one of whether we are in a recession – we are. The more pertinent questions are: how long it will last? How deep it will be? Who will be impacted the most? And how swift will the recovery be?

These questions are complicated and even top economists must admit a lack of confidence in their answers. We are not experiencing a standard downturn. Nor is it simply a financial crisis, a currency crisis, a debt crisis, a balance of payment crisis or a supply shock.

We have not seen anything like this since the flu pandemic of 1918. Even there, identifying the effects of the flu is confounded by the first world war that took place at the same time. What we have here is something different. At its heart, we are experiencing a healthcare crisis with various parts of the world succumbing in a staggered fashion.

To slow down this global health crisis (the “flatten the curve” mantra), we have chosen to put the economy into deep freeze temporarily. Production, spending, and incomes will inevitably decline. Decisions to reduce the severity of the epidemic exacerbate the size of the contraction. While the initial decision to reduce labour supply and consumption are voluntary, this will likely be followed by involuntary reductions in both, as businesses are forced to lay off workers or go bankrupt.

Of course, government policies will attempt to mitigate these effects. Some are using traditional monetary and fiscal policies (cutting interest rates, quantitative easing, increasing unemployment insurance, bailouts). Others are trying out non-traditional methods (direct cash transfers, loans to businesses conditional on maintaining unemployment, wage subsidies).

Public health priority

How long the economic impact lasts depends entirely on how long the pandemic lasts. This, in turn, depends on epidemiological variables and health policy choices. But even when the pandemic ends, the resumption of normalcy is likely to be gradual. Countries will persist with a strict containment regime like in China today, and continue to impose travel restrictions to various parts of the world where the disease continues to spread.

The many factors at play in this complex, interlinked crisis that affects both people’s health and the global economy introduces massive uncertainty into anyone hazarding the pace, the depth and the length of the impact. As a result, we should treat any precise estimates (such as “GDP will decline by X%” or “markets have reached their bottom”) with scepticism.

Especially frustrating is the idea that there is a conflict between academic disease modellers and hard-edged economists saying that steps to slow the spread of coronavirus has trade offs. This could not be further from the truth. Among economists there is near unanimity that countries should focus on the healthcare crisis and that tolerating a sharp slowdown in economic activity to arrest the spread of infections is the preferred policy path. In a recent survey carried out by the University of Chicago, respondents universally agreed that you cannot have a healthy economy without healthy people.

The health crisis has naturally created a crisis of confidence. This, in turn, can have damaging long-term effects with continuing uncertainty leading firms and households to postpone investment, production and spending. Restoring confidence requires a singular focus on containing and reversing the spread of COVID-19.

Slowing the rate that people fall ill with COVID-19 is not the end in itself. It is a means to temporarily reduce the pressure on hospitals and give time to identify treatments and a vaccine. In the interim, we must build testing capacity, perform contact tracing, setup the infrastructure for extended quarantines, rapidly expand the production of masks, ventilators and other protection equipment, build and repurpose facilities into hospitals, add intensive care capacity and train, recall and redeploy medical personnel.

All of this is also the way to restore the economy’s health and economic policy must complement it. In the short run, economic policies should mitigate the impact of lockdowns and ensure that the current crisis does not trigger financial, debt or currency crises. It should focus on flattening the recession curve, ensure that the temporary shutdown has only transient effects, and facilitate a quick recovery once the economy is taken out of the deep freeze.

In the meantime, it’s important to also recognise that this is an unprecedented crisis. Everybody has their role to play, but nobody is infallible and uncertainty is inevitable.

Pushan Dutt, Professor of Economics, INSEAD

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Safeguarding in social isolation: how social care teams are adapting to the new normal

We are all adapting to life in “lockdown”. For many of us this is a period of transition which will require some changes to our normal daily routine, perhaps working from home or socialising less. But what if you are a vulnerable person who is already socially isolated or if the place you call home is not safe?

The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon in a briefing to the media stressed that life shouldn’t feel normal, but for many people who work in social care or social services they are trying to carry on as normal, providing key services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Social care teams across the county are working flat out to ensure they can maintain vital services and provide support and care to vulnerable adults and at risk children. Advice has been published by the government and by professional bodies like the BASW  (British Association of Social Workers) to try and provide some guidance to frontline care staff. But the reality is that care workers, both in social work and residential care are having to adapt to new and unprecedented circumstances to keep vulnerable people safe in our communities.

Funding for councils announced to support continuity of care

Councils have been allocated £1.6bn of funding by the Chancellor, designed to help them manage the impact of Covid-19 on services, including social care. Additional measures also include £1.3bn which is designed to help the discharge of patients from hospitals to continue their care in a community setting, to free up vital NHS resources over the coming weeks.

Councils have been advised to use this money as they see fit. However, one key priority is the continuity of care for service users, particularly as the virus spreads further into the community and there is a greater chance of care staff having to self-isolate and remove themselves from the workforce for a period.

Another measure designed to help ease this pressure on frontline staff are the social care clauses included in the emergency Coronavirus bill which temporarily remove the duties placed on councils to provide adult social care to all who are eligible. Instead councils will be able to prioritise care for those they consider to be most at risk in the event that adult social care services become overwhelmed. However these measures have been met with criticism from some charities who have said they will place already vulnerable adults at even greater risk.

Concerns raised for vulnerable children

The Children’s Commissioner for England has raised concerns about children who live in chaotic households, impacted by domestic abuse or substance abuse, and the effects that social distancing could have on their physical and mental wellbeing. For many children who are on the radar of social services, lockdown could be an especially isolating and difficult time. Additional concerns have been raised about vulnerable care leavers and young homeless people.

Government plans have ensured that some places have been kept in schools for vulnerable children to continue to attend. The definition of “vulnerable children” outlined by the government advice includes all children supported by social care, including those on child in need and child protection plans, looked-after children, children with disabilities, and children with education, health and care plans. However, the plan has drawn some criticism, including around its potential for heightening stigma experienced by children, and for putting the health of foster and kinship carers at risk.

How staff are adapting to new ways of working

It is not news that even before the outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK, the social care system was under significant stress.

Increased demands on those who work in residential and domiciliary settings include the practical challenges, increasing use of PPE, infection control and refresher training regarding contingency and emergency plans for residential care homes and challenges with supplies, including food and medication for residents. Additional challenges include the social and emotional stress of residents who may not receive visitors and must, where possible, socially distance from others.

Those who work in child and family social work are having to be increasingly flexible, managing many more cases and where possible managing elements of their work remotely via telephone or videoconferencing. Essential services are being prioritised.

In some instances there have been discussions around inviting final year social work students, or students studying social care to help support staff with additional tasks, or as has been the case with the NHS inviting retired colleagues back for a period to help already stretched teams.

An uncertain next few weeks

Many social workers and care staff have raised concerns around continuing to carry out their statutory duties as the population enters a lockdown phase and the additional risks this not only places on them as frontline staff but also the additional risks it may present to vulnerable children and adults.

Many are calling for explicit guidance from government on how social carers and social workers can be best supported to safeguard people at particular risk of harm, isolation and neglect. This includes practical support like the allocation of protective equipment, the enabling of improved sharing of information via digital channels and professional support, including the implications for registration if they are unable to meet duties, timescales or usual legal compliance during this crisis.

As the care system and its staff begin to feel the strain caused by this outbreak, calls are being made for social care to be recognised and acknowledged by government and others as a vital service. While one charity, the Care Workers Charity is launching a scheme to provide grants for those care workers who need to self isolate, many of whom will do so without pay, the GMB union have warned the coronavirus crisis could lead to the total collapse of the care system. It said care staff were being left with no protection against the virus, no childcare and poverty sick pay if they become infected.

Staff safety and continuity of service are clearly the priorities for the social care sector as we begin this period of unprecedented “lockdown”. It is clear more guidance and support is needed for staff who are on the frontline as they continue to deliver vital care and support services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in reading:

Joining the digital revolution: social workers’ use of digital media

‘Digital prescribing’ – could tech provide the solution to loneliness in older people?

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