During the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic the Metropolitan City of Milan was Italy’s most affected urban area. While people had to wear a mask to protect themselves from infection, the virus unmasked the long-standing problems of air pollution, which have been affecting Milan for the past decades. After an ESA satellite image depicted smog decrease over the north of Italy, debates with regards to the linkage between air pollution and COVID-19 rose. For one, scientists argued that smog particles served as carrier for the virus, contributing to its spreading. Furthermore, it is known that exposure to high concentrations of particulate matter increases the susceptibility to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, that can worsen the health status of those infected by the novel coronavirus. This debate serves as the basis for my critical essay. Building on these two points, I look at this problem in a higher level of detail, with the purpose of discovering other common denominators behind the pandemic and air pollution. With this approach, I draw attention to the numerous and multidimensional connections and areas linked with the two topics, which are typically overlooked at first sight. Given the rapid increase in urbanisation, landscape architects and urban planners need to address these uprising issues and define more interdisciplinary strategies to counteract them. Following Donna Haraway’s call to respond to these troubled times, we are challenged to uncover the systemic links, to start thinking globally and find better ways of coexisting.
“We (…) live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times”1.
There is no better representation of Donna Haraway’s description of the present era than the ongoing pandemic and global air pollution. During the lockdown, caused by the spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS -CoV-2), an image from Copernicus Sentinel- 5P satellite was published via the media2. The depiction showed a decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentrations over Europe and in particular over the Po Valley. The highly urbanized and industrialized region in and around the Milan metropolitan area was not only a global hotspot for the novel coronavirus but also the epicentre of long-standing problems of air pollution.
COVID-19 and air pollution
Following the publication of the satellite picture, Italian researchers started a debate over the link between air pollution and the spread of the novel coronavirus, which was widely tracked by the media and also echoed far and wide in networks such as Facebook, opening the floor to various discussions over these issues. Several scientists argued that smog particles served as carrier and boost for the virus, contributing to its spreading. Another aspect was that existing studies show how exposure to high concentrations of particulate matter increases the susceptibility to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, which can worsen the health of those infected by the virus. In the past years different scientific studies defined particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5) as an effective vector for the transport, spread and proliferation of viral infections (for further details see references3-7). A recent study carried out by Società Italiana di Medicina Ambientale (SIMA) reported that “atmospheric particulate matter is known to act as a carrier for many chemical and biological contaminants, including viruses”8. The PM10 is composed of solid and liquid particles which allow it to float longer in the air and to be widespread over larger distances. “Atmospheric particulate matter, in addition to being a carrier, is a substrate which can allow the virus to remain in the air in viable conditions for some time, in the order of hours or days”9. This research shows how the Italian Northern Regions, which have been the most affected by COVID-19, are also the ones that had the highest amount of atmospheric particulate matter in February of this year, reaching levels above the legislative standards (limit, 50 μg/m3 per day)10. However, it is important to remember that, notwithstanding the Coronavirus, the Po Valley is generally the most polluted area in the country. An additional study on the issue carried out by Conticini et al.11 showed that people living in areas with high levels of air pollution are more prone to develop chronic respiratory conditions. Moreover, they are more at risk of exposure to any infective agent (such as COVID-19). Hence, the excessive levels of pollution in Northern Italy should be considered an additional factor influencing the lethality rates recorded in the area. Additionally, Ogen argued how the long-term exposure to Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the COVID-19 virus in these regions and possibly across the whole world12. Finally, Ciencewicki and Jaspers13 argue that elevated exposure to common PM present in the air can alter the body’s immunity to respiratory viral infections.
Other types of links
The aforementioned studies examined the connection between COVID-19 and air pollution in cities and urbanized territories. Nevertheless, the discussions are mainly based on cause-effect factors and assumptions. It is stated that if the region is very polluted there is a higher probability of infection and, in the worst case, of death due to COVID-19. It has to be noted that such an approach is limited and does not take into consideration many more factors involved in the matter. Debates on cause and effect narrow the focus to just two points/parts of the issue and leave out other facts that are involved and are a crucial part of the “problem”. This approach is “myopic”, in the sense that it focuses on what is clearly visible, rather than exploring what lies at the root of, or what is behind these issues. Throughout this essay further links – on a metaphorical, physical and social level – between air pollution and COVID-19 will be uncovered and investigated. Moving from the linear perspective to a more entangled point of view, while keeping in mind the planetary relations of nowadays processes, provides a wider view on the phenomena. In turn, this leads to a larger consciousness on a variety of fronts and diversity of scales: from the body, to the contemporary, globally interconnected metropolis.
Both phenomena are at first invisible to the naked eye, until they reach a sensor or directly attack the human body. Smog particles are detected by a sensor, which could be mechanical or natural, such as air quality monitors or lungs. Particulate matter and other particles are way too small to be detected by the naked eye, but have visible effects on the human body, such as inflaming airways or causing lung cancer. The novel coronavirus too can be uncovered by the health consequences it has on people or by the data collected and disclosed by the governments when the symptoms are not clearly visible.
These two issues affect every human being, with no exceptions. However, the consequences can be different depending on the social and physical conditions of the individuals. Empirical evidence shows that COVID-19 affects the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and ill, with greater severity. A weak healthcare system combined with precarious living conditions and other socio-economic considerations all contribute to both the degree of exposure to the virus and the risk of mortality. Furthermore, people living close to pollutant emissions sources, such as highways or industries, are more likely to develop health issues due to air pollution. It should be noted that in general, a lower level of income and the inaccessibility to essential goods and services explain why these individuals are forced to live in such conditions. This, in turn, is related to income inequality, which also plays a fundamental role in other Anthropocene phenomena, such as climate change.
Given the negative effects on the health of the population the attempt to hinder the spreading of the virus and to reduce air pollution is considered by governments or the media to be a “war”. In relation to the Coronavirus, this metaphor of war describes a fight against an “invisible monster” attacking the human body. Similarly, this comparison can be extended to air pollution. Since we cannot see it; it is depicted as an invisible problem to fight against. On the one hand, the use of war and military metaphors can help to mobilize people. On the other hand, it limits the ways in which people could respond and narrows the possible reactions to short term, local measures that do not address the underlying structural issues. For instance, during the pandemic only temporary and human centred solutions are indicated, such as imposing a global lockdown for a period or wearing face masks while being outside. Furthermore, only short-term strategies are adopted with regards to the elimination of air pollution, which tend to deal with this issue on a superficial level without considering the ubiquity of local and global emission sources (such as particulate matter from the Sahara Desert to name one). As fighting the spread of the virus was compared to being as dangerous as fighting a war, measures were taken accordingly. Borders were closed all over the world in the impossible attempt to keep the disease on the “outside”: outside oneself, outside the city, outside the country.
Equally, air pollution is perceived by large parts of the population as being an external issue, which does not affect their bodies or their homes but is confined to certain urban regions. For example, the moment pollutant substances are released by factories or vehicles, they are not taken into account by people, as they cannot be seen or directly perceived. Nevertheless, in such an interconnected and globalized world like ours, it is not possible to ignore or be blind to events happening outside of our close environment. Global pandemics and air pollution require global responses. That is to say, pollution generated on one side of the world still affects everyone, or a virus which is spreading in one country will eventually spread everywhere. The effort to keep viruses and particles “outside” is in vain in the times of the Anthropocene. The viruses and particles show that there is no such outside, that human beings are able to control–as was thought up until now–the flows of viruses, particles and other invisible matter, but they are part of the same global processes. COVID-19 and smog show a “thing-power”14, through which objects (non-living-things) are recognised as vital and not static, having the power to act and react to certain situations and having the ability of making even unpredictable and visible changes. By recognizing this agency, that the things around us have this power to act, we open up new possibilities for actors such as viruses and particulate matter. It marks the transition from the conception of humans as superior to every other being, to the view that sees humans as a part of the same processes to which covid19 or smog belong. Humans are no longer fully authors, but subjects to volatile processes and closely linked to other species that share their destiny on earth.
In the Anthropocene we cannot overlook the deep and wide interlinkage of different dimensions–the coronavirus pandemic, air pollution, policy and government to name just a few–on a local and global scale. Not only are these kinds of processes difficult to grasp, but they make it difficult to gauge what effects our own actions can have on what surrounds us and how we endanger ourselves. We must first understand that we are part of these processes. Viruses and air particles are part of our world and we need to address them and see them as a part of our everyday life. We need to start changing the fundamental relationship between us and what is around us, including other human beings and non-humans. If we realise that we are part of a collective, together with viruses and particles, we will understand that by taking care of others we take care of ourselves. As Donna Haraway points out, “people need to address intense, systemic urgencies” in order to “stir up potent response to devasting events”15. That means to start now, to act to change the course of things, for a more equal and collective future. Instead of detaching and isolating one another politically and infrastructurally, we should create connections and contact zones rather than divisions between different spheres–in-between humans, nonhumans and technology. We are connected to others, the cities we live in are linked to other cities worldwide, and the globe is one, strictly interconnected and interdependent. Following this the general urgency for action is clear. We need to respond to these “troubled times”, to uncover the systemic links, to start thinking globally and find better ways of coexisting. As urban planners and landscape architects we have the tools to respond. We can create places that open people’s eyes and show the possibilities of a resilient and sustainable lifestyle. These places can also open up dialogues, to discuss bringing together different communities and species, making decisions affecting us all. The call is for more interdisciplinarity and interspecies approaches. The need to rethink the city as more inclusive, and of taking care of every inhabitant (whether human or nonhuman), and its global linkages are real. We cannot go on with our selfish actions but have to be more open to collaborative approaches, in between scientific fields, to create more inclusive places that respond to needs of humans and nonhumans equally. It is all a matter of learning how to cohabit the world.
1. Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Experimental futures, technological lives, scientific arts, anthropological voices. Durham London: Duke University Press. P. 1.
2. ESA – The European Space Agency (2020). Coronavirus: nitrogen dioxide emissions drop over Italy. [online]. Available at: http://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Videos/2020/03/Coronavirus_nitrogen_dioxide_emissions_drop_over_Italy?fbclid=IwAR 2DGJEHiZbOiG_1iSPVrGs9PNw0cPvDGFE 3TF xPEU-8QvS48FB ib1mhyG_c. [Accessed 24. August 2020].
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11. Conticini, E. Frediani, B. Caro, D. (2020). Can atmospheric pollution be considered a co-factor in extremely high level of SARS -CoV-2 lethality in Northern Italy? Environmental Pollution, 261 [online]. Available at: https:// www.researchgate.net/publication/340431558_Can_atmospheric_pollution_be_considered_a_co-factor_in_extremely_high_level_of_SARS -CoV-2_lethality_in_Northern_Italy. [Accessed 02. May 2020].
12. Ogen, Y. (2020). Assessing nitrogen dioxide (NO 2) levels as a contributing factor to coronavirus (COVID-19) fatality. Science of The Total Environment, 726, [online]. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969720321215. [Accessed 02. May 2020].
13. Ciencewicki, J. Jaspers, I. (2007). Air pollution and respiratory viral infection. Inhal Toxicol, 19(14), pp.1135–46.
14. Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham London: Duke University Press. Excerpt.
15. Haraway, D. (2016). p.1.
Cover image: Common denominators between COVID-19 and smog. Source: Author’s own.