The latest chapter in the story of the devastating Coronavirus pandemic is set in India. The news cycle of recent weeks has been saturated with stories of mounting death counts, the mass burning of bodies and full hospitals. There is no doubt that India has been hit hard by the global pandemic, but the catastrophic body count cannot be claimed by COVID-19 alone. Research has shown that a number of contributing factors have had a helping hand in making the virus an even deadlier adversary.
According to Reuters, India now records 385,840 new cases of COVID-19 every day, as opposed to 14,311 in the UK every week. In addition to this, there is evidence to show that the age of those dying in India are predominantly aged 45 and upwards, while the mean age of those dying from COVID in the UK is 83. Clearly, there are differences which should not go unmissed when comparing these two countries. For one thing, the UK has a much better healthcare system than India, but other developing nations with worse systems in place are still faring better than India. There is something else afoot.
It is becoming clear that air pollution, vaccine availability and variants are all elements of this deadly formula. India, at the time of writing, contains the top seven cities with the worst air pollution in the world and ranks fourth in the list of countries with the highest mean annual exposure to ambient pollution. This is just data, but the link between air pollution and COVID-19 has become more pronounced in recent months. The scientific community and journalists have been highlighting the link between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths since as early as mid-2020. It was even found by a study from Harvard University that an increase of only one microgram per cubic metre is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. This study was upheld by a similar investigation from the University of Cambridge, where it was discovered that there was a link between the severity of COVID-19 and long-term exposure to air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and ground-level ozone.
It is also quite easy to forget that India does not have a deeply penetrating vaccine program as of yet and only 2.2% of the population is fully vaccinated. Compare this to 24.4% in the UK and 32.7% in the US and it is not hard to see why the crisis in India is quickly getting out of control. Even though its population is one of the youngest in the world, with a mean age of just 27 in 2015, the mortality rate is eclipsing more developed countries like the UK, where the average age is 40. Some have attempted to put this startling data into perspective by suggesting that the Indian variant is the primary culprit. This is a story which reached far and wide, with the Birmingham Mail quoting Dr Justin Varney in saying that the Indian variant presented a ‘clear and present danger’ to the UK’s COVID roadmap. This argument was made in attempts to identify the new variant as potentially more threatening to the young.
There is no doubt that India, although a relatively youthful nation, is in dire need of help. While the media portray the Indian variant as a potential threat to Western society, hundreds of thousands are already facing this peril. It is unfair that the media portray the new double mutation as a serious threat to the young people of more developed and wealthier nations, as the chances are these populations will be able to deal better with this strain. This is not because these nations do not have air pollution problems – they do – but they are not of the same magnitude which India’s are. Moreover, the level of pre-existing respiratory conditions in these nations is significantly lower. Given that the first world is so much better prepared to tackle this disease as it is, it seems rather selfish to prioritise vaccinating the under 50s here at the expense of the under 50s from there.
Overall, the current situation in India should serve as a warning to countries with high levels of air pollution around the world. These nations need to be wary of what the future holds, stock up on oxygen and try to vaccinate as quickly as possible. Air pollution has been an invisible killer for a long time, and it would be criminal if it were ignored even when its devastating effects became so clear. It would be of great benefit to society as a whole if the wealthier nations of the world diverted their vaccine stocks to those places which are less fortunate. The young people of Delaware are much less likely to need these resources immediately than those in Delhi or Mumbai. The most important lesson to take from this series of events is not related to infectious disease, however. The tragic turn of events in India has shown the world that if we do not look after our planet then it will not look after us. The world must come together to fix the problems of inequality when it comes to globally clean air.
Written by Evan Robert Miller
Evan Robert Miller is columnist DecipherGrey.