The Covid-19 pandemic is not fully contained and the death toll has soared past 1.4 million globally.
The number is almost equal to the population of Trinidad and Tobago. What seems to be a global crisis to human livelihood and the economy poses mixed impacts on the environment at multiple scales.
One of the most predominantly reported positive impacts of Covid-19 on the environment is the sizeable improvement in air quality, reduced greenhouse gases (GHGs) emission, reduced water pollution and less pressure on tourist destinations. Intuitively, these are the correlational and causal effects of the lockdown imposition, which forcibly and temporarily shut off economic and social activities.
It is reported that by April last year, 3.9 billion people in more than 90 countries, including Malaysia, had been ordered to stay indoors for weeks. When half of the world population was in lockdown, mobility was drastically reduced by up to 90 per cent. As a result, environmental pollution sharply scaled down to 30 per cent. Also by April last year, the daily global carbon dioxide emission decreased by 11 to 25 per cent with respect to the mean level of emissions in 2019.
In Malaysia, Air Pollutant Index (API) analysis conducted between March 1 and April 28 last year showed a 26 per cent increase in API for the number of "clean" days since the Movement Control Order (MCO) came into force. It also found that the PM2.5 concentrations showed a high reduction of up to 58.4 per cent during the MCO.
Another positive impact of the pandemic is the heightened appreciation for the nature. Compellingly, when people are compounded by the isolation of lockdowns, mobility patterns are somehow altered, resulting in a widespread engagement with green and blue spaces (parks, forests, lakes and rivers). This is especially true for city dwellers living in densely settled areas, where these spaces are not a luxury.
More people are also looking to outdoor recreation, gardening and urban farming. All these highlight the value of nature for physical and mental health, as well as the importance of environmental stewardship.
However, when the MCO was gradually lifted and the economy reopened, post-lockdown pollution resurfaced. The pandemic only resembled an added variable to the environmental quality but, in reality, pollution and pollutants remain anthropogenic. For instance, the monitoring of river water quality shows a significant increase in the average daily concentration of total suspended solids (TSS) when the first round of MCO was lifted and replaced with the Conditional Movement Control Order. This indicates that activities involving earthwork, whether for infrastructure development or agriculture may have been in operation.
Covid-19 also caused a steep increase in the volume of medical waste, concern over the disposal of disinfectants and littered masks and gloves. In April alone last year, Malaysia reported a 27 per cent (by weight) increase in the generation of clinical waste, which was mostly attributed to Covid-19-related waste.
The Environment and Water Ministry (KASA) sees the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen environmental governance and rebuild better policies in harmony with nature. KASA is vigorously revising the Environmental Quality Act 1974 to better protect the environment. The ministry also rides on the momentum of the positive effects of the lockdown by enhancing participatory environmental volunteerism.
Up to now, we have 348,551 participants in Rakan Alam Sekitar (RAS) and more people have joined the ministry's National River Trails Squad. By 2030, KASA hopes to establish a stretch of 10,000km of river trails, which would be taken care of by the communities living in the vicinity of the rivers.
The inescapable conclusion is that the longer the lockdown, the better the environment rejuvenates but the steeper the economy contracts. In battling the ongoing health emergency, similar preparedness and response measures should be in place to improve the health of our planet, which has long been at stake. That said, striking an intricate balance between environmental protection and economic development remains a task to be addressed collectively by the federal government, state governments, private sector, academic institutions, non-governmental organisations and the masses.