Coronavirus: Has Lockdown Saved Our Wildlife?
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
After the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, countries all over the world were put into lockdown (1-2). With entire cities grinding to a halt, before long the global media was filled with reports of nature healing and wildlife returning to our doorsteps (1,3-5). Fish and octopuses were spotted in Venice’s canals now that they were clear of the usual boat traffic (1,6-8). In India, smog was reduced to such a degree that in some places the Himalayan mountain range became visible for the first time in over 30 years (1,3-5,9-10).
With such widespread reports, is it possible that lockdown has given our wildlife a boost in the right direction? How does it look months down the line?
Are Venice’s Canals the ‘Cleanest in Living Memory’?
During the lockdown, the UK media reported that improved water quality was facilitating the return of wildlife to Venice’s canals (1,8). However, these news articles were spreading misinformation about the consequences of the city’s lockdown.
Marco Capovilla and Giacomo Gin of ‘Venezia Pulita’ (‘Clean Venice’) explained to me how the motor engines of boats frequenting the canals were disturbing the sediment on the canal floor, reducing the transparency of the water. With the city on lockdown the boats were no longer being used, and the sediment and some pollutants were now deposited on the bottom of the canals. This, along with some bacterial activity, made Venice’s canals much clearer (6-7). The wildlife spotted during the lockdown had therefore not returned to the canals due to improved water quality, but were simply made visible by the lack of suspended sediment and algal growth present at that time of year.
According to Giacomo Gin, it only took a few days for the water clarity within the canals to return to pre-lockdown conditions. However, as the suspended sediment is not a pollutant per se, wildlife abundance will remain the same with the return of regular boat traffic.
Instead, the waterways of Venice are threatened by a number of other issues. The lack of a sewage system is a large concern for the local water quality because domestic waste water drains directly from each household into the canals with no filtration system. The antifouling coating applied to boat hulls is also a cause of pollution in the waterways, as such substances are designed to prevent the growth of marine species.
So, despite the widespread reports, water quality within Venice was not ‘improved’ by the city’s lockdown. Instead, the canals became more transparent and more marine life was visible, however the post-lockdown view looks very familiar to the Venetian locals. After speaking to members of the group ‘Venezia Pulita’ it is clear that any improvements to Venice’s waterways and marine life will come from the implementation of anti-pollution measures within the city.
Are Views of the Himalayas Really Good News?
According to some reports, air pollution was reduced in 85 Indian cities during the country’s coronavirus lockdown (10). In certain parts of India, the reductions in traffic pollution during the lockdown resulted in reduced smog and clearer skies, allowing the Himalayan mountain range to become visible for the first time in 30 years (1,9-10).
However, a drop in the prevalence of certain visible pollutants does not mean that the air quality is at a healthy level (5). Members of various air pollution activist groups in India acknowledge that not only has smog already returned to pre-lockdown levels, but traffic pollution is not the country’s largest concern. Soreiyo Ksv explained that waste disposal is a major issue in India. The burning of industrial and domestic waste is one of the largest contributors to the country’s air pollution. I was also informed that in contrast to traffic pollution, the situation could be easily improved and that governing bodies are making very little effort to find a solution.
So, despite clearer views of the Himalayan mountain range during the coronavirus lockdown, smog quickly returned to India’s skies after the lockdown was lifted. With the country at a standstill, traffic pollution may have decreased but other sources of air pollution like the burning of waste continued throughout. Due to such activities, the prevalence of other, less-visible pollutants remains at a dangerously high level for the people of India.
Is There Hope?
It is clear that action is critical to improve the environmental problems facing our planet. In both of the cases presented here, the governing bodies must recognise the most threatening issues before action can be taken. Therefore, it is important that as citizens and consumers we work to ensure that positive change would prove beneficial to the people of influence.
The work done by the activists I have spoken to is a crucial aspect of this. They are evidence that individuals are working hard to ensure that the causes they believe in are no longer ignored. They are providing many people, including myself, with the hope that one day their work will generate positive change that will help to protect both ourselves and our wildlife.
Hope is crucial. It is necessary to inspire people and ensure that they know their actions are worthwhile. The reports of nature healing during the lockdowns in Venice and India may not be as accurate as they first appear, but they do give us hope.
Could it therefore be argued that to mislead people slightly is a small price to pay if the result will have a positive impact? If the reports of nature ‘healing’ during a global pandemic can inspire individuals to live their lives in a more sustainable way, then isn’t it worth it?
Yes, it is important that individuals feel inspired to live sustainably. However, I have difficulty imagining that we can make positive change by encouraging misinformation or poor understanding. I believe that if our society is to move forward in any respect, we as individuals need to fully understand the problem that we are looking to improve, whether this is beneficial to a specific community or not.
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2. Henriques M. Will Covid-19 have a lasting impact on the environment? [Internet]. Bbc.com. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment.
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4. McGrath M. Coronavirus: Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads [Internet]. BBC News. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51944780.
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6. Venice canals clearer after coronavirus lockdown [Internet]. Bbc.co.uk. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-europe-51943104.
7. McGleenon B. Coronavirus lockdown turns Venice's canals into 'cleanest in living memory' - PICTURES [Internet]. Express.co.uk. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1257172/coronavirus-italy-lockdown-venice-canal-clean-fish.
8. Steed L. Octopus spotted in Venice canal as coronavirus lockdown clears city of boats and pollution [Internet]. The Sun. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11494631/octopus-spotted-in-venice-canal-coronavirus-lockdown/.
9. Braddick I. Himalayas come into view as lockdown leads to drop in air pollution [Internet]. Evening Standard. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/himalayas-india-air-pollution-clear-view-coronavirus-lockdown-a4413191.html.
10. Picheta R. People in India can see the Himalayas for the first time in 'decades,' as the lockdown eases air pollution [Internet]. CNN. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/himalayas-visible-lockdown-india-scli-intl/index.html.
11. Slater J. India sees blue skies and clean due to coronavirus lockdown [Internet]. The Independent. 2020 [cited 30 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/coronavirus-air-pollution-lockdown-a9460841.html.