As a thick quilt of smog wrapped itself around Dhaka on Thursday, signaling the start of the fall pollution season, doctors and scientists warned that the deteriorating air quality could make the city’s COVID-19 problems even worse.
One of the most common symptoms of severe coronavirus cases is breathing difficulty. And doctors say that if the ambient air suddenly becomes more toxic, as it does every year around this time in Dhaka and Chittagong, then more people who become infected by the virus might end up in the hospital or die.
“If two people are shooting at the lungs, then obviously the lungs will have more problems,” said Arvind Kumar, a chest surgeon and founder of the Lung Care Foundation in New Delhi, a group that raises awareness about respiratory problems.
In the background is Dhaka’s vexing air pollution, which shoots up in the fall and winter. The rapid economic growth of the past two decades — and along with it, increased urbanization and congestion — has left Bangladesh’s capital horribly polluted.
Dhaka toped with the most hazardous air globally, and health experts have detailed how such conditions can lead to brain damage, respiratory problems and early death.
In the fall, air temperatures and wind speeds drop, condensing pollutants over Dhaka city,. And brick clean at city’s outskirts in the surrounding areas burn the wood and toxic materials like rubber sending up huge clouds of black smoke that drift for miles.
Doctors say long-term exposure to severely polluted air can cause chronic lung inflammation, which can leave people who are exposed to the coronavirus more vulnerable.
A recent study from Italy found a correlation between long-term exposure to dirty air and an increase in excess mortality — a measure of deaths above normal — from the coronavirus.
The AQI regards the range of 0–50 points as good air quality, 51–100 as moderately good, 101–150 cautionary, 151-200 as unhealthy, 201–300 very unhealthy, and 301-500 as extremely unhealthy. The air quality index of Dhaka is now hovering around somewhat 250 to 300 (AQI).
Md Shahab Uddin, minister for environment, forest and climate change said November 2019 that the level of air pollution is alarming. “Just a few days ago, air quality of Dhaka was the third or fourth worst in the world. But now it tops the ranking,” the minister added.
The smog from brick kilns, smoke from unfit vehicles and dust generated from public and private constructions sites, including those of the mega projects taken by the government, were the main sources of air pollution, the minister said.
Brick kilns were identified as the single largest source of air pollution in Dhaka city, with 50 percent of the total pollution attributed to those.
Shahab Uddin said in 2013, the number of brick kilns across the country was 4,985, but it rose to 7,900 in 2018. As many as 2,087 of the kilns are being operated around Dhaka city.