As the densely-populated Dhaka city braces for serious air pollution in the dry season like previous years, health experts warn that dirty air during this winter may help coronavirus turn deadlier in terms of mortality rate.
They said the exposure to a high level of air pollution weakens people's respiratory and immune systems, causes various cold-related diseases, making them more susceptible to Covid-19.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also recently cautioned that the cities which have a higher level of air pollution should reinforce their preparedness against the deadly corona pandemic.
The experts said the government should immediately take effective preventive measures to contain the virus infection as well as combat air pollution during the winter.
The also said the use of masks by all must be ensured by enforcing law and motivating people as it is the most effective way to protect oneself from pollution and Covid-19.
Air pollution & Coronavirus
Researchers at Harvard University found an increase of only one microgram per cubic metre in PM 2.5--dangerous tiny pollutants in the air-- is associated with an 8% increase in the Covid-19 death rate.
Another study in the Netherlands suggests that a small increase in exposure to pollution raised the death rate by up to 21 percent.
A study by scientists at the University of Cambridge in the UK also found a correlation between the severity of Covid-19 infection and long-term exposure to air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and ground-level ozone from car exhaust fumes or burning of fossil fuels.
A study of air quality in Italy also found a link between Covid-19 mortality rates and high levels of pollution.
Another preliminary study done by the researchers, based at several universities across Italy, suggest the Covid-19 could be dispersed more widely on air-pollution particles.
A recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment has also shown that long-term exposure to air pollution can be "one of the most important contributors to fatalities caused by the coronavirus.
Views of Bangladesh Experts
Dr Be-Nazir Ahmed, former director (disease control) of the DGHS said people may become very susceptible to coronavirus like other respiratory viruses and flu-like diseases during the winter due to severe dust pollution, low humidity, less sunlight, mild vitamin D deficiency and weakened immunity.
As humidity declines extremely and dust pollution takes a serious turn during cold weather, he said adding that it causes the emergence of some viral flues and rise in respiratory infections.
Dr Be-Nazir also said the number of patients that suffer from asthma, pneumonia, obstructive lung diseases, bronchitis, lung cancer, and lower respiratory infections usually increase in different cities, including Dhaka, due to growing dust pollution during winter.
"As people suffer from such diseases, it can aid vector droplets containing the coronavirus that circulate here and there easily. So, we fear the corona situation may deteriorate during the dry season. We also fear the corona fatality is likely to increase further if patients suffering from cold disease also get infected with the Covid-19," he said.
The health expert said elderly people and those who have a chronic respiratory problem could be the worst victim of pollution and coronavirus during winter.
He said the government should take both effective corona and pollution preventive measures.
President of Swadhinata Chikitsak Parishad Dr Iqbal Arsenal said exposure to air pollution contributes to a rise in respiratory and heart diseases which ultimately can increase the risk of severe corona symptoms.
He said short-term air pollution may irritate the lungs and increase the risk of infection while the long-term pollution may worsen the impact of corona on patients. "When a patient breathes dirty air having the corona infection, especially lung infections, the consequences can be very dire. The toxic air particles can weaken the immune system and create inflammation in the lungs and respiratory tract, inviting the risk both of getting Covid-19 and of having severe symptoms."
Iqbal said everyone needs to wear a mask whenever he or she steps out of home alongside complying with the other precautions like maintaining social distancing and using sanitisers. "Wearing masks is the most effective way of keeping oneself safe from Covid-19 and pollution. The government should strictly enforce law to force people to wear masks while they are outside of their homes.
General Secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Bapa) Dr MA Matin said dust pollution will turn acute during the dry season – from November to March – because of inadequate rainfall which may help coronavirus take a heavy toll on human health alongside other winter flues.
"Corona likes to spread with dust particles and pollutants. Many recent studies suggest deteriorating air pollution during winter may help this virus become stronger and spread fast," he said.
Matin said an international research organisation conducted a study on a coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh and found that coal particles can contribute to spreading corona infection.
Besides, he said, people usually suffer from fever, cough, sneezing and cold during winter because of allergy caused by air pollution. "When people catch corona cold along with corona, they will rapidly spread the corona droplets through coughing and sneezing, infecting others. So, we must act this time to reduce air pollution in the coming days and to check the further outbreak of corona."
The Bapa general secretary said the two Dhaka city corporations must properly clean up roads at dawn and ensure proper waste management to combat the dust pollution during the dry season. "They also should spray water on roads regularly to stop dust from spreading."
Besides, he said, the government should strictly enforce the law to ensure builders comply with pollution rules and regulations, including covering construction sites and spraying water to control dust created by building roads and buildings.
"Strong steps must be taken to check emissions of pollutants and black smoke from different industries, vehicles, water vessels, and nearby brick kilns. All the industries must be forced to use ETPs to reduce air pollution."