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Story | Education
5 October 2020

QF researcher: ‘COVID-19 has shown us how we can change - and protect our environment’

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London’s skyline seen through a haze – but when COVID-19 struck, cities across the world saw a reduction in air pollution.

Image source: PA Images, via REUTERS

Dr. Rima J. Isaifan, Head of Journals and Academic Publishing at Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press, and a joint faculty at HBKU College of Science & Engineering was behind some of the first research into the environmental impact of the pandemic. Here, she explains her work – and her hope that lockdown has shown how productivity and preserving the planet are not mutually exclusive.

What made you decide to focus on this topic?
By the time COVID-19 had spread in many countries around the world, causing the complete and total lockdown of countries and their industries, I began reviewing published reports documenting the various impacts of the pandemic. I noticed, at that time, that all the published research focused on addressing the medical or health aspect of COVID-19, in terms of understanding the origin and structure of the virus in order to be able to find a cure for it.

There was simply no research discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the environment and, more importantly, on air quality, although there was a clear impact of the virus in this regard

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Dr. Rima J. Isaifan

There was simply no research discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the environment and, more importantly, on air quality, although there was a clear impact of the virus in this regard. With factories shut down, city centers emptied, and highways deserted due to the stay-at-home orders implemented around the world, there was a significant reduction in pollutant concentrations.

That’s why, as a researcher in this field, I decided to prepare some pioneering work to discuss the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on the environment, and – partially - on economies.

Dr. Rima J. Isaifan, Head of Journals and Academic Publishing at Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press.

What approach did you take to conducting your research?
By the time I had written this research in March,2020, only news media posts were available as a research tool, and only one particular article attempted to highlight the possible impact of COVID-19 on the environment and economy. The report was written by Jeff McMahon and published in Forbes early March 2020.

The only evidence available at that time was images from NASA that show the difference in pollution concentration before and after COVID-19, since NASA images are of high resolution and are accredited internationally. The images I collected on the status of air quality focused on maps of China, which was the center for the spread of pandemic by that time. I also relied on the World Health Organization’s daily status reports to extract accurate data that was reported and updated on a daily basis for inclusion in the analysis of findings. These status reports were, and still are, recognized as the trusted source of daily infections, recovered cases. and number of deaths per each country.


What do you believe are the key findings - and the key message - of your research?
The key findings relate to two points. First, despite the negative impacts of COVID-19 that made the World Health Organization declare it as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the rate of mortality of this infection had not exceeded 3.4 percent globally as of March 11, 2020, by the time the article I wrote was evaluated. On the other hand, the mortality rate caused by ambient air pollution has contributed to 7.6 percent of all deaths worldwide from 2016 onward.

The second main finding is related to the impact of lockdown that was applied in many countries around the world, which resulted in dramatic reduction in the level of air pollutant concentrations specially those related to traffic emissions such as nitrogen oxides.

Although the short-term impacts of the lockdown practices related to COVID-19 have been verified, the long-term impact is unpredictable, especially if life goes back to normal once this crisis comes to an end

Dr. Rima J. Isaifan

Moreover, facts related to the demographics of deaths by gender, age, and health status before and after the infection were compared in this study. The rate of mortality due to COVID-19 (obtained from the Situation Reports published by the World Health Organization as of March 2020) was impacted by two factors: age and health status. Results show that 75 percent of deaths were related to cases that had underlying present diseases, with the majority aged 80 and over.

Ultimately, we would benefit from revisiting this study in the future – say, in one years’ time – to see if these holdings find . Since the time the study was published until now, the infection and death rates have soared worldwide. We would need to look at the new percentages once again to see if these findings hold true. And even if they don’t, the study is still important in showcasing the severe negative effects of air pollution on health and how the reduction of emissions drastically improved air quality.

While ambient air pollution reduced due to COVID-19, can this be a long-term trend, or do you fear the world will simply return to business as usual?
This is one of the main issues under discussion with the research community and policymakers around the world. Although the short-term impacts of the lockdown practices related to COVID-19 have been verified, the long-term impact is unpredictable, especially if life goes back to normal once this crisis comes to an end.

While the pandemic has led to clearer skies, Dr. Isaifan says its long-term environmental impact is unpredictable, especially if life “goes back to normal” after the crisis. Image source: Latin America News Agency, via REUTERS

Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of all of us – including our governments – to implement more stringent measures on the use of transportation and other emission-producing activities, where a balance can be achieved between productivity and acceptable air quality level. For example, around the world, industries have continued to function even as work has shifted online.

If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that we can change and still be productive as a society while preserving the environment

Dr. Rima J. Isaifan

Imagine the impact if, when this is over, half of the global workforce continued to work from home – the pollution produced by commuters could be significantly reduced. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that we can change and still be productive as a society while preserving the environment. It is my hope that, when this crisis passes, we learn from this experience and make better choices, as individuals and as policymakers, to try to sustain some of the positive impacts COVID-19 has had on us.

Do you feel the question of whether poor air quality contributed to the spread of the pandemic will be seriously and properly addressed, or is there a risk that it may be overlooked?

Research relating to the role of poor air quality in the spreading of COVID-19 has been the focus of many researchers recently. I have been approached by international publishers to peer review submitted research that reported on the connection between poor air quality and the spread of COVID-19.

One of the first evidence-based research hypotheses that I peer reviewed reported on the potential role of particulate matter – such as dust and smoke particles – in the spreading of COVID-19 in northern Italy. The authors found a significant association between the geographical distribution of daily coarse particles exceedances and the spread of COVID-19 in the 110 Italian provinces covered in their study. This confirmed the concerns related to the association between higher mortality rates due to COVID-19 observed in northern Italy and the peaks of particulate matter concentrations.

Another research that I peer-reviewed recently suggested that, based on online data acquired in India, it was found that as the atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentration increases, the number of COVID-19 deaths and the case fatality rate in India has increased accordingly.

So, although poor air quality has long been proved to cause short- and long-term health impacts, including mortality and lung cancer, current research efforts have shed more light on the role of these pollutants to further speed the spread of COVID-19 and increase its impact on people’s health.

How do you feel research of this kind needs to be built on and taken forward?

I believe that my article has triggered a lot of publications around the globe, which is seen by the continuous feedback I receive, the high citation rate of this work and the increasing number of requests to peer review similar research that followed from all over the world. The global community is trying to focus on the situation in each country and study the impact of COVID-19 on the air quality and vise versa.

Meanwhile, we are collaborating with researchers from the US and Africa to investigate the impact of COVID-19 in those regions. This is critical since the US and many countries in Africa did not apply complete lockdown practices; nevertheless, the reduction in activities such as transportation has shown some positive impact on air quality, and so it should be discussed in detail.

We also need to extend the scope of this research by using actual data and pollutant concentration before and after the pandemic, in order to extract sound results. The results should be shared locally and globally to recommend further measures to reduce the impact of air pollution, more specifically once lockdown has been removed and life goes back to normal – or a ‘new normal’.

  • Dr. Rima J. Isaifan received her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Ottawa in Canada in 2014. She has been a member of Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press as the Head of Journals and Academic Publishing since 2019 and a joint faculty at the College of Science and Engineering at HBKU since 2016. She is experienced in nanotechnology for air pollution control. Her current research focuses on the characterization of air pollutants, their source apportionment and the estimation of health impact and burden of disease for long- and short-term exposure to air pollution.

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