From 2.5PM to Zero in Thailand: why Air Pollution and COVID-19 emergency politics require us to reimagine the status quo
For those vigilantly tracking the negative ramifications of poor air quality you will find it no surprise that the World Health Organization estimates poor air quality kills around 7 million people per year, and that over 90% of the world’s population is exposed daily to toxic levels of particulate pollution. What we are learning in tandem, as more COVID-19 pandemic data emerges on a daily basis, is that we have a much more complex and entangled health, economic and ecological dynamic than we previously understood. Although global attention tends to veer towards the noisy news cycles, we see more science based reflection shedding light upon systems linkages — like how human induced destruction of biodiversity fosters conditions for viruses such as COVID to emerge; or how rising temperatures increase risk and likelihood of pathogens to appear in unusual places; or how in some geographies there is an inextricable connection between inequality and impact by the COVID + Air Pollution cocktail. Given the global nature of the pandemic, and the given the complexity of the system, who is on the hook to respond?
In this post we contend that the role of ‘first responder’ in the COVID, climate change, and air pollution emergency is a role to be taken up by the whole of society. Indeed we have a new reality which requires all of us to reimagine the status quo collectively. We all have a part to play.
We can no longer wait for the pre-COVID era social contract, a dance between citizens and government, to play catch up. In fact, there are too many examples from across the past few months that tell us quite the opposite: global risks are too complex for ill-prepared governments that operate on an emergency politics axis. Perhaps instead of gazing retrospectively towards the past ‘normal’ we should be aggressively asserting our focus on the post-pandemic space that is up for repurposing.
We are vulnerable
We now know that no one is immune to exposure or the harmful effects of COVID and air pollution. We wouldn’t be on a global lockdown if this were not true, at least for the virus. Yet transboundary threats — “invisible enemies” if you will — are not going away unless collectively, civil society and government optimize for alignment, and prioritize taking action based on data. And the data shows that the COVID crisis and the underlying challenges of air quality are inextricably linked.
A recent paper out of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, updated a week ago, notes that “an increase of only 1 g/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” Or more directly put, as cited by the lead author: “If you’re getting COVID, and you have been breathing polluted air, it’s really putting gasoline on a fire.” Not only that, but researchers in Italy also have peer-reviewed studies underway that hypothesizes that a reduction in air pollution seems to reduce the rate of infection.
Enter a whole new caveat: what is to be done when global polarization politics block the path of intelligent responses to crises? or when the issues your community face are less exposed by default of media radar screens? Today northern Thailand is being ravaged by forest fires that have caused skyrocketing air pollution above the “normal”, yet hazardous levels (400–800 AQI) on many days. This crisis is not getting the attention it deserves, as the country focuses on COVID response. As pointed out this week, the fires have been blazing for two months, and locals are left to fend for themselves at a cost.
As we noted in our March post, Thailand, a country home to 69 million citizens, earned the number one place for the most polluted city in the world- Chiangmai. In the north, the issues are not restricted to urbanites, in fact the transboundary issues, which also impact Myanmar and Laos especially, are linked to seasonal burning combined with industrial and vehicle emissions. This means that dangerous micro-particulates ( PM2.5) are at above WHO standards for much of the year. This is especially concerning where higher risk populations, like the 12,0000 migrant children noted in this post, or front line “fire fighters” (many volunteers, often without protective equipment) have nowhere to go, and little strategic support from the government- primarily because the centralized response plans are not context driven. Most interventions don’t take into full account how the air quality and local political issues in the North are different than the ones in Bangkok.
At the same time, it may be convenient to consider the perennial fire, smoke and smog issues of the Northern corridor to be seasonal. Yet, as pointed out by the Chiangmai Breathe Council, a think-tank conservation group monitoring air pollution and environment issues, it “is not just a seasonal disaster. It is a critical environmental problem deeply related to the way economy and way of life are handled.” Understanding that the largest global recession since the 1930s is on our doorstep, and in the Thailand context this means losing at least 7%+ of the GDP if COVID is not contained by Quarter 2, how might we reconfigure a whole of society approach, with government at the helm? There in of course lies the opportunity to re-imagine the structures and infrastructure of economic models too.
A nod to the possible, and red herrings
Back to dreaming, re-inventing, reimagining: Just as the Google Earth Engine App, allows you to literally see air pollution levels from the atmosphere captured at various points of recent history for comparison purposes, in some places around the world, the return of blue skies is real. For the first time in years, the Himalayan mountain range has become visible in some parts of India, where 29 of the 30 often most polluted cities in the world contribute to a man made air quality pandemic. Cities across Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia are all noticing pockets of clarity. These examples offer a stark contrast to the usual status quo that many of us have been conditioned to accept as a default. Below, as captured in this recent article, you can see the ‘before and after’ COVID-19 imposed curfew views: a road in Ahvaz, Iran, show the effects on air pollution, an image of the Google Earth Engine Map (set to Chiangmai) and a visual showing the change in NO2 Pollution levels from January-March, versus 2019.
Yet at the same time, these temporary gains won’t stand much chance of longevity if we don’t consider the quiet politics working in the background.
Indeed over the past few months, countries like China, the US and Japan have reduced or relaxed regulations for emissions and environmental standards- cited as a ‘cost’ to accelerate an eviscerating economy. These decisions have significant cascading effects while trying to circumnavigate the reality forecasted, an alarming one in which half a billion people are projected to be pushed to poverty.
As mentioned by Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project: “The drop in emissions is global and unprecedented. Air pollution has plunged in most areas. The virus provides a glimpse of just how quickly we could clean our air with renewables, [yet] I refuse to celebrate a drop in emissions driven by tens of millions of people losing their jobs. We need systemic change in our energy infrastructure, or emissions will roar back later.”
Getting from 2.5PM to Zero — a ‘take action’ campaign for the #right2cleanair
After much zooming and out above, let’s get back to the concrete and pragmatic. In Thailand, the Circular Design Lab, a citizen driven pop-up lab, has been working to elevate the discussion along all threads, from the ‘grassroots’ to government. Six months ago we ran a series of systemic design workshops with the community on the themes of air pollution, waste management and unsustainable fast fashion. Our ‘air’ track, as a result of the series, mapped the ‘system’ and decided to focus on two leverage points to attempt shifting the trajectory of the air quality conundrum: 1) national, citizen and data driven, policy change and 2) education and awareness- clean air in fact is our human right.
As a result of COVID-19, our approach has had to get a make-over. Instead of launching the ‘Clean Air Blue Paper’ (which builds upon the Clean Air White Paper) — a high level impact analysis of the issue and policy context, originally produced in Thai by the Thailand Clean Air Network (Thailand CAN) in late March. The original plan was to share at the United Nations with their interagency) taskforce and Thailand Country Office team in attendance, as well as hold a community townhall with the public; nonetheless we are driving towards the second parallel thread: awareness and engagement with the public, albeit, digitally. This leads us to share what’s coming up.
Launching on Earth Day, April 22, we will hold the first of three pop up conversational webinars (in Thai, with English translation). Following this we have a longer series that includes education and knowledge transfer relating to the ‘Blue Paper’, a 141page document that is launching now by Thailand CAN that focuses on the science behind the issue with policy suggestions. More on the big picture backstory is here.
How to join, and what will we cover?
We will explore more about the links between COVID-19 and air pollution, the ongoing crisis and existing response in Northern Thailand, the ways in which Thailand can move towards long-term solutions to its systemic air pollution challenges, and how you can take action to guarantee your #right2cleanair. It of course is free and open to the public, you can register here.
- Wednesday, 22 April, 5–6pm (Bangkok) “The Invisible Enemies” how COVID-19 and air pollution connect- and what does it mean for Thailand
- Wednesday, 29 April, 5–6pm (Bangkok) “Fighting Fires” — what is happening in northern Thailand today, why it matters and ways to support?
- Wednesday, 6 May, 5–6pm (Bangkok) “Grassroots to Government” — how can Thailand turn the tide of air pollution and guarantee citizens’ right to clean air?
With a very special thanks to the core volunteers of the Circular Design Lab ‘air pollution’ track- Kin Fucharoen, Liepa Olsauskaite and Phai Supkulawal. Want to get in touch and contribute, please let us know here or reach out to Courtney or Laura.
Additionally, huge appreciation is extended to the Thailand Clean Air Network, and the many other volunteer coalition members and organizations, beyond the Circular Design Lab, who have contributed to the development of the White and Blue Papers, and raising the platform, as well:
GreenPeace Southeast Asia Pacific, Fire Fighting Group of Chiang Mai, Green Youth Forest Ranger of Chiang Dao, Love Lanna Group, Roong Aroon Public Service Group Lampang, Tin Nee Yom Gang (Baan Hua Thung, The Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking, Chiang Mai Chapter Solving the Smog in Chiang Mai Network, National Health Security Group from 10 provinces in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand Urban Tree Network, Protect the Forest in Doi Suthep Network, Bangkok Breathe Group, Womens’ Health Network of Esarn, Friends in Need Network, Active Parents on Air Pollution Group, Thai Environmental Institute (TEI), Thai PBS Foundation, Bangkok Forum, Big Tree Project, Thai Chamber of Commerce — Mae Hong Son Chapter, Chiang Mai Fire Fighting Comrade Network, Chum Chom Thai Foundation, EARTH Thailand Foundation, Love Lanna Network, Global Campuses Foundation, Northern Handicrafts Manufacturers and Exporters Association (NOHMEX), Little Deer Project, Local Development Institute Foundation, Roong Aroon School, CivicNet Foundation, Chiangrai Fights Smog, Smoke Watch, Sconte Foundation, The Federation of Thai Industries, Chiang Mai Chapter, The Forest Creator, Thai Education Partnership (TEP), ThaiPrompt Group, Tourism Council of Thailand, Chiang Mai Chapter, Thai Chamber of Commerce — Chiang Mai Chapter, Thai Health Promotion Foundation, National Health Commission Office (NHCO), State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC)