If you are lucky enough to be able to leave your house these days, what do you notice is different?
I hear bird song and insects more clearly than ever, sewers gushing under the street, and individual motor vehicles. Before, it was a constant drone of vehicle engines and tyre noise, punctuated by thuds and clanks of heavy vehicles rolling over potholes and loose drain covers.
I smell wafts of fragrances from flowers and people’s perfumes, burnt gas from boiler flues, rotting rubbish and exhaust fumes from passing vehicles. Before, I rarely noticed any of these because they were masked by the pervasive stench of traffic pollution.
The evidence of the harm to human health of pollutants continues to grow. Prolonged exposure is a cause of heart, lung and brain diseases. It weakens the immune system, making people more vulnerable to infections such as the COVID-19 virus. It is no coincidence that hotspots for the current pandemic are where there are high levels of air pollution: Wuhan in China and cities in the industrial north of Italy.
When we emerge from lock-down, the first priority will be to get people back to work, school and university to secure an income and education, essential to being able to live independently. We also need to resume spending money, for own enjoyment and to secure people’s employment in pubs, restaurants, stadiums, cinemas, museums, theatres, galleries, hotels, etc. For most, that will mean resuming regular use of a car – a major source of pollution.
In future we have to take much more seriously our responsibilities as consumers, travellers, influencers, voters and employers for the pollution and carbon emissions our lifestyles produce. We cannot continue to ignore the harm we are doing to ourselves, our descendants and the planet that supports us.
We must make lasting changes in our own lives, and demand change of the companies we deal with and politicians we elect. Change will be painful for many people. So, communities, society and government must support and assist those most in need – as we are seeing today. Together, we can create a healthier, happier, fairer society.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 15 April 2020.