With the emergence and spread of COVID-19, the entire world has been forced to face a global epidemic of as yet unknown dimensions. This has forced governments to take extreme confinement measures that have led, among other effects, to the total or partial shutdown of the world economy for a few weeks or months, the replacement of face-to-face teaching activities by others virtual alternatives, and the postponement or suspension of massive social, cultural, sporting, or recreational events.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the pathogenic agent causing COVID-19, the acronym for «corona virus disease 19» (for the year of onset). Since this highly contagious disease was detected in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, the number of people infected has increased exponentially worldwide. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. By early June 2020, according to Worldometer data, more than seven million people had been infected and more than 400,000 had died from COVID-19-related diseases. Just three months later, on 1 September, 26 million people were infected and nearly 900,000 had died.
Until the emergence of COVID-19, new epidemics have been less of a threat to human health than those of previous centuries (some still very prevalent, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other infectious diseases). Throughout the current century, every few years we have been alarmed by the outbreak of some new global «plague» (SARS in 2002-2003, avian flu in 2005, swine flu in 2009-2010, and Ebola in 2014), which so far had caused a relatively small and territorially concentrated number of victims. However, authors such as Yuval Harari (2016) warned that this could only be a temporary victory for medicine and no one could guarantee that new infectious diseases would not reappear, mainly as a result of random mutations in the genome of the pathogens that would allow them to leap from animals to humans.
The first objective of this article is to show the territorial effect of COVID-19 at different scales. To this end, we will observe and analyse various maps that will help to learn more about the unequal territorial reach of the new twenty-first century pandemic, in order to understand the apparent correlation between latitude and incidence of the disease. Another objective is to find out the potential link between the COVID-19 outbreak and the progressive anthropogenic degradation of the natural environment resulting from the implementation of a shortsighted economic growth model that is particularly aggressive in certain parts of the planet. A third objective is analysing the impact of human-induced environmental pollution on the spread of COVID-19. Finally, the fourth and final objective is observing the positive environmental side effects while the confinement measures were in place.
To map COVID-19, public information on coronavirus infections and deaths around the world has been used at different scales: states, autonomous communities (Spain), federal states (United States) and regions (Italy). In terms of state-level data, the very unequal mortality rate among people diagnosed in countries such as Russia (1.7 % of deaths for every 100 infections), the USA (3 %), Spain (5.6 %) and Belgium (11.2 %) suggests that the official death figures for some territories could be understated. However, the maps have been prepared with the data provided by each country, since they are the only official sources available. All the statistics were transferred to a geographical information system through a data join (ArcGIS programme, ESRI) and the final maps are shown in this article’s figures.
Environmental causes of COVID-19
Outbreaks of zoonotic diseases represent a major challenge to global health, as Quammen (2012) noted when he said that Ebola, SARS, and HIV/AIDS were the result of virus jumping from animals to people. According to Johnson et al. (2020), new infectious diseases in humans are often caused by pathogens originating from two groups of animals. On the one hand, in mammals, such as some primates and bats, which have successfully adapted and proliferated in human-dominated landscapes; and on the other, in wild animals threatened by hunting and trade, such as pangolins, which, as a result of human activities that have degraded their habitat, have increased interaction with humans, facilitating the transmission of pathogens.
«Meteorological conditions, the age of the person, sex, population density, social habits, containment measures, the level of poverty, and environmental degradation are all factors that play a role in the spread of the disease»
Although the origin of the 2019 coronavirus could have been a bat, Zhang and Zhang (2020) believe that transmission to humans would have occurred via an intermediary animal: probably two Malaysian pangolins. In any case, whatever the ultimate source of zoonotic transmission was, there seems to be a correlation between ecosystem overexploitation and biodiversity loss, with the emergence of new animal-borne viral diseases.
In terms of the geographical origin of the disease, the first cases of patients with COVID-19-associated pneumonia were reported in Wuhan (Hubei, China) at the end of 2019. The virus spread rapidly from this sub-provincial city of 8.5 million people along the Yangtze River to the rest of the world, particularly affecting Western Europe and the United States during the spring of 2020, and the Americas (again including the US) and India during the summer.
Territorial development of the pandemic
From the onset of the disease, there have been significant territorial and temporal differences in the rate of spread and mortality of COVID-19 outbreaks (Figures 1 and 2). These differences (between state and sub-state territories) have raised important questions regarding the influence of different factors on the spread of the disease. Meteorological conditions, the age of the person (and previous pathologies), sex (higher mortality among men), population density, social habits, containment measures, the level of poverty, and environmental degradation are all factors that play a role, to a greater or lesser extent, in the spread of the disease.
State-scale maps (Figures 1 and 2) show that the highest incidence of the disease up to June occurred in temperate latitudes in the Western Hemisphere, while lower latitudes were mostly spared (except in Brazil, where it was beginning to grow). Even so, from June to September, COVID-19 was particularly widespread at low latitudes such as those of India, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and South Africa. The trend up to June could be linked to a greater spread of COVID-19 in cold and temperate environments in the North-Western hemisphere, but not in the East which, despite being the initial focus, showed lower mortality, probably due to the rapid confinement measures and social isolation inherent to that culture.
Even so, from June to September, the disease was rampant in low-latitude countries, despite being in warm environments (in Mexico and India even during the summer). The effect of the high temperatures, which apparently should have mitigated the spread of COVID-19, was cancelled out by the high densities and pockets of urban poverty, as well as by the high airport mobility when the pandemic began. It was also sometimes due to a policy of disregard of social distancing measures by government authorities (Porterfield, 2020; Pequeno et al., 2020).
As for Africa, until June transmission rates were the lowest in the world, possibly due to social and environmental factors and a younger population (more than half of whom are under 20 years old) that has benefited from the control of other infectious diseases, such as HIV and tuberculosis. But the high prevalence of HIV, tuberculosis, and other pathogens could also increase the severity of COVID-19, because of weak health care systems in these regions (Ayebare et al., 2020). Even so, the WHO warned of the potential future impact on Africa if containment measures failed. The South African Republic, characterised by large pockets of poverty and high urban densities around large cities, is the territory where COVID-19 infections and deaths have grown the most.
Weather conditions – which allow more or less outdoor activity – seem to have influenced the spread of COVID-19, as can be seen in Figures 3, 4, and 5. AT the sub-state scale, it was observed that the warmer areas generally had lower mortality from the disease up until June. This was the case in Italy (Figure 3), Spain (Figure 4) and the United States (Figure 5), where the climate in the areas most affected by COVID-19 is relatively cold in winter: Lombardy, in northern Italy; New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, in the northeast of the USA; and Madrid and the Castilian plateau, in Spain. Conversely, COVID-19 has been less present in the southern states of California, Texas, and Florida, in the Italian Mediterranean regions, and in the entire Iberian coastal periphery (including Portugal), except for the Basque and Catalan urban regions (with an incidence halfway between Madrid and the rest of the coastal regions). Throughout the summer of 2020, paradoxically, the US states most affected by the COVID-19 were the warmer southern states (Figure 6).
Environmental effects of the pandemic
The general correlation between higher temperatures (and therefore more outdoor activity) and lower COVID-19 mortality seems clear, but the correlation between large urban concentrations and pockets of poverty with a higher risk of contagion is also evident, as was seen in the summer of 2020, whose heat did not prevent the spread of the disease. Intense temperatures have not prevented the spread of the disease in Spain, either, as a result of the relaxation of social distancing and protection measures, as well as the increase in nightlife.
We should also ask ourselves whether air pollution can increase the vulnerability of COVID-19 patients. In fact, atmospheric aerosol may be a co-factor in the human body that promotes inflammation and oxidation of the lungs and other organs, and may have a harmful effect on COVID-19 patients that could partially explain the differences in mortality observed in the industrial region of Lombardy, compared to other regions of Italy (Conticini, Frediani, & Caro, 2020).
Air pollution due to high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), combined with the downward airflow (anticyclone) preventing an efficient dispersion of pollution, and the difficult air circulation through mountain barriers (Central System in Madrid, and the Alps and Apennines in Lombardy), may contribute to the mortality of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in these regions (Ogen, 2020) (Figures 3 and 4).
On the other hand, and continuing with air pollution, the economic and social containment measures linked to the COVID-19 health crisis have achieved what no world summit on climate change had achieved so far: reducing nitrogen dioxide concentrations in an unprecedented manner (ESA, 2020) (Figure 7). NO2 is produced in power plants, vehicles, and other industrial facilities and increases the probability of developing respiratory problems (He et al., 2020). According to the WHO, 4.6 million people die annually from diseases related to poor air quality (Cohen et al., 2017). Considering the enormous decrease in air pollution during the quarantine period, the COVID-19 pandemic could, paradoxically and collaterally, have contributed to the decrease in the total number of deaths due to non-communicable diseases (Dutheil, Baker, & Navel, 2020).
A missed opportunity to change our model
The world of historical disasters that our ancestors experienced seemed to have been overcome, according to Harari (2016), who argued that the new concerns of the twenty-first century society would turn towards the creation of the superman or Homo Deus, through information technology and biotechnology. Even so, neither this author nor most of the world’s rulers expected the sudden emergence and virulence of a new «plague» called COVID-19, to which they have reacted in an improvised and contradictory manner. What the rulers have managed to do is send out the message (encouraging for their society) that this pandemic would sooner or later end and citizens’ lives would return to normal, that is, to the previous hyperglobal production model that was so harmful to the Earth’s environmental balance. Few rulers have attempted to understand or convey the idea that this pandemic is also a consequence of that previous model.
The end of the quarantines marked an excessively rapid return to a new and false normality, without the political power giving much thought to whether this situation should be reconsidered. Science should have been the answer to reconsider new models, but it will foreseeably continue to be subsidiary to the factual economic powers, which are not willing to lose their privileged status (Domínguez, 2020).
In this sense, on a local scale, the city of Valencia represents a paradoxical paradigm that is repeated in other areas of the world: on the one hand, it is an exceptional model of sustainability because the urban periphery still cultivates agricultural products that are sold on the local markets; on the other hand, the port authorities want to extend the port (which is already the largest in the Mediterranean) and create a northern access to the port with an underwater tunnel, with unpredictable environmental consequences and a very high price point. This is only one example of the contradictions of the growth model that this pandemic has helped to accentuate and that science, placed at the service of global well-being, should help to resolve.
Year after year, world records of global warming are broken, glaciers melt, wildfires burn, and floods devastate dozens of regions around the world. As if this were not enough, a new epidemic is now reaching the five continents and affecting 215 territories (including states and other administrative units).
Government responses to minor material disasters have so far consisted in short-term measures to provide incentives for reconstruction, rather than a change in the economic model to prevent further disasters in the future. In the case of COVID-19, the shock has been so swift, so large in terms of territory, and so serious in terms of health that most governments have been unable to respond quickly enough and have therefore had to improvise ever-changing and contradictory strategies. Some of the world’s most powerful political leaders initially wanted to minimise the effects of the pandemic to protect the economy and subsequently, given the extent of the disease, had to rectify and implement measures to confine the population.
On the other hand, Western Europe and the United States, considered until now the paradigm of the first world, initially appeared to be developing areas in terms of crisis management, since in order to protect the sick, health workers, and the general population had to import healthcare equipment from China and other Asian countries, with the consequent increase in cost, delay in orders and, sometimes, fraudulent response from suppliers.
The utopian Western society that we thought was healthy, rich, and self-sufficient has suddenly found itself sickly, poor, and helpless in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. Globalisation favours industrial relocation to South-East Asian countries and other developing areas, whose manufacturing production arrives by sea to Western mega-ports such as Valencia, for example. When the new pandemic arrived with enormous virulence, the Western world was completely subordinated to Asian industry, which made the huge dependence of Western societies on Asian ones even more obvious. This is the same global system that subordinates Western societies and made it possible for the COVID-19 to be rapidly transmitted from China to the rest of the world. Therefore, the current global production model needs to be reconsidered and shifted towards a more sustainable model in which local consumption is a priority and the destruction of biodiversity is halted.
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