People exposed to air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19 than people living in areas with cleaner air, according to a new study. Though the study’s findings focus on the United States, they align with similar results from Italy.
This research is an ominous sign for many developing countries, where air pollution levels often far exceed World Health Organization guidelines. More worrying still, air quality inside people’s homes can be magnitudes worse than the air they breathe outside, due in large part to how people cook.
Globally, almost three billion people still rely on open fires or inefficient stoves to cook their food, filling their homes with dangerous levels of smoke. It is well documented that household air pollution from cooking increases susceptibility to respiratory infections such as pneumonia and aggravates respiratory illnesses like asthma – which may, in turn, lead to poorer outcomes after a COVID-19 infection.
Not only does cooking with polluting fuels and technologies increase people’s vulnerability to COVID-19, but effective social distancing is a significant challenge in countries dominated by informal job markets or overcrowded urban settlements.
On top of that, many families face the impossible decision of risking increased exposure to the virus – including to collect or purchase cooking fuel – or foregoing the income needed to buy other necessities.
Even for households that have already transitioned to cleaner cooking fuels like electricity, LPG, or ethanol, the current economic slowdown could mean a necessary return to firewood or other polluting cooking methods.
But while COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, there are proven methods to boost access to clean cooking, which can be incorporated into broader containment and response efforts.
CLEANER FUEL SUPPORT
Governments in developing countries can tackle this issue on two fronts. First, they must make clean cooking part of their pandemic emergency response plans.
India’s government has already announced that it will give away millions of cylinders of cooking gas to those in need. In Ghana, the government’s COVID-19 relief package subsidizes electricity for three months, fully absorbing electricity costs for the poorest consumers (those using up to 50 kilowatt hours per month), and providing all other consumers with a 50 percent discount.
Other governments should follow their lead, while also ensuring that clean cooking fuel providers are categorized as essential and provided with the critical resources needed to minimize supply chain disruptions.
Second, governments must not allow short-term responses to the pandemic to undermine long-term health goals. For example, to support costs of its COVID-response, the Kenyan government is considering tax hikes on cooking gas and stoves, which could slow the uptake of clean cooking.
As the new COVID-19 study shows, even a slight increase in air pollution in the years before the emergence of virus is associated with higher death rates. Clean cooking solutions are critical to reducing household air pollution and building people’s longstanding resilience to respiratory illnesses.
As they juggle competing demands in responding to the pandemic, developing countries are going to need strong support. Developed-country governments, multilateral organizations and other donors must help fill the gap.
Countries such as the Netherlands, Norway and Britain are already strong supporters of efforts to build markets for clean cooking solutions, as are groups such as the World Health Organization and the World Bank. This support must continue, and where possible be expanded, while new donors must step up to join their efforts to address the household air pollution crisis. This issue is more critical than ever, and cannot be solved without concessional, public sector finance.
Public and private capital providers also have an important role to play. Many clean cooking businesses are pioneering scalable business models and high-impact technologies, but are at a pivotal stage of development. Impact investors must urgently offer those businesses the financial resources to ensure their long-term sustainability and ability to provide a growing market with modern cooking solutions.
We know that a person exposed to household air pollution will likely have a worse outcome if they are exposed to the coronavirus. As we brace ourselves for the next wave of the current pandemic – and possibly future pandemics of an unknown nature – it is more important than ever for governments, donors, investors and others to continue their work to bring clean, affordable and appropriate cooking solutions to the three billion people who live each day without them.
Providing emergency solutions for clean fuels while reducing household air pollution is not only critical to saving lives, but also to promoting resilience and recovery in this changing landscape.
Hajia Samira Bawumia is the Second Lady of Ghana, and Dymphna van der Lans is CEO of the Clean Cooking Alliance.