Coronavirus: Up to 100,000 premature deaths could be avoided ‘due to China’s economic slowdown’

Air quality continues to improve following aggressive isolation policies

Medical teams in China smile as they remove their masks one by one

Up to 100,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution in China could be avoided if the country’s economic slowdown continues at its current rate over the next year, researchers say.

Under measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, local businesses have been shut, factories closed, social movement restricted and transportation throughout China brought to a halt.

These aggressive quarantine policies have led to sharp drops in the burning of fossil fuels and cut output of steel products in the country, which produces about 27 per cent of global greenhouse gases.

Air quality has subsequently improved, with concentrations of fine particulate matter down 20-30 per cent throughout February, according to the Centre for International Climate Research in Oslo (Cicero).

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, found that carbon emissions in the nation were down at least a quarter in the same month.

“Oil demand and demand for things like coal and steel have fallen,” he says. “The impact on many of the major industrial sectors is very profound.”

Nasa and European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have also detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China.

The outbreak is likely to affect construction projects, production rates and investment decisions for months to come – all factors that could further hinder economic growth and slow down emissions.

And if air pollution continues to remain at its current nationwide levels for a full year, Cicero predicts that the annual avoided number of premature deaths could range between 54,000 and 109,000.

This corresponds to a 5-10 per cent reduction of current annual pollution related deaths in China, where more than 1 million people – typically the elderly and those with underlying health conditions – die every year due to poor air quality.

Kristin Aunan, a senior researcher at Cicero, said it was important to note “that people whose death or hospitalisation is found to be associated with air pollution often have died/been hospitalised from a heart attack or a brain stroke: This means air pollution puts an additional strain on the health services throughout the year, as a kind of ‘baseline’ strain.”

In Hubei, which has endured some of the most draconian containment measures seen since the start of the outbreak, the avoided number of deaths could be as high as 3,800, says Cicero.

However, scientists have warned that the figures are highly uncertain and susceptible to change should China attempt to boost its economy through some type of stimulus once the situation stabilises.

South Korea has already pumped £7.6bn into its economy following the pathogen’s spread, and Italy has approved and an injection of £22.8bn.

“These calculations were done at a point of time when we had no idea how long this would last in China,” Ms Aunan told The Independent. “Already now it seems business is going back to normal in the country.”

Joanna Lewis, an expert on China’s energy sector at Georgetown University, said: “The reductions are substantial, but they are most certainly only temporary, and there will likely be a rebound effect.

“Once people go back to work and factories restart, they may try to make up for lost time. This could result in a surge in emissions.”

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