Lockdown reveals fresh air, cleaner rivers in India

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In this Tuesday, April 21, 2020, photo, deserted banks of the Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna are seen during lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus in Prayagraj, India. Indias extended lockdown to curb the coronavirus outbreak has shut down schools, workplaces, industries, transport, and forced people to stay home. It also led to an unexpected bonus in the country with six out of 10 of the world's most polluted cities: cleaner air. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

NEW DELHI – India’s extended lockdown to curb the coronavirus outbreak has shut down schools, workplaces, industries, transport, and forced people to stay home.

It also led to an unexpected bonus in the country with six out of 10 of the world's most polluted cities: cleaner air.

“It is a hell of a change,” said Kunal Chopra, who suffers from chronic bronchitis and whose morning walks no longer begin with a shot from an inhaler. “The air is much fresher and my breathing problems have gone down.”

India accounts for the highest pollution-related deaths in the world with more than 2 million people every year, according to a December 2019 report by the Global Alliance of Health and Pollution.

On March 25, the first day of the lockdown, the average PM 2.5 levels decreased by 22% and nitrogen dioxide — which comes from burning fossil fuels — dropped by 15%, according to air pollution data analyzed by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

“These are extraordinary times,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Center for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy organization in New Delhi. She attributed the drop in air pollutants to less vehicles on the road, construction activity, and factories shutting down.

“People are more vulnerable during a pandemic in areas with high pollution,” she said. “Our lungs and hearts are already compromised, and we cannot fight the virus.”

India has reported nearly 20,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 600 deaths.