Who knows how many new viruses and diseases are prepared due to the co-evolution of hundreds of million people with uncontrolled disposal practices, with dumpsites full of insects and rats, with toxic substances in soil and water, with a chemically polluted food chain?

The whole world deals with the updates regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19) infections. The latest news, as of 25 February 2020, reported 80,377 infections and 2,707 deaths[1]. The impacts on the global economy are becoming clear worldwide[2]and the disruption of the aviation[3]and tourism industry[4]is already high. As our fears (fueled by misinformation campaigns, racist and political narratives, and social media “experts”) go higher, allow me to address some points for discussion.     

1. Coronavirus, till now, has resulted in 1% of the deaths related to open burning of waste which are roughly 270,000 premature adult deaths per year[5]and maximum 0.5% of the total deaths due to poor waste management which are assessed to 400,000 to 1,000,000 deaths per year[6]. Coronavirus has infected, worldwide, less than 1% of the people (8.7 million) that were found to be at high risk of exposure to lead and hexavalent chromium, from 373 dumpsites[7]in India, Indonesia and Philippinesonly. Coronavirus has infected 1.3% of the population that lives nearby the 50 biggest dumpsites of the world (65 million).  

2. Since poor waste management creates 100 times more fatalities than the coronavirus, why our societies are so much afraid of the virus and they are so much indifferent to poor waste management practices? The answer is that coronavirus is something new and it is perceived as a sudden threat, while poor waste management is something with which we have learnt to co-exist. Psychology explains well why we tend to overestimate the risks that are perceived as sudden incidents (e.g. a new virus, car accidents or airplane crashes) and underestimate risks that are related with chronic problems and conditions (like the millions of air pollution related deaths or the fatality of cardiovascular diseases).  

3. Coronavirus has something in common with waste. Coronavirus is a new mutation of already existing viruses, and this is why we are not prepared to cure it, and we need time to find the proper medicines. In the same way, the new forms of waste that our societies continuously generate, like e-waste, marine litter, pharmaceutical waste, chemical pollution are mutations of existing forms of waste and we need to find which is the right way to manage them. In the case of corona virus, we still do not know if we will find the solution in time, before it turns out into a pandemic. But in the case of waste, we already know that dumpsites are wasting the health of 35-40% of the global population and the oceans are suffering from a plastic pandemic. 

4. Coronavirus has a difference with waste. Coronavirus is lethal in percentages ranging between 1.5-12.5% to ages above 55-60 years old and to people with weak imunition systems – there is not even one child below 9 years old dead[8]. In contrast, poor waste management affects the whole population that lives around the dumpsites and creates serious health impacts to children too. Both coronavirus and poor waste management pose more fatalities to the poorest populations that lack access to health services, water, sanitation and regular waste collection. 

Both coronavirus and poor waste management pose more fatalities to the poorest populations that lack access to health services, water, sanitation and regular waste collection. 

5. Coronavirus requires better healthcare and medical waste management. As an example, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in China has called for an increase in the medical waste disposal capacity in Hubei province, which is hard-hit by the new coronavirus epidemic. By 11 February, the ministry had already sent 23 mobile disposal units to Wuhan, Xiaogan, Huanggang and other cities that are experiencing the majority of the outbreak. Ten additional units were sent to Wuhan[9]. As Yahoo Finance informed us, given the current global health scenario and the spread of coronavirus, it is prudent that investors keep a close watch on five waste management companies[10], which are likely to witness an increase in demand for their services. By the way, to manage coronavirus healthcare and medical waste what we need is safe disposal practices and healthcare incineration units – that’s a good reminder to remember that a. the core mission of waste management is to protect human health and environment from pollution and, b. that pollution should not be recycled, as it happens in several cases with plastics and paper recycling

To manage coronavirus healthcare and medical waste what we need is safe disposal practices and healthcare incineration units – that’s a good reminder to remember that the core mission of waste management is to protect human health and environment from pollution.

6. Coronavirus started from China, and for a while, western societies believed that they will be safe due to the tough measures that the Chinese state adopted. However, with dead and infected people in more that 20 countries now, no one can feel safe and isolated. This does not mean that we have to panic, the statistics show a fatality rate between 2-3%, higher than the normal flue but much lower than SARS. But this means that in a world with 11 million airplane passengers per day, with daily flights connecting 20,000 cities[11], it is meaningless to hope that health problems like this will be restricted in a country. Viruses show no respect to geographical and social borders. 

7. The last is also true for health problems relevant to waste and dumpsites. Coronavirus is an outcome of the co-evolution between humans and their broader ecosystems. Who knows how many new viruses and diseases are prepared due to the co-evolution of hundreds of million people with uncontrolled disposal practices, with insects and rats, with toxic substances in soil and water, with a chemically polluted food chain? And who can guarantee that these lethal health risks will be restricted only to the poor areas and countries of the world?  

Waste management became a subject of public – municipal policies and practices only when the richer populations understood that no matter how clean they kept their neighborhoods and houses, no matter how much they avoided the direct contact with poor people and diseases, there was no way to enjoy a good and healthy life in a city in which 90% of the population was suffering by diseases due to poor sanitation. This is exactly the lesson that we have to remind the global community today: if the dumpsites will not be eliminated, no one can feel safe, no matter how developed her/his country or waste management system is.


[1]https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[2]https://www.marketwatch.com/story/fear-that-the-coronavirus-will-turn-into-a-global-economic-pandemic-is-building-2020-02-24

[3]https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-epidemic-buffets-global-airlines-11582215097

[4]https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/02/16/business/economy-business/tourism-coronavirus-covid19-2021-experts/

[5]Kodros, J. K.; Wiedinmyer, C.; Ford, B.; Cucinotta, R.; Gan, R.; Magzamen, S.; Pierce, J. R. Global Burden of Mortalities Due to Chronic Exposure to Ambient PM 2.5from Open Combustion of Domestic Waste. Environ. Res. Lett.201611(12), 124022. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/12/124022.

[6]TEARFUND. NO TIME TO WASTE Tackling the Plastic Pollution Crisis before It’s Too Late; TEARFUND, 2019.

[7]Chatham-Stephens, K.; Caravanos, J.; Ericson, B.; Sunga-Amparo, J.; Susilorini, B.; Sharma, P.; Landrigan, P. J.; Fuller, R. Burden of Disease from Toxic Waste Sites in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines in 2010. Environmental Health Perspectives2013121(7), 791–796. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1206127.

[8]http://weekly.chinacdc.cn/en/article/id/e53946e2-c6c4-41e9-9a9b-fea8db1a8f51?fbclid=IwAR0t2qQ3Gjq6tMv1uPQ_IW7dWmtgR3YhXXQKHYz1P77KnbDF665hSCmJfYo

[9]https://www.hospitalmanagement.net/news/china-medical-waste-disposal-coronavirus/

[10]https://finance.yahoo.com/news/5-waste-management-stocks-gain-145102566.html

[11]https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericrosen/2018/09/08/over-4-billion-passengers-flew-in-2017-setting-new-travel-record/#2ef59b76255b

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