Health Over Healthy Environment: The Crisis Beyond

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected significant spheres of life. However, the world also witnessed a considerable improvement in nature, like air purity, cleaner oceans, and more prosperous wildlife. It has become necessary to have a positive outlook towards the contemporary situation around the world to keep oneself mentally stable. The clarity in mindset has allowed people to restrict themselves from engaging in large public gatherings and has prepared them to stay indoors as much as possible in a clean environment. Unfortunately, this pandemic has had a significant impact that can threaten sustainable development in the coming decades.

The medical fraternity worldwide has undoubtedly provided continuous assistance in this crisis and deserves much appreciation. The compulsion to use PPE kits (including face shields, masks, shoes and hand gloves) made of plastic while treating COVID patients to avoid transmission of the disease has led to a rise in biomedical waste. Apart from the doctors and medical staff, the common folk also resorted to using these kits while travelling. The government had also mandated the same. The gloves and the equipment used have been made with plastic for one-time use and are non-recyclable. Plastic is such a material that remains intact for decades without decomposing. Thus, plastic waste is a much more permanent threat.

It has been observed by various organisations worldwide, engaged in conducting surveys, that the world has turned a blind eye towards the massive dumping of medical waste. On account of this novel coronavirus, the world has transitioned into upholding the hygienic standards devised by the World Health Organization. That implies the higher use of plastic-based equipment to cover essential commodities such as cooked food and the production and supply of gloves and PPE kits. The waste is dumped in the landfills and is choking microorganisms essential to sustain life on earth.

Cloth-based equipment is less effective and inferior to the quality of equipment made out of plastic due to its inability to contain the virus adequately. It is an established norm that the well-being of the medical staff cannot be ignored, and thus the use of plastic-based PPE kits is mandatory while treating COVID positive patients. Further, the waste generated during the diagnosis and treatment of COVID patients has to be handled carefully, sometimes in thick plastic bags that do not allow leakage. It further adds to the plastic percentage in biomedical waste and the disposal of plastic waste coverings and collection bins.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) of India had released specific guidelines in March 2020 for the collection and disposal of biomedical waste explicitly generated during the pandemic. However, there is not legislation or organisation that can effectively engage in reducing plastic-based biomedical waste. Nevertheless, given the widespread crisis, there arises the need for common people to encourage the lesser usage of plastic equipment. Even the masks made out of cloth can be used with multi-layered protection by people not infected by the virus.

The Common Biomedical Waste Treatment Facility (CBWTF) is pioneered as the dedicated facility in handling and disposing of biomedical waste from hospitals. The guidelines provided by CPCB are not adequate, given the nature of the vast population, since not all biomedical waste can be disposed of in the prescribed manner. The overflooding of medical waste has led to some of these wastes being dumped into landfills. At the same time, the medical waste from households in various neighbourhoods of the country has been collected and disposed of in the same manner as domestic waste. It has exposed the public to the transmission of COVID-19 and remains intact in the earth's topography, and affects all life surrounding it.

The biomedical waste from hospitals and clinics cannot be reduced; however, alternatives to plastic equipment can be made for common people to effectively reduce the impact of over-flooding plastic waste and help curb the consequences of the crisis. Hygiene and sanitation cannot be compromised for the sake of waste reduction. However, we can minimise the risk of infection by ensuring maximum physical distancing and restraining oneself from going out often without a practical purpose.

The people engaged in work-from-home and the home-makers should strictly resort to the cloth-based equipment since their minimal interaction in public does not risk transmission. The governments must ensure awareness in the areas least affected by the virus and encourage them to develop hygienic habits with minimum use of plastic products. We have witnessed prominent leaders worldwide come together on platforms like Geneva Convention, Rio Declaration, etc., which have been the milestone in formulating guidelines to protect the environment and wildlife. Unfortunately, the drawback of such formulations is the implementation of those guidelines at the grass-root level. With the advancement of technology, we have access to the worldwide database and, thus, are connected to people everywhere. Awareness must be fostered within our social circles to achieve collective responsibility. There is a need to inculcate and learn from the practices of people who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of the natural ecosystem. Such as the recent example of converting masks into bricks by a man in Gujarat.

Nature calls upon the people to increase awareness for the adversities they have created by gaining control over nature, yet at the same time not compensating for it. It is high time to recognise one's responsibility for protecting biodiversity and envisioning a sustainable future by changing our present habits.

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