Coronavirus might have saved more lives in China than it cost: Stanford researcher

Reduction in air pollution likely saved twenty times more lives in China than deaths attributable to COVID-19

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The difference of NO2 density between Jan. 1-20 and Feb. 10-25 in China (ESA photo)

The difference of NO2 density between Jan. 1-20 and Feb. 10-25 in China (ESA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — As of March 23, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has claimed 3,270 lives in China, according to official figures from that country; but the lives saved by the reduction in air pollution due to decreased economic activity might have outnumbered the deaths.

On March 2, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) released a satellite photo marking a prominent decline in nitrogen dioxide over China between January and February. The scientists see the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak as the major cause for the plummet.

To verify this assumption, Stanford University Department of Earth System Science Assistant Professor Marshall Burke used historical data comparisons to discover an average daily reduction of 15-17ug/m3 of PM2.5 in Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, and Guangzhou from January to February, as compared to the average in the previous four years.

Air pollution has proven a huge threat to the global population; it is responsible for five million deaths yearly and contributes to nine percent of deaths globally. Accounting for the direct cost of air pollution on the mortality rate and the estimated population affected by air pollution in China, Burke concluded that two months of PM 2.5 reduction likely saved the lives of 4,000 kids under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China.

Even under more conservative assumptions, Burke still estimated 20 times more lives have been saved than were lost to COVID-19 based on the death toll in China on March 8.

The trend of reductions in nitrogen dioxide is also appearing in northern Italy, which is the country with the highest coronavirus death toll in the world. “Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover, we are very confident that the reduction in concentrations that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy, which is causing less traffic and industrial activities,” said Claus Zehner, the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager.