This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.
2020 was a devastating year due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected almost every sphere of human life. More than 4 million lives have been lost to COVID-19 and over 230 million cases have caused much suffering. This has brought countries in every corner of the globe to their knees.
Despite this, has the pandemic created a solely negative impact on the world? A number of research papers have shown that lockdowns during the pandemic have brought positive benefits to the environment due to less human travel. In March 2020, China alone was able to reduce pollution by decreasing harmful components in the air such as carbon emissions by around 25 percent. Subsequently, in early April, a study by Le Quéré et al. found that daily global anthropogenic CO2 emissions have reduced by 17 percent.
Meanwhile, plastic waste has become a matter of great international concern. Researchers have found that the global plastic consumption of medical gloves and face masks worldwide in 2020 was approximately 69 billion units per month. The daily average production of single-use plastic-based medical waste by hospitals in Wuhan, China has increased from around 40 tonnes before the pandemic to more than 240 tonnes since the outbreak.
In many ways, the healthcare system is at the frontline of the crisis. It would be a burden and challenge for physicians and healthcare professionals to simultaneously provide medical care to the community and show responsibility to the environment. Nevertheless, they ought to take action towards reducing the rise of plastic waste. To mitigate the consumption of single-use medical plastics, several steps including lessons learned from the pandemic have been recommended by experts for physicians and healthcare providers to practically follow to reduce the collective impact of healthcare operations on the environment.
Reduction of hospital waste begins from responsible procurement during the purchasing process. A hospital can make small changes that would have a big, tangible environmental impact, such as investing in innovative technology that negates the need for plastic waste. For example, hospitals have typically used traditional contact thermometers that require disposable plastic probe covers to be changed at every temperature reading, which results in between two and three million single-use plastics. By upgrading to non-contact thermometers, hospitals can eliminate the use of disposable plastic probe covers in the long term, thereby reducing the disposal of millions of plastics a year.
Increasing the use of telehealth can be an effective means to reduce the use of masks. People can access primary health care, special care, mental health, and health counselling services amongst other healthcare services via virtual platforms. This can simultaneously decrease the disposal of masks and “carbon intensity per appointment” while increasing the number of clinical interactions through telehealth.
Face masks and other medical protective gears are integral elements of health safety protocols. Therefore, it is crucial to learn how to properly discard face masks so that they do not end up in the wrong places such as oceans. Segregate wastes properly and sort them into categories based on material characteristics and composition and, if necessary, blend them with other plastics. The material can then be melted into recycled pellets to be used by third parties to manufacture new products such as outdoor furniture, decking, and storage containers. Experts also said that reusable cloth face masks are a more sustainable option than single-use disposable masks. Some companies further incorporate recycled fabric as well as organic or biodegradable materials into their masks.
Ultimately, urgent action must be taken to reduce environmental degradation, including through educating the public as well as promoting awareness and responsibility on environmental issues. Realistically, it will take years to assess exactly how the pandemic has affected the environment. But for now, we must understand that COVID-19 is a reminder that reflects the relations between human beings and the environment. Therefore, solving the problem will require active efforts from everyone. Ignorant, apathetic, passive, or despairing attitudes would not suffice. We need people to get on board with saving the world before it is too late.
This op-ed was written by Vinay Chansomphou, edited by Dhini Hardiyanti, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.