A familiar scene is taking place in northern India. Vast fields burn, flames engulfing bare stalks of already-harvested crops. Billowing smoke travels across state borders. In towns and cities, the air is thick with yellow haze.
Stubble burning, the practice of intentionally setting fire to cultivated fields to prepare the land for its next crop, is one of the chief drivers of India’s so-called annual pollution season, which begins each winter.
It is especially bad in cities like the capital New Delhi, where smog from the burning crop fields, vehicular emissions, power plants, construction sites, and smoke from Diwali firecrackers combine to create a toxic cloud that lingers until spring.
Authorities have been trying for years to combat this serious public health risk — but there’s a new urgency this year, with fears that pollution could compound the danger of Covid-19.
The coronavirus outbreak in India has infected nearly 7.6 million people and killed more than 115,000, according to the country’s Health Ministry. India went into a months-long nationwide total lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus — but with little success. Presently, India has the second highest number of infections globally, after the United States, and the third highest number of deaths.
Experts and politicians now worry that the arrival of pollution season could pose a double threat, putting people at higher risk of severe infection, while increasing the strain on public health services.
“The combination of air pollution along with Covid-19, and especially as this is going to happen during the winter months, is something we need to be really concerned about and take adequate measures, so that we don’t let a huge spike occur in the number of cases,” said Dr. Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
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