INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: Pandemic aggravated by air pollution

LIBONA, Bukidnon (MindaNews / 08 July) — Since 2016, I come to Libona, Bukidnon every weekend to serve as guest priest of Jesus Nazareno Parish. The parish church is currently under  total lockdown since July 3, 2021 due to the alarming increase of  COVID-19 positive cases in the area. Libona has several ecological concerns. Aside from its vast monoculture of pineapple plantation, Libona also accommodates several piggeries and poultries. When they are not done sustainably, both forms of agribusiness can be hazardous to our health and harmful to our ecology especially at this time of pandemic.

Along this line, many people responded positively when Libona’s Municipal Mayor, Aurelio Lopez, ordered the temporary closure of some poultries and piggeries in two barangays on June 23, 2021.  A week after, he ordered again the temporary suspension of operations of poultries and piggeries of anther two barangays. Both commendable executive orders are based on the findings and recommendations of its Municipal Monitoring Task Force on Poultries and Piggeries.

This scenery is a portion of the Kitanglad Mountain Range as viewed from the cemetery of barangay Sil-ipon, Libona where the piggeries of Mega Farm are located. Photo courtesy of FR. REYNALDO D. RALUTO

The said municipal executive orders indicate that the following irregularities have been committed: inadequate drainage system, improper waste management, no mortality pit, no lagoon, poor sanitation, no chicken dung building, presence of larva, and foul odor emitted from their exhaust fan system. These irregularities do not only produce air pollution but also infest the area with flies that threaten the health of the local citizens.

The Link between COVID-19 and Air Pollution

The Libona experience may be seen as a common dilemma among leaders today. There is a strong temptation among authorities to relax the air pollution standards during the pandemic, presumably, for fear of deep economic recession. Many of those who consider air pollution as a less urgent concern may tend to postpone the implementation of environmental rules and regulations. In effect, they ended up backtracking on their ecological commitments.

There is an obvious link between COVID-19 and air pollution.[1] For this reason, many ecological advocates assert that regulating the threats of air pollution at this time of the pandemic is not only appropriate but also an urgent action. Researchers affirm that this infectious disease quickly spreads in a dirty environment as the “particles of pollution might even serve as a vehicle to carry the virus further.”[2]

As a type of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), COVID-19 or SARS CoV-2, primarily attacks the lungs and causes other upper-respiratory tract illnesses, including the common colds. Accordingly, the lungs inflamed by pollutants are highly susceptible to catching the virus. Thus, this pandemic is exacerbated by air pollution that negatively affects especially those with respiratory issues.

The Poor are Most Vulnerable to the Pandemic and Air Pollution

Whether there is pandemic or none, the poor are always exposed to unhealthy situations that make them vulnerable to sickness and untimely death. Many workers of piggeries and poultries are not given personal protective equipment.

At this moment of pandemic, the poor are doubly vulnerable as they suffer the attacks of this lethal virus that would easily infect them due to their lack of access to clean water, soap, and masks and difficulty in maintaining physical distancing.

Furthermore, the threats of the poor Filipinos are tripled as they unjustly suffer the worst effects of ecological disasters brought about by climate emergency in times of the pandemic. These layers of vulnerability suffered by the poor should compel us to prioritize their concerns. To have a preferential option for the poor is imperative at this time of pandemic and climate emergency.

The Need for Integral Solution to the Pandemic

The prevailing approach to solve the pandemic revolves around the curative measures: observing physical distancing in social context, avoiding mass gathering, wearing face masks and face shields, washing one’s hands thoroughly, contact tracing, diagnostic testing, isolating the infected people, enforcing quarantine, limiting the travels, implementing focused lockdowns of social activities and interactions, and injecting vaccines. Although these health protocols have proven to be effective in containing and mitigating the infectious disease, many critics rightly insist that this pandemic could have been avoided if “greater attention had been given to measures directed at [their] prevention and anticipation.”[3]

The Church promotes the integral solution to the pandemic, which is based on the ecological principle that “Everything is inter-connected. This could mean that our proposed solution to one part should not create a problem with other parts. In the words of Reverend Augusto Zampini-Davies, to address the need for food in the face of pandemic, we should “accelerate improvements in agricultural productivity but link it with the protection of natural ecosystems and sustainable practices.”[4] Piggeries, for instance, may contribute to the solution of food crisis but are also known for emitting methane which is considered second most destructive greenhouse gas. They also produce nitrogen from their manure that causes acid rain.

Integral solution to the pandemic could also mean preventing the emergence of future zoonotic diseases by addressing the declining forest cover and maintaining healthy forest ecosystems. Thus, to augment the limitations of curative measures, rehabilitation of our forest ecosystem must be included in our long-term and integral response to the pandemic. Planting native trees is like hitting two birds with one stone: it does not only rehabilitate the forest ecosystem that would absorb air pollution; it also prevents the emergence of future pandemic.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He is the Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Cagayan de Oro where he also teaches fundamental/systematic theology and Catholic social teaching. He is the author of Poverty and Ecology at the Crossroads: An Ecological Theology of Liberation in the Philippine Context (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015). His ecological advocacy includes planting/growing Philippine native trees, mountain climbing, and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples.]

[1] See Arvind Kumar, Jane Burston, and Josh Karliner, “The deadly link between COVID-19 and air pollution,” World Economic Forum (15 April 2020). Online: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/the-deadly-link-between-covid-19-and-air-pollution/ (accessed August 4, 2020).

[2] Damian Carrington, “Is air pollution making the coronavirus pandemic even more deadly?” The Guardian (4 May 2020). Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/04/is-air-pollution-making-the-coronavirus-pandemic-even-more-deadly (accessed 8 January 2021).

[3]  Thomas Heyd, “Covid-19 and Climate Change in the Times of the Anthropocene,” The Anthropocene Review, Vol. 8, no. 1 (2021): 21–36, on p. 28.

[4] “Press Conference on COVID-19, Food crisis and integral ecology: the Action of the Church,” Summary of Bulletin: Holy See Press Office(May 16, 2020). Online: https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2020/05/16/200516a.html (accessed May 15, 2021).

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