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What Can COVID-19 Teach Our Government About Communicating Air Quality?

What Can COVID-19 Teach Our Government About Communicating Air Quality?

A policewoman wears a mask to protect herself from air pollution, in New Delhi, November 4, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui.

Making information widely accessible to the people has been central to India’s COVID-19 response. Since the pandemic began, people have developed new ways of disseminating information and raising awareness – like online dashboards that quantify the epidemic’s ‘progress’, Google maps that show hotspots in a given locality, and mobile apps that help with contact-tracing.

These measures have, among other things, helped emphasise the pandemic’s immediacy and helped people cope better.

So if governments were to raise awareness and disseminate information on air pollution the way they have done with COVID-19, what might that look like?

There are significant differences between the two crises – but there are some lessons we can draw from our COVID-19 experience that could help with the fight for clean air as well.

First, information on air quality should be collected and made available across the country. In the thick of the COVID-19 epidemic, several state governments, including those of Odisha and Kerala, provided detailed COVID-19-related information by creating dashboards that collated healthcare information from each district. This form  of information dissemination at the grassroots level helped to control the disease in densely populated parts of the country with limited healthcare infrastructure.

Similarly, the government must make air-quality information available throughout the country, particularly since over 75% of the country is exposed to air more polluted than the national standard.

However, the problem here is that monitoring stations are distributed in an inequitable manner, with almost all of them located in urban areas. Government air quality monitoring applications, like Sameer, only provide information for 119 cities, from 255 monitoring stations, with large variations in the number of monitors across cities.

For example, the National Capital Region (76) and Mumbai (17) together account for 93 of India’s monitors. So even as urban monitoring networks improve steadily, rural areas remain in the blindspot. Consequently, they are often left out of dialogues on air pollution even though, according to one estimate, 75% of all deaths attributable to ambient PM2.5 levels in India happen in villages.

Second, officials must duly communicate the risk associated with air pollution to the people in a consistent, comprehensive manner. The daily quantification of COVID-19 cases across various websites and applications helped maintain a sense of urgency around the disease’s management.

While air pollution’s implications may not be as immediate or directly traceable as with COVID-19, it still is responsible for a substantial morbidity and mortality burden – second only to child and maternal malnutrition in India, in fact. Bad air can severely damage our respiratory and cardiovascular systems and increase the risk of diabetes. The latest ‘State of Global Air‘ report attributed 980,000 deaths in India in 2019 to higher PM2.5 levels in the air. Long-term exposure could make the body more vulnerable to more severe forms of respiratory diseases, like COVID-19.

At present, the government communicates exposure levels and the associated health-risks using the air quality index (AQI). But AQI only reflects short-term exposure, and doesn’t say much about prolonged exposure even as most health effects are a result of the latter.

There are also inconsistencies in the AQI displayed across mobile apps. For example, several private apps use the US AQI method while Indian government apps use the Indian AQI method. The methods use different mathematical formulae to convert ambient concentrations of air pollutants to corresponding AQI values. The methods used for deciding the colour codes and breakpoints for each are also different.

The different AQIs for PM2.5, based on the Indian and the US methods. Image:

Even among government apps, Sameer reports the AQI based on 24-hour running averages while SAFAR only seems to update the AQI in the morning. Neither lets the user know what the current pollution levels are. Differences also exist in the sources of data and the method used to calculate these values. Sameer uses data from pollution control board monitoring stations and SAFAR depends on data from India Meteorological Department stations. As a result, the two applications display different AQI values and colour codes. But we need a simpler and more consistent method – much like how we gauge temperature.

A closer look at popular air-quality apps in India. Image: Santosh Harish, Mandakini Chandra, Arunesh Karkun and Sharon Mathew (click to enlarge)

Third, in addition to standardising the way we communicate air-quality information, the government must also make it easy to access. Today, AQI values and their advisories are available only to those who can access air-quality applications or websites.

But as a Union health ministry steering committee had recommended, government messaging targeted at vulnerable groups and city-wide ‘smog alerts’ could help mitigate the impact of severe pollution.

Further, sharing information on air quality in languages other than English is also crucial. It is quite disconcerting that for a country where a little more than 10% of the population claims to understand English, most air-quality apps, including the government’s app Sameer, provide no other language option. This is in sharp contrast to the Aarogya Setu app, which is available in over 10 Indian languages.

Governments have set a good precedent by making critical COVID-19-related information widely available and accessible. They should now extend these initiatives to other issues that seriously threaten public health – such as air pollution.

Sharon Mathew and Arunesh Karkun are research associates at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.

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