With Covid-19, We Need To Vote For Trees, Now
A male Purple Sunbird shines in the April heat. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

With Covid-19, We Need To Vote For Trees, Now

BloombergQuintOpinion

Struck by Covid-19, I struggled for weeks. High fever and joint pain were not my biggest adversaries – being breathless was. Breathing was painful and a chore, not a barely noticeable act. My hands shook as my lungs rattled; my throat seemed full of glass shards. My first real relief came on the seventh day, which I owe to a somewhat-nameless phenomena.

In the searingly hot days of April, strange, sudden storms that happen independently of larger weather phenomena have no real name. They are not pre-monsoon or post-monsoon showers. And so are vaguely called ‘thunderstorm’, ‘dust-storm’ or ‘squall’. A squall that struck Delhi cleared the heavy, brown-grey air that always hangs over the capital. I feverishly threw open my windows and raggedly breathed in the clean rainwashed air. Over the next two days, I felt a bit better – nature had given freshened air in quantities that air filters could not; it gifted us a few days that compensated for all the pollutant load we had put on it.

Migratory pioneer butterflies on a Neem tree. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
Migratory pioneer butterflies on a Neem tree. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

As India struggles with Covid-19, the disease has exposed weakened immunities and failing facilities. It has left us gasping, literally, for oxygen. A macabre reminder of how precious each breath is. And for those of us lucky to recover - fatigued patients and battle weary citizens - the value of open spaces and clean air, the need for city trees and forests, has never been greater.

When I was taking care of family at the hospital, I had walked out of the wards for a break. An old neem tree stretched overhead, its starfish-shaped flowers softly covering the ground. Under the tree was welcome shade, respite from the chronic cries that emanated from the hospital, and fresh, clean air.

A female sunbird framed by white Neem flowers. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
A female sunbird framed by white Neem flowers. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

Cities are centres of enterprise, habitation, and commerce. They are also massively polluted. Studies show co-relations between Covid-19 mortalities and air pollution. Other studies demonstrate what we already knew – that air pollution breaks down the body’s immunity. Thus, those with long-term exposure to air pollution are more susceptible to Covid (and other respiratory diseases).

In India, the biggest cities are the worst hit by Covid.

Patients struggling with lung disease, Covid-caused pneumonia, flu, tuberculosis, or Covid itself require clean air. When using oxygen concentrators or while suffering from Covid, patients are advised to keep windows open.

As more and more vanity projects such as the Central Vista hack trees, let’s remember the following.

Recovering patients need clean air.
Young children need clean air.
Our collective immunity needs clean air.
Society needs clean air.

There are many variants of coronavirus, and we may be living in the shadow of this disease for our lifetimes. More than ever, public interest needs to be pursued through the tenets of science, not political propaganda.

Trees provide oxygen and cleaner air at scales that oxygen concentrators and air filters cannot. They are cheap to grow.

But the question has never been of a tree’s cost – it is the cost of the ground they stand on.

This needs to change.

In order to make cities more habitable in the wake of the global pandemic, trees are a necessary barrier against air pollution. They are also immunity and mood boosting.

Migratory Rosy Starlings seen on a Peepal tree. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
Migratory Rosy Starlings seen on a Peepal tree. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

In a recent study, the legal advocacy group Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment finds that tree plantation in cities is not correlated with pollution hotspots. Plantations, if any, tend to be in faraway places. The report finds that Delhi, Agra, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Korba, and Varanasi have plantations that are nowhere near pollution hotspot locations. This is a violation of specifications laid down by the National Clean Air Action Programme.

The writing on the wall is clear: we need trees, and we need them where we are.

Trees need to be planted in housing colonies, on roadsides, and where air pollution tends to be high – both industrial areas as well as traffic hotspots.

Recent events have shown that it’s hard to get the better of nature or even mimic it.

Ever Given, A ship stuck in the Suez Canal – blown there by strong winds – could only be ‘unstuck’ through a full moon’s tidal tugs.

While forest departments tried to put out forest fires in the jungles of Odisha, it was ultimately rain showers that were effective fire extinguishers.

Ecological or ecosystem services—such as air filtration through trees—work at scales that human technologies can’t match.

After getting Covid, I realised that lungs and the heart are more important than what’s more visible or tangible– like muscle and gristle, waistlines and hairlines. To be able to breathe easily should not be a luxury.

Sighting one gloriously green tree and its residents outside my window while sick, isolated and alone, helped me stave off dark thoughts.

A view from isolation: Pioneer butterflies viewed from in between author's kitchen grill. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
A view from isolation: Pioneer butterflies viewed from in between author's kitchen grill. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

And, the long-term impacts of this new disease are still being understood.

After contracting Covid, top NBA player Jayson Tatum now needs an inhaler before every game. People may recover and test Covid negative but are still crippled with physical and mental hangovers. And while we don’t know what is to come, we do know what we need – lots of fresh air at scales that reach every person. We need common sense, not propaganda; and we need trees, not optics.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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