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Stubble-burning smog to blame for increased COVID death rate, says Delhi’s Health Minister

Burning of crops in southeast Punjab – a major driver of northern India’s pollution crisis and pinpointed as a possible reason why Delhi’s COVID-19 death rate is so high. (Image credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (])
Delhi Health Minister Satyender Jain has attributed the high COVID-19 death rate in the national capital to pollution caused by stubble-burning in neighbouring states. However, the Minister said that he expected a downtrend to be seen in the next two to three weeks. 

Jain told reporters that the pollution in Delhi came as a result of stubble-burning, a method of intentionally setting fire to the straw that remains after harvesting wheat and grain. The impact of the practice has reportedly led to issues such as breathing problems in those affected by COVID-19, due to their inhaling the smoke. This is believed to have aggravated the seriousness of their health issues. 

Jain said that the effect of stubble-burning in the sprawling megacity of New Delhi is expected to lessen in the next two to three weeks –  with the COVID-19 death decreasing as a result. This is due to decreased burning in the previous days. 

“There was heavy pollution due to stubble-burning amid the COVID-19 pandemic and it came as a double attack”, Jain said. “Since the pollution due to stubble-burning is less now, the downtrend in deaths will be there in a few weeks.” 

The number of fresh cases as well as the positivity rate are gradually going down in Delhi, according to Jain, indicating that the COVID-19 situation is improving. This comes after Delhi posted a reported a death rate of 1.58 per cent among COVID-19 patients as compared to the national fatality rate of 1.48 per cent. This is at the time of writing.

Despite Jain’s comments, discussions over the impact of stubble-burning continue. Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal reportedly told Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting on Tuesday that the high severity of the third wave of COVID-19 in the national capital is due to many factors, pollution being a significant one

“The high severity of the third wave is due to many factors. Pollution is an important factor. The chief minister sought the prime minister’s intervention to get rid of the pollution caused by stubble-burning in adjoining states, especially in view of the recent bio-decomposer technique,” a source told The Print

The number of incidents of stubble-burning reportedly hit their peak between November 4th and November 7th this season. According to the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ air quality monitor, SAFAR, the share of stubble-burning in Delhi-NCR [National Capital Region]’s pollution peaked to 42 percent on November 5, when 4,135 farm fires were recorded in the region.

This timeframe coincides with research that showed the Air Quality Index (AQI) – which measures the level of pollutants – exceeding 1,300 in Sukhdev Vihar earlier this month. This made it over thirty times the safe level set by the World Health Organization, and with the impact of air pollution on COVID-19 now well-documented as public health experts reports indicate a strong correlation, the city which is home to approximately thirty million people has a clear challenge. 

The official from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) said, “it was a bumper harvest this year, so the amount of crop residue was also large. Also, it was a cloud-free season as compared to last year. The biomass was drier and prone to burning.” 

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