Resilience | Equity
How COVID-19 raises concern for air pollution and urban health in Viet Nam
Air pollution in cities is widely seen as one of the most pressing public health issues in Viet Nam, especially in light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The link between air pollution and respiratory diseases is well established, and cities in Viet Nam suffer from relatively high levels of pollution due to transportation, industry, and construction activities.
As for air pollution and COVID-19 specifically, this is an area that requires further research. However, initial evidence from European cities suggests that air pollution may be a key contributor to COVID-19 deaths.
In Viet Nam, urban areas have many different types of pollutants that far exceed permissible limits, causing health problems for city dwellers. This challenge is especially bad in big cities, as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City now rank among the top 15 polluted cities in Southeast Asia.
The average level of air pollution in Hanoi in 2019 was four times higher than the acceptable air quality guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), according to the government’s air quality report published by the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environmental Protection (MONRE).
City Resilience Officer (Viet Nam), UCCRTF
In particular, the PM2.5 level of Hanoi in 2019 reached 46.9 μg/m3, which is over four times the WHO safe limit of 10 μg/m3. PM2.5 or fine particulate matter is one of the most dangerous air pollutants found in the country’s cities, and these are characterized by very fine particles that are released from vehicles, industries, and natural sources like dust. The particles can penetrate deep into people’s lungs and cardiovascular system, causing illnesses such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections.
According to the Ministry of Health, about 3.76 million people or 4% of the total population suffer from respiratory diseases, with up to 40,000 related to air pollution in 2018. In Ho Chi Minh City, the percentage of people suffering from tuberculosis due to air pollution topped the country at 0.18%.
The health impacts of air pollution come with a high economic cost. Based on the MONRE report, “Hanoi has 3.5 million people living in the inner city … In total, they spend nearly VND2 trillion ($90.9 million) per year on treating respiratory diseases caused by air pollution.”
The health impacts of air pollution come with a high economic cost
Transport leads causes of air pollution
Among the causes of air pollution in Viet Nam, transportation is the largest contributor. In large cities, motorbikes and scooters are the most popular modes of transport. Many of the vehicles are old and have limited emission control technology. The volume of traffic means that vehicles are often moving very slowly through the city, increasing pollution levels further. “Hanoi has more than four million vehicles and traffic activities are accounting for 85% of carbon dioxide emissions, which are very harmful to human health,” MONRE stated in a 2018 report on urban environment.
Construction and industrial zones also cause major dust problems for Viet Nam’s cities. Thousands of commercial and residential construction sites filled with trucks that are heavily loaded with sand and cement create regular dust storms. Old industrial sites located in cities, including coal power plants and cement and steel manufacturers, worsen air pollution.
Additionally, solid biomass cooking stoves used by hundreds of thousands of city dwellers as well as the burning of rice fields after harvest in peri-urban areas contribute significantly to air pollution.
Maintaining clear skies post-COVID-19
Viet Nam has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as with many countries worldwide. By early May, there were 279 infection cases and most of those affected were the elderly and had underlying health conditions. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City had the highest number of infections. The poor and the most vulnerable in the big cities have suffered from both the health and economic impacts due to COVID-19.
Like with other countries, one of the initial impacts of the lockdown in Viet Nam was the significant improvement in air quality. The reduction in the number of vehicles on the road and the halt of manufacturing and service activities have greatly contributed to the cleaner air.
On the other hand, these had adverse impacts on domestic production, businesses and investments in the country. Therefore, actions for economic recovery after COVID-19 is critical. Support for the recovery of industrial sectors is priority but there is also a need to balance the benefit between economic development and public health.
The COVID-19 crisis has vividly drawn people’s attention to the health impacts of air pollution. The challenge for the government now is to ensure that economic activity can return to cities without the accompanying air pollution. To do this requires an economic recovery that embraces new ways of operating and looks to move forward rather than returning to ‘life before lockdown’.