A new study from Harvard University has found that air pollution is causing significantly higher rates of death in people with Covid-19. According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution already kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year and causes ill-health in many more as it increases the risk of respiratory diseases. People who suffer from these diseases are also at higher risk of getting a severe form of Covid-19.
Generally, when people think of air pollution, they think of big cities and the pollution caused by traffic and factories. Indeed, coronavirus restrictions have led to a rare relief from this.
Less well known is the fact that indoor air pollution linked to cooking with dirty fuels on open fires or inefficient stoves is actually a bigger killer than outdoor pollution in cities. Exposure to smoke from cooking fires causes almost 4 million premature deaths each year, mostly women and children. Many victims live in remote rural areas where health facilities are lacking. There is a real threat that if coronavirus spreads to poor rural communities, it could have a devastating impact. Those who are already suffering from cooking-related ill-health have little prospect of effective treatment if they catch coronavirus.
Although there is no short-term miracle solution to this problem, it highlights what we at Practical Action have been arguing for many years.
Even though globally, 3 billion people lack access to modern clean cooking solutions, clean cooking efforts are woefully underfunded and rarely feature in national energy policies.
We are working on overcoming some of the failures that prevent various ingenious clean cooking solutions reaching those who need them most. Our projects focus on a whole range of factors – stimulating demand, improving supply, addressing culture and cost.
The right approach can work – as our award-winning carbon finance LPG cookstove project in Sudan, our programmes supporting clean cookstoves entrepreneurs in Kenya and Nepal, and action research on the potential for electric cooking in Bangladesh all demonstrate. Solutions like these help to improve the health of communities and at the same time make them more resilient to respiratory viruses like the new coronavirus.
It is frustrating that there are tried and tested solutions, but not the financial support to take them to greater scale. If poor rural women are disproportionately large proportion of victims of a combination of Covid-19 and breathing problems caused by cooking over open fires, the consequences will be serious and far reaching. Many of these women are carers, farmers and wage earners. Food supplies, social cohesion and rural economies will be under threat.
We are therefore calling for governments and donors to support radical steps as part of a response to the pandemic, in the short term and the post-crisis recovery period:
- Major increases in funding to scale-up clean cooking solutions
- Behaviour change campaigns focusing on key Covid19 messaging and the importance of clean cooking
- Financial support for last mile distributors
If this approach is taken now, this crisis could mark the time the contribution of poor rural women to the global economy was properly recognised and action to support them finally taken.
Practical Action is a partner of the Clean Cooking Alliance who has also highlighted the link between cooking and COVID-19 in a recent article.