Yangon Air Quality: The Covid-19 Factor

The air we breathe: New Year 2020 on Inya Lake, Yangon
Teaser Image Caption
The air we breathe: New Year 2020 on Inya Lake, Yangon

In at least in one respect, the Covid-19 crisis appears to have had a positive side effect:  Since about March 2020, Yangon’s air quality has consistently been better than it was at the same time of the year in 2019.

The difference is marked: Since March, the amounts of “pm 2.5” (small particulate matter of a size of less than 2.5 micrometer, which poses the most serious health risk) measured by AQI monitors in the city were mostly half, or often much less, than a year before. Average air quality in Yangon was plain “good” for most of the time between May and October. In terms of air quality, it may have been the best period people of Yangon have experienced since years.

Likely, these findings can be attributed to the impact of Covid-19 or, more precisely, to the strategies employed to combat the virus. The partial lockdown of businesses, severe restrictions on movement and “stay at / work from home” policies pursued even voluntarily by many institutions (including the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Yangon) have led to reduced traffic and industrial activity. Obviously, these factors contribute half or even more to Yangon’s air pollution load during in the “low season” of the year.

However, the latest data (since November) indicate that this situation is not going to last. The winter haze is coming, with air quality often in the “unhealthy” category either for sensitive groups or even for everybody else. What currently remains of restrictions to movement and businesses may somehow lessen the problem this year, but it is unlikely to remove it.

The winter haze is largely due not just to dry weather (dust being blown around), but even more due to agricultural practices (e.g., setting fire to harvested fields). The problem is around throughout Myanmar, and even beyond. While it can and should be addressed by agricultural policy in the long run, it is currently beyond control of Yangon city, its citizens or its government.

Thus, winter haze is coming, and with it come diseases of the respiratory system. A recent survey of existing studies undertaken by researchers from Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet, Bangladesh, indicates that Covid-19-related infection risk and mortality are aggravated by increased air pollution. The combination of haze and pandemic constitutes a particular health hazard in the next few months. People in Yangon and elsewhere should continue to take care to minimize their infection risks.

Avg monthly pm2.5 AQI

Note on Graph and Data: The graph depicts the AQI values measured by three different air quality monitoring devices, operating for most of the last two years, located in the Hlaing, Kamaryut and Sanchaung areas of Yangon, respectively. While measurement details differ, the overall trend is clear: An annual cycle includes a dry season with high air pollution from about October to April, and a “low season” with much better air quality, from about June to September/October. A daily cycle (not depicted in the graph) has high air pollution at night and in the early morning, and improvement during the warmer periods of the day. The graph shows much improved air quality since March 2020. December 2020 values are provisional, depicting only about the first week of the month. Data are provided by the devices at the Heinrich Böll Foundation (https://mm.boell.org/air-quality-index, historical data provided on request), the U.S. Embassy (https://aqicn.org/city/maynmar/rangoon/us-embassy/), and the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (https://www.purpleair.com/map?opt=1/mAQI/a10/cC0&select=9628#17.89/16.794533/96.129286).