COVID-19 is a human tragedy that has disrupted day-to-day life for billions of people. As of June 2020, over nine million cases of the disease had been reported globally with some 500,000 people dead as of 24 June 2020. An estimated 50% of the global population has seen its daily life affected with restrictions placed on everything from transport and commerce to social gatherings and earning a living. 

Decision makers around the world are now cautiously relaxing lockdown policies, but, given the ongoing search for a vaccine, it remains to be seen how society will emerge. Discussions of how to enforce social distancing in schools, on public transport and in workplaces are requiring a drastic rethink about how societies and economies function.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham are contributing to a developing global conversation about how the pandemic will impact on societies over short, medium and long time frames in both the global south and north. In the Global South, our research programmes A Systems Approach to Air Pollution East Africa (ASAP East Africa) and Digital Air Quality, funded by DFID and EPSRC respectively, have provided a natural focus for experts to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on urban mobility and air pollution and how countries can tentatively emerge from this crisis. 

The University’s active leadership in this area is typified by events such as its online workshop in July 2020, which gathers experts from partners such as Makerere University’s Air Qo project, Clean Air Asia and Transport for West Midlands alongside research colleagues from Strathmore University, Kenya; Columbia University, USA; Indian Institute of Technology – Delhi; the United Nations Environment Programme, the Population Council and Kampala Capital City Authority to begin creating a roadmap for the Global South’s emergence from the shadow of COVID-19.

Francis Pope, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Birmingham, comments: “We’re interested in exploring how COVID-19 has impacted on day-to-day life in cities across the Global North and South, particularly in the UK – notably Birmingham – East Africa and India. How governments reacted and what restrictions were imposed? What impact this has had on urban mobility and reported air pollution levels? Have restrictions on movement in and around cities led to improved air quality? More than this, we want to explore how countries can ‘build back better’ and whether this changes how governments think about air pollution.”

Professor Pope recently joined Birmingham colleagues Fiona Rajé and Miles Tight in examining the links between congestion and air pollution in Nairobi. Traffic-related pollution characterises cities, such as Nairobi, experiencing rapid urban growth. In East Africa, there is acknowledgement that congestion has a detrimental effect on the region’s cities, affecting productivity, competitiveness and sustainability.

A bus drives along a road spewing a large amount of exhaust fumes in to the air, Nairobi, Kenya. Image credit: Alamy. 

The Birmingham researchers suggest that small wins may create the most effective process of change through gaining the buy-in of local people. Adoption of bike-share and cycling training programmes, introduction of off-road walking routes and reassigning space for pedestrians could form initial steps in changing people's thinking about their streets and city. 

“Cleaner air brought about by the enforced absence of vehicles from the streets of cities such as Kampala, Delhi and Birmingham could provide the evidence and impetus needed to make transport change happen,” adds Professor Pope. “The silver lining to the dark cloud of COVID-19 may be a rethink of how we position Non-motorised Transport (NMT) at the heart of sustainable, inclusive and thriving cities with good air quality and effective accessibility.”

Regardless of the impact of COVID-19, air pollution is a global environmental health threat, contributing to as many as seven million deaths per year. Particulate matter (PM) air pollution contributes most to the global burden of air pollution related disease – increasing the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and other cardiorespiratory conditions. 

Some groups are considered to be more susceptible than others, for example, those spending significant time in hotspots where air quality is poor. Birmingham researchers explored the vulnerability of commuters, bus drivers and street vendors exposed to poor air quality on buses or at bus stations, in an ASAP-East Africa vulnerability scoping study.

“Public transport has been particularly impacted by stay-at-home directives and according to recent estimates, passenger numbers in cities around the world are down 70 to 90% on typical figures,” explains Dr William Avis, Research Fellow in the University’s International Development Department. “Whilst public transport ridership is slowly increasing, concerns abound regarding the ability to social distance on buses and trains and how this may impact on medium to long-term usage. 

“Most cities cannot function without core public transport, yet these services have been hit hardest by efforts to limit the spread of the pandemic. It is also clear that disruption to the provision of public transport will exert a disproportionate impact on poorer segments of society who are often more reliant on this mode of transport than others.”

Researchers’ work explored exposure to air pollution in such settings across the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Researchers probed perceptions of commuters, street vendors and bus drivers on air pollution in the context of pollution hotspots measured with low-cost PM sensors in indoor and outdoor settings. Their findings underscored the vulnerability of such groups to air pollution, suggesting that those from low socioeconomic backgrounds face a triple burden of exposure at home, in work and during commutes. 

“Our research in Addis Ababa shows that good air quality is central to the provision of a safe, healthy, productive, and comfortable work and commute environment. We now want to explore the impact of public transport restrictions instigated in such cities as a result of COVID-19,” comments Dr Avis. 

“Before lockdown, air pollution levels at Addis Ababa’s bus stations and on-board the city’s buses regularly exceeded World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline amounts – we now want to explore the lockdown experience for the city’s commuters, street vendors and bus drivers. How was their health and quality of life impacted by reduced public transport movements?”

Understanding the link between economic development, changing traffic patterns and city development is central to air quality. Birmingham researchers working on the ASAP-East Africa programme have used the Highway Development and Management (HDM-4) model, originally conceived by the World Bank, to compare the costs and benefits of proposed investments in road infrastructure. These costs and benefits fall into two categories - using the road network and building/maintaining the road network. The ASAP project uses HDM-4 together with an air pollution dispersion model, to investigate how traffic and its interaction with road infrastructure in Addis Ababa, Kampala and Nairobi, contributes to existing levels of pollution across the cities. 

Birmingham’s environmental scientists have also joined forces with counterparts at Makerere University’s AirQo project - establishing a global competition that should create a computer process to accurately predict air quality in Uganda. Using the Zindi data science competition platform, over 400 data experts from countries including India, Nigeria, Tanzania, Japan, and the UAE used information collected hourly from sensors in Kampala to accurately forecast air quality for a future 25-hour period.


The winner’s solution will be used to help the country’s environment experts make policy and planning decisions. The ability to accurately predict air quality over short time periods will empower everyone from governments to families to make informed decisions to protect health and guide people’s actions.

“We now have an opportunity to combine cost-benefit analysis with real-time data and experience gathered from countries in East Africa and beyond to explore the causal links between air pollution, health and economic impact set against the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic,” says Professor Pope.

“In that sense, the research journey upon which we are embarking with our online international workshop is true to the spirit of the ASAP-East Africa project and could provide the catalyst for real environmental change across the Global South.

“More broadly, the temporary easing of global air pollution in a number of settings amid the pandemic is both a beacon of hope that things can be better, and a humbling reminder of the choices society must make regarding how societies emerge from this crisis balancing economic and societal impacts alongside a long term vision of a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable society.”


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