Running in the times of #Coronavirus

Is this #pandemic changing our approach to pollution? And to life?


Let me start with an Editor’s Note.


We don’t usually start a blog with an Editor’s Note, but we are in exceptional times.

According to the last WHO report on Coronavirus infection on the 17th of March, there are 179,111 total confirmed cases, and 7,426 death. Today the numbers have changed to more than 200 thousand cases and more than 8 thousand deaths.


Italy, where some of my closest friends and most of my relatives live, is in complete shutdown. France and Spain are following suit.


Milan, before and after the shutdown. Getty Images.

I don’t even want to start discussing the controversy around UK strategy in dealing with the virus — I am a scientist, not an infective diseases epidemiologist.


Like everybody else, we at InSPIre the Mind are reacting as we can to the shifting situation.

We have cancelled our course on using creativity to talk about mental health.


We have cancelled our last blog on pollution and mental health, scheduled for next week, and instead, we will have a blog on mental wellbeing at the time of coronavirus.


We call upon all readers and writers who follow us and would like to write a blog on how coronavirus has affected their mental health and wellbeing, to contact us.

And I am writing this blog, today.


A blog which is a mixed bag of emotional reactions to the virus, considerations on public health, and news about pollution.


So that we can mark the transition from what was, only a few weeks ago, the world’s most horrible nightmare — pollution and global warming — to this new nightmare.

All confusedly conceived in my brain while running in a park.

 

It is Sunday morning and I am breathing deeply while running in a park, hoping that, by magic or by some scientific processes I am not aware of, the oxygen in my throat and in my lungs will stop or weaken the virus, if (when?) I come into contact with it.


Running on a Sunday always entails gymkhaning around dogs and little children that suddenly jump in from of you, but this time I do something new, something different: I avoid adults.

I avoid other runners.


I have always had the habit of smiling and waving at fellow runners who suffer and sweat like me in the park — often wondering, what are they thinking? Are they in a ‘mental zone’? Do they, like me, use running to reflect on worries and problems?


This habit has now metamorphosised, as Gregor Samsa does into Kafka’s “monstrous vermin”, into active avoidance.


I no longer smile and wave, I move on the other side of the trail, I turn my head around, I even hold my breath if there are too many people to go through safely — whatever safely may mean.

Two years ago I had just finished a half marathon and, as often happens to runners, I burst into tears at the finish. Sitting sobbing on the pavement in the crowd, two total stranger fellow runners — not one, two — stopped and hugged me.


Last week, while running, I saw a woman — again, a runner — in clear distress. Crouching on a bench, face buried in her hands, earphone on. I asked her three times whether she needed help — the music was perhaps too loud, or she did not want to answer — but I insisted and gently tapped her shoulder. I am a psychiatrist for a reason.


She was crying, but reassured me that she was ok and that she did not need anything.

On a normal day I would have stayed around for a few more beats, tried to talk, flagged down my wife who was running just behind me, offered some support and comfort.


But this was not a normal day and the only thing I could think of was the possibility of coronavirus in her tears.


Damned virus.


Photo by CDC on Unsplash

 

But I am sure oxygen is not the only thing that I am breathing while I am running.

One year ago, two million people in London were living with illegal air pollution.


There was already a trend for a reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels, but they were still illegal — nitrogen dioxide is the pollutant responsible for, among other things, increasing the risk of miscarriage.


More than 350 primary schools at that time were still in illegally polluted areas.

In China, it was even worse. The country’s atmosphere was so densely polluted that it was blocking the sun’s rays.


And pollution greatly increases mental health problems, as discussed in our two previous blogs on the link between pollution and psychiatric disorders or psychiatric medications.


Most importantly, pollution causes one-quarter to one-third of all adult deaths from heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and nearly half of all death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


Nearly 9 out of 10 people in the world live in areas where the air contains high levels of pollutants.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

 

I am running, and I am sweating, and I am avoiding dogs, children, other runners.


I am running and I am thinking at the distressed runner I could barely acknowledge a few days ago.

I am running and breathing deeply, hoping oxygen will save me.


I am running and I am thinking at all the magical rituals we are doing to protect us from the virus: not the proved and effective strategies, such as washing hands with soap and water, but the other mythical rites like eating garlic, taking hot baths and drinking water every 15 minutes.


I am running and I am hoping that air pollution will not kill me instead.


There is clear evidence that the lockdown imposed by coronavirus is reducing pollution.


Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions in China in the last two months.


CO2 emissions equally went down by a quarter in two months alone, and, since China contributes 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions annually, the impact of this kind of drop is huge.


Milan — one of the most polluted cities in Europe — and the north of Italy, in general, is experiencing a similar drop in nitrogen dioxide levels.


And of course, we are all flying less, and domestic and international flights contribute to CO2 emissions, even if just accounting for 2.4 per cent of energy-related CO2 emissions.

But I would not go as far as saying that the planet may be a “beneficiary of coronavirus”.

Not only because I really cannot look for a silver lining in a tragedy of this proportion — I am not an infective diseases epidemiologist, and I am not a philosopher, either.


But also, the health damage due to air pollution is likely to increase the death rate from coronavirus infection, by affecting our hearts and our lungs. If coronavirus is having any even remotely positive effects, it is giving with one hand and taking away with the other.


And, whatever benefits the epidemic can bring in terms of pollution, it is likely to be short-lived.

“Revenge pollution” (a term which I first heard while preparing for this blog) is the likely increase on pollution that will occur when governments worldwide will try to jump-start industrial productivity again after the crisis has subsided. In 2009, the Chinese government gave more than 500 billion US dollars in response to the global financial crisis and to stimulate large-scale infrastructure projects, resulting in an explosion in pollution in the following years.


And, above all, as all mental health practitioners know, the mental health impact of this epidemic will be overwhelming, even just considering the immediate consequences of the increased morbidity and mortality among our friends and relatives, the effects of social isolation, and the economic crisis that will afflict us all.


Guidelines on how to tackle the mental health impact are welcomed.


And we will do what we can with our blog to bring accurate information, personal accounts, and science development, to our readers.


But it will be difficult. Very difficult.


No hugging stranger runners in the park.


Let’s just hope we will still be able to run.



Header Image Source: Sajjad Hussain/Getty Images