BELGRADE – Very poor air quality is one of the biggest problems faced by the countries in the Western Balkans, and together with the COVID-19 pandemic, has contributed to an increase in mortality in this region.
As a response to these dire circumstances, the European Fund for the Balkans’ regional campaign “Balkans United for Clean Air” calls upon the competent institutions in Western Balkan countries and their citizens to take joint action that will help improve the air quality and reduce COVID-19-related mortality rates. The campaign emphasizes the regional cooperation as a necessity for the transformation of the energy sector and the environment protection system, which would improve both the economy and public health.
“Particulate matter (PM) and SARS-CoV-2 exert a negative influence on the same cells and cell components, which is why infected persons exposed to air pollution are affected by additional respiratory deterioration in response to the presence of SARS-CoV-2. This causes more severe forms of COVID-19, as well as higher mortality rates. Long-term exposure to harmful emissions increases the risk of contracting acute and chronic diseases, mostly those affecting the respiratory system. Due to its reduced functioning, it becomes more prone to virus infections, including the one caused by the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2),” reads the EFB’s press release.
They explain that the number of evidence and scientific studies on the correlation between air pollution and COVID-19 is growing, but there are still subject to certain limitations that should be considered, particularly the fact that no relevant study has been carried out regarding the Western Balkans region.
“We need environmental and epidemiological studies on the links between air pollution and COVID-19 in the Western Balkans region. They need to be planned and implemented with precision, to enable adequate conclusions and recommendations of measures to be taken. Hitherto research indicates that air pollution does cause excess COVID-19 mortality – globally by 15%, and by 19% in Europe,” the EFB explains.
They also point out that, it was determined that a 1 microgram per cubic meter increase in particulate matter concentration also increases COVID-19 mortality by 11%, and that the fragility of healthcare systems in Western Balkan countries is additionally laid bare when the air pollution problem is cross-referenced with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to this, the EFB notes that in hospitals across the region, the availability of ventilators and hospital beds is inadequate, and that the region has for years faced the issues of healthcare workers’ migration and deficient number of staff working in intensive care units.
“With the ‘Balkans United for Clean Air’ campaign, we demand that decision-makers increase the level of participation of healthcare sector representatives in decision-making processes, to ensure timely integration of healthcare measures in policies focusing on environmental protection. In addition, it is necessary to improve the efficiency of law implementation and decision-making in the field of environmental protection, to gain greater health and economic benefits for all citizens,” reads press release.
Therefore, they believe that it is necessary to integrate measures for improving air quality in public policies and COVID-19 relief plans, in accordance with the commitments contained in the Green Agenda for Western Balkans, which was adopted by all the states.
Read more: The air pollution is killing us
Having the regional perspective of this common burning issue, the “Balkans United for Clean Air” campaign initiated by the European Fund for the Balkans is spread across the region in partnership with the Right to the City from Belgrade (Serbia), Environmental and Territorial Management Institute from Tirana (Albania), Ekoforum from Zenica and for Ecology and Energy from Tuzla (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Sbunker from Pristina (Kosovo), Air Care from Skopje (North Macedonia) and OZON from Podgorica (Montenegro).