A far-reaching pandemic – COVID-19’s impact on sectors where EO services could make a difference

High impact decision making, especially during unprecedented situations, requires reliable information and feedback loops. As experienced by each of us individually during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, adaptation and reaction are heavily reliant on the timely acquisition of dependable insight (in this particular case, symptoms, patterns of contagion, treatment, income certainty and social support, travel restrictions, etc). With humanity at a standstill due to widespread lockdowns, Earth Observation carried on enabling the designated entities to assess some of the impacts of the pandemic and therefore provide governments with the intelligence needed for them to tailor recovery responses. As the pandemic unfolds, the various ecosystem components are affected and cope in different ways:

CLIMATE

Lockdowns and travel restrictions led to a major reduction in human-induced emissions. Only weeks into their respective lockdowns, the province of Hubei and Northern Italy – both highly industrialised and populous, incurred rapid positive effects in air quality as CO2 and NO2 levels decreased significantly. Similarly, the water quality of the Gang and the Venice channels showed great improvement as waterways remained free of traffic. Despite the extreme circumstances that triggered them, these changes – also a testament to environmental resilience -– offer a glimpse into what the environments humanity inhabits could look and feel like, setting new standards for generations that grew gradually into the current status quo.  

On the other hand, lockdowns appear to have encouraged certain illegal and unregulated practices such as illegal logging, IUU fishing, illegal mining, and agricultural expansion. Reduced enforcement capacity and increased unemployment and poverty are driving people to exploit alternatively available, albeit not necessarily legal, resources.

HEALTH

With the advent of COVID-19, the discussion around air quality and its impact on the population’s overall health regained traction. Researchers are currently investigating whether poor air quality has a direct impact on COVID-19 prognosis and mortality rates. Several studies from all over the world seem to be consistent with this hypothesis U.S.A., Italy, China, etc., linking the severity of COVID-19 to long term exposure to higher concentrations of PM2.5 and NO2 and other such particulate matter. As researchers continue to study this disease, governments are likely to introduce stricter regulations to improve air quality, as necessary.

RENEWABLE ENERGY

The work-from-home economy has shifted peak demand, while the global energy demand dropped precipitously at levels not seen in 70 years. As millions of people stayed at home, this change in routine impacted the intensity of peak times, reducing the need for non-renewable backup and storage. Consequently, many countries registered record high percentages of renewable energy (RE) in the period – during the first semester, and for the first time ever, more electricity in Europe was generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuels.

As energy is considered an essential service, the instated lockdown measures do not necessarily imply that construction and other activities related to energy projects, including renewables, fully stopped. Yet, to some degree, this has been the case as hygiene measures, limitations in the number of workers allowed on site, and social distancing regulations, alongside the impossibility to enter commercial or private buildings led to delays or even reduced demand. Also, the world’s largest solar panel, battery and wind turbine manufacturers are Chinese, meaning that the country’s COVID-19-related lockdowns and travel restrictions are very likely to have disrupted supply chains delaying delivery of key components and potentially increasing costs. Energy storage and hydrogen, whose value chains are extremely complex (including cells, modules, packs, and installers), may have equally suffered.

Although solar panels and onshore wind are the cheapest sources of electricity, households and small businesses may postpone or altogether abandon RE plans as they are facing economic uncertainty. To further support disengagement from fossil-fuels, governments might decide to address this gap by offering RE power installations as part of economic recovery packages.

SHIPPING

Shipping accounts for 90% of global trade. The pandemic severely affected the industry with cruises, passenger transportation, Roll-on/Roll-off (wheeled cargo), and vehicle carriers being worst hit. Meanwhile, chemical tanker ship calls increased as compared to 2019 whereas bulk carrier, containership, general cargo, and oil tanker calls were only slightly lower. Ports and related maritime transport activities continued to operate ensuring the movement of goods, further demonstrating the strategic importance of the maritime sector in the economy. According to an EMSA report, in the first 30 weeks of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, ship traffic declined by 46.4% from Europe to China, 24.2% from China to Europe, 23.7% from Europe to the U.S.A., and 36.9% from the U.S.A. to Europe. Mid to long-term, the cruise sector is expected to further endure as the numbers of passengers are in decline due to travel restrictions which are unlikely to be fully lifted in the immediate future. The drastic reduction of ship orders, up to 50% in some yards, could potentially increase the costs and prolong the time needed to repair vessels.

FISHERIES

The fisheries value chain was among the first ones to be affected by the pandemic as a regular peak in fish trade and luxury seafood, the Chinese lunar year, was cancelled. This had devastating impacts on lobster fisheries in Australia, Kenya, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.A., among others. Subsequently, social distancing regulations and the closure of the HORECA sector further reduced the demand shutting down numerous fish markets globally. Moreover, the sector struggled with reduced harvests as many fishers and producers were unable to work, changing consumer demand amid concerns about food safety, and market access and logistic problems related to transportation and border restrictions. In some countries, such as the Philippines, the lockdown period coincided with the fishing season leading to a spike in illegal fishing incentivised by reduced monitoring capabilities as well as job loss.

AGRICULTURE

If anything, the COVID-19 crisis made us all aware of the importance of food security. During the severe lockdowns, one of the primary concerns on peoples’ minds was the continuation of food supply chains, ensuring supermarket shelves remained stocked and the threat for panic buying was kept at bay. While the supply of food has held up well to date, in many countries, the measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus did bring a level of disruption to the supply of agri-food products. To combat some of these interruptions, the European Commission (EC) has been coordinating closely with Member States to ensure a functioning single market for goods by creating green lanes – designated, key border crossing-points where checks are not to exceed 15 minutes. The impacts on labour are also of particular concern: the food sector is vulnerable to the negative impacts on the workforce from the spread of COVID-19 (workers being sick or in isolation), and faces additional production and distribution costs as a result of health and safety measures introduced to reduce the exposure of their workforce. Even partial lockdowns can limit the mobility of people involved in the provision of key food safety, quality and certification checks, including those that are required to facilitate trade, such as physical inspections of goods to certify compliance with sanitary and phytosanitary requirements. To address such instances, practical guidelines were introduced to ensure that mobile workers who qualify as critical in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic can reach their workplace.

BIODIVERSITY

As we stand witness to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, coping with restrictions and loss, humanity is yet to grasp its full impact on human health, the economy, and environmental integrity. As per World Bank’s “Global Economic Prospects”, the global GDP is estimated to contract by 5.2% in 2020 alone. In this context, and considering the costs of controlling previous outbreaks, as per World Bank’s Report “People, pathogens and our planet”, between 1997 and 2009 at least US$80 billion were spent in controlling six highly fatal zoonoses [Nipah Virus (Malaysia), West Nile Fever (USA), SARS (Asia, Canada, other), HPAI (Asia, Europe), BSE (US, UK), Rift Valley Fever (Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia)], the case for taking steps towards pre-empting zoonoses is compelling.

As identified by the UN Environment Programme in its “Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern” report, there is an increasing risk for zoonotic diseases – diseases that can be passed on from animals to humans – to emerge and amplify, as human activities intensify surrounding and encroaching into natural habitats. Encroachment on natural ecosystems through resource exploitation, agricultural activity, and human settlements provides opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people, especially when the natural disease resistance that may result from rich biological diversity is lost; researchers studying records from 1940 to 2004 detected an increase in the rate of emerging infectious disease – of the 335 documented events, 60.3% were zoonotic and 71.8% of the zoonoses originated in wildlife. Ecosystem integrity, on the other hand, can help regulate diseases by supporting a diversity of species so that it is more difficult for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate.

EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT

To a large extent, managing the COVID-19 pandemic required making the most of available technologies, digitalisation, and data analysis not only at a local and global level but at an individual level too, as demonstrated, among other things, by the efficient decision making and communication of wide impact measures such as the closing and opening of borders and associated safety protocols.

Technologies showed potential to improve the biomedical response – Earth Observation supported authorities in identifying areas and spaces best fitted to become ad hoc hospitals and testing facilities where conventional hospitals struggled to cope – and facilitate social distancing monitoring, a necessity for limiting transmissions. Based on lessons learned during the current pandemic and considering the frequency and threat posed by past epidemics, the World Economic Forum recognised the need to strengthen the digital infrastructure and improve big data analysis capacity globally in order to empower decision-making and forecasting. To make up for the lack of such capacities, local companies and global tech giants ensured pro-bono services to authorities and global institutions such as the World Health Organisation leading certain experts and regional stakeholders express concerns regarding the potential long-term impact of such solutions.

Furthermore, economies with well-established digital infrastructures and capacity proved better equipped to adapt by, for instance, establishing and generalising teleworking where possible. Despite its mainly positive effects, this accelerated uptake of digital solutions also exposed the growing chasm between the connected and the unconnected. Such inequalities will have to be addressed!

In this context, the European Green Deal (EU growth strategy aiming to transform its economy into a resource-efficient and competitive one) and recent progress in Earth Observation and Artificial Intelligence could not be timelier! Balancing the European Green Deal’s commitments: maintaining European industry’s global competitiveness and a level playing field, at home and globally, making Europe climate-neutral by 2050 and shaping Europe’s digital future while also protecting, conserving and enhancing EU’s natural capital and intrinsically the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts will require every bit of support available.

In other words, time to get Earth Observation working for you! e-shape already addresses some of the above-mentioned sector-specific issues, for instance pilot 1.1 seeks to support national ministries in developing improved crop monitoring operational services whereas pilot 1.2 works towards supporting farmers in implementing smart farming practices that offer information and/or actionable advice on yield prediction, soil erosion, applying environmental-friendly practices in agricultural production, and crop suitability (based on soil and climate conditions) and pilot 2.3 is currently developing a city scale application that will allow visualisation of air quality/land use/health/socio-economic data in an effort to raise awareness vis-a-vis such issues and maybe even facilitate decision making. As the pandemic follows its course, sooner or later, we are all bound to be affected. When faced with uncertainty, what we know for sure is that a good understanding of one’s surroundings and options leads to better decision-making, hence our efforts to keep you informed. As the ball keeps rolling, more Earth Observation based services are expected to be developed reminding us all that opportunity comes from challenge!

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