Aerosol physicist Lidia Morawska calls for long-term measures to combat COVID-19 pandemic

Aerosol physicist Lidia Morawska calls for long-term measures to combat COVID-19 pandemic

The World Socialist Web Site spoke last week with Lidia Morawska, an acclaimed figure in the interdisciplinary field of air quality and its impact on human health.

Based in Brisbane, Australia, she is currently a Distinguished Professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at QUT. A long-standing collaborator and advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO), she co-chaired the group responsible for the WHO Air Quality Guidelines.

Lidia Morawska [Source: Queensland University of Technology]

Morawska is also co-director of the Australia-China Centre for Air Quality Science and Management, an Adjunct Professor at the Jinan University in China and a Vice-Chancellor fellow at the Global Centre for Clean Air Research at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom.

The recipient of numerous international awards for her scientific work, Morawska was included on Time magazine’s 2021 list of the 100 most influential people for the key role she played in highlighting the airborne spread of COVID-19 and assembling the data that convinced the WHO to change its previous position that coronavirus was not an airborne disease.

The following is an edited version of the discussion with Professor Morawska.

World Socialist Web Site: Could you speak about the school reopenings in Australia and elaborate on some of your concerns?

Lidia Morawska: I was speaking not just about the school reopenings but the indoor air quality situation in schools. We’re still in the pandemic right now and so the main focus is on infection control and other measures to minimise infection risk.

Let’s make a comparison with a leak from the ceiling during a storm. When this happens, you get a bucket to collect the water, but in the longer term you must fix the roof. Whatever we are doing now to stop the risk of infection in schools, we must realise that these are emergency measures and not a long-term solution.

For example, I’ve seen a media report today about the situation in schools in Western Australia. The temperatures are going to be close to 40 degrees Celsius and the kids are apparently on the verge of dehydration.

The Department of Education is advising parents to give their kids bottles so they have water with them all the time, because to lower the risk of infections they advise the windows to be opened and to not use the air conditioners. The risk of infection is reduced, but the kids are suffocating from the heat.

Unless this whole issue of indoor air quality in classrooms is addressed holistically, then we are targeting just one or another issue. There are many other examples.

Let’s take portable air cleaners that are based on HEPA filters. If the windows must be closed—maybe it’s too hot outside—an air purifier will do a good job if it’s an appropriate one in terms of size in relation to the size of the venue. It will clear the virus-laden particles, but because there’s no ventilation, the carbon dioxide emitted by the kids will accumulate and they’ll be sleepy and lethargic, which is not a perfect situation when we want them to learn and be sharp. These are just a few examples of the fact that the issue has to be approached holistically.

WSWS: What’s your response to what has generally occurred in Australia and that there are different rules for different states?

LM: Every state is its own kingdom and does different things, and they don’t necessarily announce exactly what actions are taken. The first announcement came from the Victorian state in September with a package of close to $200 million for ventilation in schools. It sounded like a very comprehensive package, and they looked at the whole picture of air quality in schools, including ventilation monitoring using CO2 meters, air purifiers and other measures.

But over time there were only bits and pieces of information from other states, often through the media from spokesmen for departments of education responding to questions from parents or the community in general. We weren’t really being given the whole picture.

I know the Queensland Department of Education started doing something but can only comment on what I saw with the back-to-school announcement, which came about a week before the schools were to reopen. It was very general and didn’t say anything much about the monitoring of CO2.

One statement was about wearing masks when the kids were standing or walking, but not when sitting. This particular rule was introduced earlier by different jurisdictions or different organisations in Queensland and has no scientific background whatsoever. It is not whether you are standing or sitting, but whether you are vocal or not.

The situation in our local church was that if people were standing and listening they put their masks on, but not when they were sitting and singing, which produces the highest emission rates. There’s very little science there. These are just examples.

WSWS: We’re now in the “learn to live with it” policy framework, with claims that Omicron is not as dangerous and therefore all sorts of basic health and safety measures are being lifted. What do you think of this and how does ventilation fit into this regime?

LM: Firstly, the question of ventilation really hasn’t yet entered any action level, so it’s not a question of lifting or changing regulations. We are lucky that Omicron doesn’t have as severe consequences as the previous variants but whether it will disappear completely or not, we don’t know. Maybe it will, as some predict, stay with us and be like many other respiratory infections, but how many times a year are we down with cold or flu and how many people die a year of flu?

How much do respiratory infections cost Australia? It’s a lot, and so it’s not just an issue of what’s going to happen with Omicron, whether it disappears or not with this pandemic.

We knew about the importance of ventilation before the pandemic and the need to remove viruses or pathogens from the air. But the lessons are hard learnt if we don’t do anything about it now because we’ll be back to where we were before.

Instead of protecting people, we, meaning governments, are just putting our heads in the sand and pretending the issue doesn’t exist.

WSWS: Professor Guy Marks had a good term for this. He called it “magical thinking.” Acclaimed scientists like yourself and others have consistently pointed out that this approach is producing a disaster. If it’s not Omicron, then it will be another variant, because lifting basic health measures provides an opening for many more mutations.

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