For those not directly affected, the ability to breathe more easily and see further has perhaps been the greatest consolation amid the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic.
As city after city begins to emerge from lockdown, urban planners and environmental campaigners are grappling with how to keep the clean air and blue skies that have transformed our view of the world. “Citizens around the world can see change is possible,” says Zoe Chafe, an air quality specialist with the C40 group of global megacities. “Just put yourself on the rooftop and imagine seeing mountains for the first time, and thinking how amazing it feels to realise this is possible.”
That rooftop could be in Kathmandu (where residents were astonished to make out Mount Everest for the first time in decades), Manila (where the Sierra Madre became visible again) or dozens of other cities across the world.
Not everywhere has seen air quality improvements in recent months. In some Asian cities, such as Hanoi and Jakarta, pollution has become worse. But, for the most part, people across the world are experiencing a healthier alternative to the smoke and smog that are responsible for an estimated 3 million deaths a year.
Having seen the shroud lift, there is a growing clamour not to let it fall again. Cities across the world are exploring ways to permanently reduce pollution. Chafe says there is no quick, one-case-fits-all solution, but there are lessons – on environmental justice, community activism, urban design, climate ambition, technological innovation and municipal leadership – that can be learned from the cities and states that were making progress even before the lockdown.