How Middle East’s coronavirus crisis threatens the environment too

1 / 3
Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles and gallons washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai, south of Beirut on July 19, 2018. (AFP/File Photo)
2 / 3
A waiter who is a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia, wearing a protective mask as a precaution against COVID-19 coronavirus disease, serves a Saudi family at a restaurant along Tahlia street in the centre of the Saudi capital Riyadh on March 15, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
3 / 3
A cleaning staff member throws medical rubbish into a large trash bin at Guru Nanak Dev Hospital after the government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Amritsar on June 11, 2020. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 12 August 2020

How Middle East’s coronavirus crisis threatens the environment too

  • The importance of hygiene has led to an exponential increase in use of disposable plastic products
  • COVID-19 may have set the world back on a slippery slope with regard to overuse of plastic products

DUBAI: The COVID-19 pandemic has set the world back on the slippery slope of plastic overuse, just when it seemed as if plastic reduction was becoming an achievable goal, experts fear.

The priority of hygiene to combat the spread of the virus has led to a sharp increase in the consumption of disposable plastic products — gloves, single-use water bottles, cutlery, packaging and medical supplies — across the world.

In some Gulf cities, many dine-in customers are being served up to three plastic plates, cups and sets of cutlery for a single three-course meal.

“It’s a disaster,” said Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of the UAE-based green social enterprise Goumbook. “The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted every aspect of our lives, from work to school and our daily tasks.

“It is unfortunate that sustainable practices that have taken a lot of work to implement have now been replaced, due to sanitization (requirements), by the use of single-use plastic bottles, cutlery and crockery in restaurants and delivery services.”

Last year, some communities across the UAE banned plastic use in restaurants, while supermarkets planned to charge customers for their plastic bags. Almost overnight, the initiative has taken a back seat.

“It is a contentious matter, as many would argue against any evidence that using reusables, if sanitized correctly, could in any way be dangerous,” Abella told Arab News.

“Dish-washing machines, high temperatures and dish soap have always been 100 percent efficient (as sanitizers) and always will be. And most of the plastic used is also not fully recyclable.

FASTFACT

Disposables

Eco-friendly disposable items are 20-30 percent more expensive

“Unfortunately, if plastic is not properly washed and cleaned, it is considered contaminated and will end up as general waste in landfills.”

Other sustainability experts concur. “If restaurants clean their tableware and cutlery with hot water and detergent after every use, there is no need for single-use items,” said Amruta Kshemkalyani, a UAE-based sustainability adviser and founder of Sustainability Tribe.

“Restaurants just need to pay extra attention to their tableware cleaning process. COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as an excuse to create unnecessary waste and harm the environment.”

Peter Avram, director of the Dubai-based Avani Middle East, which produces disposable packaging solutions and compostable plastic alternatives, said there had been a surge in the use of disposables during the current pandemic.

“Regrettably, due to the current economic situation, plastic is being preferred to the eco-friendly options simply because of costs,” he said. “Eco-friendly disposables are 20 to 30 percent more expensive.”

The UAE consumes an average of 450 plastic bottles of water per person per year – or more than four billion bottles annually.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

“It hurts to see so many years of hard work from environmental organizations going ‘to waste’,” Abella said. “The relaxation on the (consumption of) single-use plastics, even if temporary, could quite likely have long-term consequences on consumer behavior.”

When Kshemkalyani started a zero-waste lifestyle in 2015, almost no restaurants and cafes in Dubai were aware of the concept of serving food and drinks in reusable containers.

The environmental cause is expected to return to the foreground when the crisis passes.

 Peter Avram, Director of Avani Middle East

Since then, the #zerowasteUAE social initiative and Sustainability Tribe have made tireless efforts to bring awareness to the community on waste issues.

“Now, in the name of hygiene and convenience, if the disposable culture gets popular again, it will be a big hurdle in society’s progress towards sustainable habits,” she said, especially when there is no evidence that a switch to single-use items is imperative during COVID-19.

Kshemkalyani questioned whether restaurants are recycling their plastic waste or just dumping it. “We do not want more waste in landfills that will further contaminate and pollute our land, water and air,” she said.

“Restaurants can start using their reusable serving sets and intensify the right cleaning and hygiene procedures. Instead of spending on single-use items, they have an opportunity to keep their manpower and use it wisely for intensified cleaning – this would also help employment.”

Kshemkalyani also recommended that restaurants allow customers to bring their own plates, cutlery and glasses. “Restaurants can also use environmentally friendly disposables, like palm leaf and wood cutlery, as a temporary measure,” she said.

According to Abella, “It is important to keep the conversation going to use your consumer power to campaign for these changes.”

Although some outlets are seeking to offer alternatives, consumers should also vote with their wallets and ask restaurants to use sustainable alternatives, she said.

She said: “We should try to cook more at home and, if need be, choose restaurants that make an effort to serve their food in eco-friendly packaging.”

She pointed to the trend of people ordering more items than usual during the lockdown, with many of the items delivered in plastic containers, “wrapped in plastic and bagged in more plastic.”

Avram said that sustainability and recycling efforts must continue, pointing to the uptick in home composting procedures that many residents have begun to undertake to dispose of eco-friendly takeaway items.

“That has been very encouraging,” he said. “It is expected that the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the crisis has passed.”

Shams Hasan, air quality and corporate environmental responsibility expert at Envipro Consulting in the US, told Arab News: “The COVID-19 pandemic has created strange problems. Plastic items that were being phased out are at least temporarily back in use.

“The fear is that during any crisis, society will start looking at an easy way out and apply ‘band-aid’ solutions instead of working on long-term strategies and solutions.”

Kristin Hughes, director of Global Plastic Action Partnership and a member of the executive committee, World Economic Forum, pointed to the challenge facing the world.

“We stand at the junction of two diverging paths,” she said. “One is a stop-gap solution that puts us solidly on track toward a not-so-distant future in which there is more plastic in the ocean than fish.

“The other is a sustainable model of living and working that will benefit us long into the future – one that will create a healthier, more equitable and more livable future for all.”

-----------------

@CalineMalek


Violence mounts against Iraqi doctors as COVID-19 cases spike

Updated 7 min 56 sec ago

Violence mounts against Iraqi doctors as COVID-19 cases spike

  • “All the doctors are scared,” said Sheibani, speaking at his home in Kufa a few weeks after the Aug. 28 attack
  • More than 8,000 people have died, a number that some doctors fear will rise sharply

NAJAF: Iraqi doctor Tariq Al-Sheibani remembers little else beyond cowering on the ground as a dozen relatives of a patient, who had just died of COVID-19, beat him unconscious.
About two hours later the 47-year-old director of Al-Amal Hospital in the southern city of Najaf woke up in a different clinic with bruises all over his body.
“All the doctors are scared,” said Sheibani, speaking at his home in Kufa a few weeks after the Aug. 28 attack. “Every time a patient dies, we all hold our breath.”
He is one of many doctors struggling to do their job as COVID-19 cases rise sharply in Iraq.
They are working within a health service that has been left to decay through years of civil conflict and underfunding, and now face the added threat of physical attack by grieving and desperate families.
Reuters spoke to seven doctors, including the head of Iraq’s Medical Association, who described a growing pattern of assaults on medical staff. Dozens have taken place since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned that the pandemic could spiral out of control in Iraq.

Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, wears a protective suit at a hospital where he treats coronavirus disease patients, in Najaf, Iraq September 13, 2020. (Reuters)


Authorities have lifted many lockdown measures, allowing restaurants and places of worship to reopen, but they have shut borders to pilgrims ahead of a large Shiite Muslim pilgrimage that normally draws millions to the south of the country.
Iraq has recorded several thousand new coronavirus infections every day, and the total now exceeds 300,000.
More than 8,000 people have died, a number that some doctors fear will rise sharply, putting frontline health care workers under huge pressure and in some cases in physical danger.
The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the COVID situation in Iraq and medics’ complaints about the threat of violence.
Sheibani, whose beating went viral when CCTV footage circulated online, said the family of the deceased patient blamed his staff for the death. He said he did not know how the video reached the public domain.
The patient had arrived at hospital in critical condition.
“I hate myself and I hate the day I became a doctor in Iraq,” Sheibani told Reuters. “They brought the patient in his final stages and he died, and they want the health system to bear the responsibility.”
Enforcing health safety guidelines within the hospital is not always easy, especially when tensions between families of sick patients and hospital staff are running high.
During a recent visit to Sheibani’s hospital, which is a coronavirus isolation center, Reuters reporters saw relatives of COVID-19 patients coming in and out of the ward without wearing full protective gear as they are supposed to.
Some were only wearing surgical face masks.
Iraq is fighting the pandemic with a depleted force of doctors and nurses.
In 2018, it had just 2.1 nurses and midwives per thousand people, compared with Jordan’s 3.2 and Lebanon’s 3.7, according to official estimates. It had 0.83 doctors per thousand people, while neighboring Jordan, for example, had 2.3.
There are also significant shortages of drugs, oxygen, and vital medical equipment, the result of years of underspending.
Many young doctors say they are overworked, putting in 12-16 hour shifts every day meaning they are more likely to make mistakes in prescriptions and treatment. Some take kickbacks for handing over certain drugs, physicians told Reuters.
The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Government vows action
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has condemned the attacks against medical staff and promised to hold perpetrators to account.
The attacks have increased in recent months, said Medical Association president Abdul Ameer Hussein. He said his association could not keep track of all of them, but they include verbal and physical abuse and even stabbings.
Sheibani filed a complaint with police, but he said he had received threats from the people who beat him up to drop the case.

Tarik Sheibani, 47, an Iraqi doctor and director of Al-Amal Hospital, wears a protective suit as he walks at a quarantine ward at Al-Amal Hospital in Najaf, Iraq September 13, 2020. (Reuters)


“They might attack me or my family,” Sheibani said, adding that he no longer left his house alone.
Doctors say the government has not taken tough enough action to protect them from violence, which they have faced for years even before the pandemic.
The health ministry said in a statement on Saturday that it would assign its legal division to file lawsuits against those who attacked health workers, as well as those medics who fell short in treating patients.
According to the Medical Association, at least 320 doctors have been killed since 2003, when US-led forces toppled President Saddam Hussein, ushering in years of sectarian violence and extremist insurgencies.
Thousands more have been kidnapped or threatened.
Doctors and human rights activists say the state is so weak that it cannot bring doctor’s assailants to justice, especially if they come from a powerful tribe or belong to a militia.
“The government can’t protect doctors from tribes. Doctors end up dropping the cases because they receive threats,” said Hussein, adding that he often asks tribal leaders to mediate when a doctor is being threatened.
Doctors have gone on strike and protested in recent months over what they say is government inaction over the attacks.
Abbas Alaulddin, 27, a doctor in Baghdad who was assaulted last week by the family of a patient who died of COVID-19, said he was considering seeking asylum.
“The situation here is unbearable.”