It depends on how you look at things. If you look at the hospital ICUs and international and local news channels and look at the pictures of those who are barely hanging on to life, then corona is a deadly virus which wreaks havoc on the human body. But if you look at the air-quality index of the once dirtiest cities of the world, if you look at the clean skies over the Atlantic and the Pacific, if you look at the return of bird life in once extremely over populated areas, then corona seems to be a magic cure launched by mother nature; not for long though. Humans have not been able to rule this planet on a fluke. We will fight back, find a cure and defeat it and then we will start our cruises and fracking and flying and driving once more.

I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. It is now one of the dirtiest cities in the world. The particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in the air quality index regularly exceeds 250ug/m3 regularly, the normal value of which, for human outdoor activity should be less than 50ug/m3. There are days when it is so high that the database seems to run out of adjectives such as dangerous, hazardous, and extremely harmful and simply advises people not to go outdoors and breathe.

When we were growing up in Lahore in the eighties, things were quite different. Our evenings, especially in the summers, were all outdoors. After school, we changed, finished our homework and went out to play on our lawn or out on the street. After dusk, water was sprinkled on the back terrace and we would play outdoors for another hour and the parents would also sit there and have their evening tea.

At night, one of the activities was to go up on the roof and look at the stars and find out about the location of the “great bear” and the “pole star” and other constellations. My dad was always very keen for us to find out about these and he explained details while we looked up to the sky.

For the last 15 years, there have been no stars in the skies of Lahore. Come summer or winter, the city is so polluted that a perpetual layer of smoke and dust has engulfed Lahore. My daughter, who is growing up in Lahore, has only seen stars in her nursery rhymes books. She looks up towards the sky at night and all she sees is darkness; until March 2020.

The swarms of bikes and cars plundering the streets of this city stayed at their homes for a few weeks and miraculously, the city recovered. The air quality index was comparable to that of Edinburgh and Zurich. People started riding bicycles again.

The most significant fact is that automobiles, including two and three wheelers with internal combustion engines are the most noteworthy polluters. We tend to blame crop burning and cross border crop burning (we love conspiracy theories) but the fact is that farmers in Punjab have been doing this for decades, if not centuries. It is not a good thing and definitely contributes to the already dire situation but is definitely not the only contributor.

Most newer cars have clean burning engines and are generally equipped with catalytic converters which makes the exhaust air quite clean. Even the newer Suzuki pick-ups and many Chinese vehicles now offer engines that follow European standards of emission.

That leaves us with a large—and by large, I mean a very large—quantity of motorcycles and rickshaws. Although most of the motorcycles are now equipped with four-stroke engines, their engines are very basic and are not equipped with any sort of catalytic converter (a device that effectively cleans exhaust gasses).

I acquired data of fuel sales from a large petrol station in Johar Town and about 70 percent of the fuel sales are made to two and three wheelers. Only 30 percent is for cars, jeeps, busses, generators and tractors combined.

Until a few years ago, most Chinese cities were also extremely polluted due to a similar scenario, but now cities like Shenzhen are one of the cleanest in the world. They did this by converting all the public transport (busses and taxis) and all the two and three wheelers into electric vehicles (EV). By law, any bike with a petrol engine is not allowed within the city limits in these cities.

Just like we got rid of polluting two stroke rickshaws from our cities and made it mandatory for all of these two and three wheelers to be four stroke; we can take the next step.

All bikes and all public transport within city limits should be converted to EVs. The air will clean up sooner than we think. Corona has given us undeniable proof.

Zubair Khaliq

The writer is an electrical engineer and a Lahore-based businessman. He can be reached at

zubair.khaliq

@gmail.com