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Almost 3 billion
people still rely on open fires or inefficient stoves to cook, filling
their homes with harmful smoke and increasing their vulnerability to
respiratory infections.

People exposed to air pollution are
more likely to die from COVID-19 than people living in areas with
cleaner air, according to a new study. Though the study’s findings focus on the United States, they align with similar results from Italy.

This research is an ominous sign for many developing countries,
where air pollution levels often far exceed World Health Organization
guidelines. More worrying still, air quality inside people’s homes can be magnitudes worse than the air they breathe outside, due in large part to how people cook.

Globally, almost three billion people still rely on open fires
or inefficient stoves to cook their food, filling their homes with
dangerous levels of smoke. It is well documented that household air
pollution from cooking increases susceptibility to respiratory
infections such as pneumonia and aggravates respiratory illnesses like
asthma – which may, in turn, lead to poorer outcomes after a COVID-19
infection. 

Not only does cooking with polluting fuels and technologies
increase people’s vulnerability to COVID-19, but effective social
distancing is a significant challenge in countries dominated by informal
job markets or overcrowded urban settlements.

On top of that, many families face the impossible decision of
risking increased exposure to the virus – including to collect or
purchase cooking fuel – or foregoing the income needed to buy other
necessities.

Even for households that have already transitioned to cleaner
cooking fuels like electricity, LPG, or ethanol, the current economic
slowdown could mean a necessary return to firewood or other polluting
cooking methods.       

But while COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, there are
proven methods to boost access to clean cooking, which can be
incorporated into broader containment and response efforts. 

CLEANER FUEL SUPPORT

Governments in developing countries can tackle this issue on
two fronts. First, they must make clean cooking part of their pandemic
emergency response plans. 

India’s government has already announced that
it will give away millions of cylinders of cooking gas to those in
need. In Ghana, the government’s COVID-19 relief package subsidizes
electricity for three months, fully absorbing electricity costs for the
poorest consumers (those using up to 50 kilowatt hours per month), and
providing all other consumers with a 50 percent discount.

Other governments should follow their lead, while also ensuring
that clean cooking fuel providers are categorized as essential and
provided with the critical resources needed to minimize supply chain
disruptions. 

Second, governments must not allow short-term responses to the
pandemic to undermine long-term health goals. For example, to support
costs of its COVID-response, the Kenyan government is considering
 tax hikes on cooking gas and stoves, which could slow the uptake of clean cooking.

As the new COVID-19 study shows, even a slight increase in air
pollution in the years before the emergence of virus is associated with
higher death rates. Clean cooking solutions are critical to reducing
household air pollution and building people’s longstanding resilience to
respiratory illnesses.

FINANCE CRITICAL

  

As they juggle competing demands in responding to the pandemic,
developing countries are going to need strong support.
Developed-country governments, multilateral organizations and other
donors must help fill the gap.

Countries such as the Netherlands, Norway and Britain are
already strong supporters of efforts to build markets for clean cooking
solutions, as are groups such as the World Health Organization and the
World Bank. This support must continue, and where possible be expanded,
while new donors must step up to join their efforts to address the
household air pollution crisis. This issue is more critical than ever,
and cannot be solved without concessional, public sector finance.

Public and private capital providers also have an important
role to play. Many clean cooking businesses are pioneering scalable
business models and high-impact technologies, but are at a pivotal stage
of development. Impact investors must urgently offer those businesses
the financial resources to ensure their long-term sustainability and
ability to provide a growing market with modern cooking solutions.

We know that a person exposed to household air pollution will
likely have a worse outcome if they are exposed to the coronavirus. As
we brace ourselves for the next wave of the current pandemic – and
possibly future pandemics of an unknown nature – it is more important
than ever for governments, donors, investors and others to continue
their work to bring clean, affordable and appropriate cooking solutions
to the three billion people who live each day without them.

Providing emergency solutions for clean fuels while reducing
household air pollution is not only critical to saving lives, but also
to promoting resilience and recovery in this changing landscape.

Hajia Samira Bawumia is the Second Lady of Ghana, and Dymphna van der Lans is CEO of the Clean Cooking Alliance. 

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