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Hanoians shrug off smog as new normal

By Long Nguyen   January 19, 2021 | 04:43 pm PT
Hanoians shrug off smog as new normal
Dense smog over Hanoi in the morning of January 5, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Loc Chung.
Thick smog has not prevented resigned Hanoians from going about their daily business or even limiting activities that worsen air pollution.

Living on Hanoi's Hong Tien Street, where an overpass has been under construction for years, Tran Thanh Hoang is used to the dense smog and lethal air he breathes in every day.

"I close my windows all day and still see dirt inside the house, no matter how much I clean up," the 58-year-old man said.

Around his house, the noise of road construction and hundreds of vehicles and a faint smell of gas filled the air.

But Hoang has no windows to close against the air that he breathes. He says he has learned to live with it and "forget about its existence since dirty air is a new normal."

It appears that many Hanoians have turned indifferent about the disastrous air quality that surrounds them, while local authorities have not had much success in tackling the problem.

When the city is blanketed by a thick layer of smog on many winter days, and the air quality index rises above 200, deemed very unhealthy for humans, they go about their daily business without masks, making no effort to limit their exposure to the toxic air.

On January 15, when the AQI was as high as 285, thousands packed many streets famous for heavy traffic and mushrooming office blocks.

"I have not seen a blue winter sky in Hanoi for 4-5 years, so I think I do not remember that we once had clean air to breathe," said Hoang as he jogged with his neighbors.

The group said that "wearing masks is just a pseudo act amid this lethal air," so did not bother to wear them.

Near them, right under the overpass construction, about a dozen people sat and talked at a tea stall. The only one wearing a mask was the vendor.

On many streets, people are riding their motorbikes without any face protection.

"It (the air) has been polluted for years, but I am still healthy," said a motorbike taxi driver on Duy Tan Street.

On the internet and in daily life, air pollution is no longer the hot topic it used to be more than a year ago, when it was a matter of great worry for residents.

In 2019, when a thick haze covered Hanoi and its AQI kept worsening, people discussed the issue and advised others to wear masks. Many spoke of the need to undertake practical activities to protect the environment.

At that time, watching air quality became a daily habit among many people, and the environment monitor AirVisual became one of the most downloaded apps by Vietnamese citizens.

But phrases like "dirty air" and "air pollution" are no longer mentioned frequently in conversations these days.

"We now care about Covid-19 and Tet (Lunar New Year festival), not the air," said Le Thi Hoang Quyen, a white-collar worker in Hoan Kiem District.

This apathy has led to a drop in the sale of air purifiers, which had rocketed in 2019.

According to some electrical appliances sellers, sales of these devices have been dropping steadily of late.

"In December 2020, the number of air purifiers we sold in our chain increased only 1 percent year-on-year, but dropped 11 percent over November," said Dang Thanh Phong, a representative of the Dien May Xanh electrical appliances chain store.

Le Quang Vu, head of MediaMart, another chain store, said people cared more about other devices like heaters in the winter, not air purifiers.

Little belief in solutions

While the toxic air has prompted authorities to roll out several measures to improve the air quality, many residents chose to ignore them.

Limiting the use of coal-fueled stoves and the burning of straw, outlawing polluting vehicles and planting trees are among the solutions identified.

But some of the recommendations by the authorities are not taken seriously.

On the first day of the last lunar month of this year (January 13), many people were burning joss paper, which they saw as an indispensable tradition. Burning trash, coal, and firewood has continued to be a regular practice across the city.

"If I do not use coal, others still use it, and no one forces me to stop burning it," said Hoang Van Tu, owner of a pho restaurant in Long Bien District.

People seem to have come to terms with living with thick smog and polluted air.

"No one dies of air pollution right away, and we cannot live if we are anxious about the air all the time," Quyen said.

Vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam in Hanois Nguyen Trai Street, May 11, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam in Hanoi's Nguyen Trai Street, May 11, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

But the main reason that makes many Hanoians apathetic is they do not believe they have a solution to change the situation.

Long has thought about relocating and living with another son, but soon realized that "the whole city is a giant construction site with people building roads and buildings everywhere."

"No way to hide from this toxic air."

For many, a year of upheavals triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed air pollution to the back burner.

They are busying themselves with preparing for the coming holiday other concerns.

Pham Thi Lan, a street vendor on Duy Tan Street, said she has to think about working, earning money, the cold winter and many other things.

Sitting next to Lan, one of her patrons echoed her, saying people "have too many other things to care about instead of the so-called air pollution visiting them every year."

Experts say the residents’ apathy and indifference is rooted in a lack of information.

Hoang Duong Tung, President of the Vietnam Clean Air Partnership, said a lack of news prevents full awareness of the living environment, leading to indifference, especially given that air is not something people can see like trash or water.

"Vietnam lacks information and scientific data to warn people about air pollution. Residents should know about the problem clearly and transparently," Tung said.

He added that since the impact of air pollution is only evident over the long term, many people tend to ignore it.

Hoang Xuan Co of the Hanoi University of Natural Science said many people were indifferent because they do not realize that they themselves cause air pollution.

"We know we live with polluted air, but we do not see that are the criminals' responsible for this crime.

Hanoi authorities have repeatedly blamed the low air quality on large-scale construction, a large number of private vehicles, intensive industrial activity like steel and cement production, and coal-fired power plants.

On January 18, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc asked the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to increase air quality surveys and warnings for residents when the air became highly toxic and to implement a plan on improving air quality for the 2021-2025 period.

In the meantime, Hoang hopes the dirty air will be dispelled by rain.

"Same old problem, but the rain this is the only savior now, I guess."

As for Lan, the vendor, clean air is a luxury she cannot afford to think about.

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