Should people work from home to avoid an 'airpocalypse'? Vietnamese are divided

By Long Nguyen   December 12, 2019 | 04:32 pm PT
Should people work from home to avoid an 'airpocalypse'? Vietnamese are divided
Dense smog over Hanoi in the morning of November 30, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.
Many urban people support the idea of staying at home to work when the air becomes unbreathable, but some feel it is untenable.

With people in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City realizing that the air they breathe in is unhealthy on many days, reducing their exposure to it is something many of them have resorted to recently.

For many, avoiding travelling during rush hour, when thousands of vehicles emit fumes, is not enough.

Nguyen Quynh Nhi, 25, a graphic designer living in Saigon's District 1, says: "People breathing polluted air are more likely to die prematurely, so I sometimes ask my manager to allow me to work from home when the air quality index is too bad."

Lam Thanh Nhan, 39, the owner of a private firm in Hanoi, lets pregnant staff work remotely instead of travelling to work on polluted days.

Change, a HCMC non-profit organization, has teamed up with the German consulate general to carry out a social media campaign called ‘Holding Your Ground’ suggesting that companies in Hanoi and HCMC should consider a new regulation to adapt to the worsening air.

"The campaign aims to promote discussions on social media and make people pay attention to their health when the air quality index (AQI) is between 201 and 300 (very unhealthy)," it says.

Change has also spoken with many members of the public in Hanoi and HCMC to seek their opinions about "holding your ground" when the AQI reaches 200.

The AQI, a metric used by multiple governmental agencies to determine how polluted the air is, ranges from 0 to 500, where high index values indicate higher levels of air pollution and higher potential for adverse health effects. Children, seniors and individuals with respiratory and heart diseases are recommended to avoid sustained and high-intensity outdoor exercises when AQI levels reach 150 or above.

Change quotes Trong Nguyen, the creative director of a company, as saying: "The only way to deal with air pollution is by wearing masks. But I have claustrophobia and so I cannot stand it. I will stay at home instead of going out on days when the air is too bad."

Change's suggestion comes when air pollution remains as pressing an issue as ever in both cities.

Hanoi has been suffering from low air quality, with the AQI reaching 172 on December 1 at the monitoring station on Pham Van Dong Street. Heightened levels of pollutants and smog have been experienced in recent months, including a five-year high in September.

HCMC, Vietnam's largest city, has been choked by haze regularly this year. The air quality index in the city has reached very unhealthy levels on many days since September.

The organization hopes that companies will allow their staff to work at home when the air is very poor since "official warnings and reactions from the authorities are crucial for citizens to protect their health."

Not the crux of the matter

Hoang Thi Mai Huong, chairwoman of Saatchi & Saatchi Vietnam, the global advertising agency, says, "Working at home is not the best option, but it is a solution for companies to protect their employees' health and reduce emissions."

Binh Nguyen, an expert at the website Pam Air, which provides air quality information, said that "reducing exposure to polluted air is not how to deal with the root of the problem."

Outdoor air comes inside houses through ventilation, and maintaining a healthy indoor air quality is even harder because the concentration of pollutants might be higher indoors than outdoors.

Many households buy air purifiers, but some experts are skeptical about the machines, say need to be evaluated with specialized equipment.

But for most users, "something is better than nothing."

Staying at home is however not an option for some people.

Citizens struggle to breathe in polluted air in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Duy Tran.

Citizens struggle to breathe in polluted air in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Duy Tran.

Nhi says: "I am a graphic designer. So I basically can sit anywhere and work on my laptop, but many of my friends working in sales and marketing have to go to the office to meet with clients, meaning working remotely is not possible for them."

Polluted air is not only from vehicles, but "also from other humans’ activities, even burning joss paper causes air pollution," Nguyen from Pam Air said.

Last month HCMC authorities said three major sources of air pollution had been choking the city: exhaust fumes from 10 million vehicles, smoke from 1,000 large factories and dust from construction sites.

So dealing with polluted air requires comprehensive solutions, they said.

Le Viet Phu, an economic expert from Fulbright University Vietnam, said that total economic losses due to early deaths caused by air pollution were 5-7 percent of Vietnam’s GDP or $11.4-15.9 billion in 2017.

The lethal amalgam of uncontrolled industrialization, dense traffic, waste burning, and dry seasons with little wind has become a long-term health risk for residents in big cities in particular and the country in general.

In October the government asked both major cities to devise clear and radical strategies to combat the worsening pollution and to keep it notified of the steps taken.

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