In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries are reassuring panicked citizens with footage of government workers dressed in protective gear spraying streets, cars, and walls to “disinfect” public spaces.
Around the world politicians are ordering millions of tons of chemical disinfectants sprayed on surfaces that no human ever touches with their hands or face. Drones, fire trucks, and disinfecting booths are being used to spray the anxiety away.
Scientists are sounding the alarm: Disinfecting most surfaces has little effect on stopping the spread of COVID-19. While personal hygiene is crucial and disinfecting surfaces is important, there are limits after which disinfection efforts actually cause harm. Surfaces that are touched by thousands of people daily, such as banisters in public transport hubs or ATM machines, do pose a risk of infection. But roads, park benches, and walls that are rarely, if ever, touched by human hands have no need to be “disinfected.”
A virus does not survive indefinitely outside a living entity. It is quickly passed to a new host or withers away within hours to days, depending on the surface. Any outside surface that is touched by different hands multiple times in an hour is a risk, but most other surfaces are not, according to Science Magazine.
“Nobody goes around licking sidewalks or trees,” said Juan Leon, an environmental health scientist, when asked about the risk of exposure from outdoor surfaces.
While government efforts are clearly not malicious and might provide some comfort for millions of scared citizens, the efforts have downsides. The chemical used in disinfectant is usually a form of bleach, which is highly irritating and could lead to respiratory troubles. In Indonesia, where people are doused in bleach in “disinfection rooms” when entering malls, people have reported severe irritation as a result, according to reporting by the Jakarta Post.
The irony of spraying bleach outside is that bleach, just like the coronavirus, breaks down in the ultraviolet rays coming from sunlight. The chemicals sprayed are not only hurting humans but also harm natural ecosystems.
But the most important cost of disinfecting streets is the opportunity cost. Every government employee sent out to spray streets is one less employee available to inform the public or assist in logistics to provide money and essentials to those most in need.
While it is understandable that governments want to be seen fighting the virus, disinfecting streets is not the solution. If citizens follow government guidance regarding personal hygiene, keep social distancing in mind, and limit interactions with others, the virus will wither away in time. The power to end this pandemic lies not in powerful chemicals, but in our common solidarity and discipline. As the experts recommend: be clean and don’t lick trees or sidewalks.