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Environmental Racism has left Communities of Color More Vulnerable to COVID-19

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

By Keevan Kearns

As the coronavirus spreads, it is important to become aware of the global climate effects of the virus. The daily lives of people across the world are dramatically changing and our effect on the climate is changing simultaneously. In addition to becoming aware of the changing factors during the virus, certain groups of people are especially vulnerable in terms of health at this time. Not only are certain age groups, people who are immunocompromised, and those with preexisting problems like obesity more at risk of dying from the coronavirus, but those who live in areas with more air pollution are also at a significantly higher risk of dying from the virus. The changing climate affects us all, but some people are more affected than others. We need to become aware of these health effects to ensure and reinforce regulations regarding air pollution. Additionally, we need to become aware of the current climate status to change our daily lives in order to help the earth. While air pollution has dramatically decreased since the beginning of quarantine, the levels of fine particulate air pollution have increased the likelihood that one will die from the coronavirus, making the virus more dangerous in more polluted regions.

A steel mill in Detriot, Michigan Photo Credit: Science Photo Library

In regions of the United States with higher levels of air pollution, the likelihood that one will die from COVID-19 is significantly higher according to a nationwide study done by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They looked at over 3,000 counties across the country and compared levels of fine particulate air pollution to coronavirus death rates considering population size, hospital beds, number of people tested for coronavirus, weather, socioeconomic and behavioral variables like obesity, and smoking. From the study, scientists at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that a small increase in long term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID death rates. It was found that someone who lives in a county with high levels of fine particulate pollution for decades is 8% more likely to die from COVID than someone who lives in a county with on average one microgram per cubic meter less air pollution. Counties with more air pollution often have more poverty in them. In the United States, counties with higher poverty rates likely have a large population of people of color living in them. The intersectionality between environmental racism and health justice is especially prevalent during the pandemic. Not only because overall, people of color have less access to basic medical resources, but also because more often than white people, people of color live in highly polluted areas. To ensure the health of people living in areas with high levels of air pollution, existing regulations regarding air pollution need to be reinforced.

Levels of air pollution have dramatically decreased since the coronavirus has spread. The virus has temporarily reduced carbon emissions. People are driving less, there are significantly fewer flights on airplanes, and many people are losing their jobs which is benefiting their carbon footprint drastically. For example, according to Science Daily, nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased by between 20 and 38 percent in the United States since the beginning of the lockdown. This highly reactive gas normally gets in the atmosphere through emissions from vehicles, power plants, and industrial activities and has many harmful effects on the lungs. In addition to nitrogen dioxide emissions, particulate matter, which is composed of solid particles and liquid droplets that are smaller than 2.5 microns, has decreased by 35 percent in northern China. Particulate matter causes detrimental damage as it gets deep into the lungs. While the environmental effects of the pandemic have been beneficial to the earth, these changes are not sustainable.

These temporary benefits to the virus have human costs. In order to truly combat climate change and value the lives and health of all humans, we must create systematic change. Not only must we create systematic change regarding the climate, but also regarding access to medical resources. Due to the lack of access to medical resources, oppressed groups are becoming even more oppressed. We are currently working to change a country with systematic problems. We must look beyond short term benefits in order to keep the earth beautiful and keep all people as healthy as possible.

The Coronavirus has many detrimental effects on the world such as its effects on the economy and its disproportionate effects on communities of color, adding to the oppression of the group. In addition to helping the environment and lowering air pollution levels, the virus is especially harmful to people in regions with higher levels of air pollution. We need to do our part in limiting our carbon footprint. Not only does the CO2 let into the atmosphere kill animals and destroy the earth, but it also kills people.


American Geophysical Union. "COVID-19 lockdowns significantly impacting global air quality." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 May 2020. <>.
Davenport, Coral. "Pandemic's Cleaner Air Could Reshape What We Know About the Atmosphere." The New York Times. The New York Times, Accessed 31 June 2020.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Accessed 27 June 2020.
"The short-term impacts of COVID-19 lockdown on urban air pollution in China." Nature, 7 July 2020, Accessed 27 June 2020.

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