When a Virus Exposes Environmental Injustice

Reducing air pollution isn’t just something to strive for. COVID-19 is illustrating why it’s a moral imperative.

April 17, 2020
A worker with a protective face covering disinfects a bus stop in New Orleans.

Sophia Germer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this week, the death toll from COVID-19 in New York City, where I live, surpassed 10,000. The country’s largest city has been the hardest hit by the disease. With more than 120,000 confirmed cases as of Friday, the Big Apple has seen its medical and public health infrastructures pushed to their breaking points. Ask any New Yorker about the sirens and they’ll tell you how much more frequent they are—how the sound made by speeding ambulances has, over the last month, become a fixed element of our urban soundscape. They seem to be everywhere. The disease seems to be everywhere too.

Which is true, to an extent—but also misleading.

While the disease is present in all five boroughs of New York City, COVID-19 cases aren’t distributed equally within each of those boroughs. A map recently released by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene broke down confirmed cases by ZIP code, and the results are shockingly clear: The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting low-income neighborhoods, which in New York also tend to be communities of color.

It’s not just New York City. In New Mexico, Native Americans account for almost 37 percent of positive COVID-19 cases, even though they represent just 11 percent of the state’s population. In Illinois, African-Americans are dying from the virus at five times the rate of white residents. In Louisiana, where African-Americans make up just under a third of the population, they account for 70 percent of its pandemic deaths. In Oregon, in Utah, in Alabama, in Georgia, in Michigan and many other states, the data coming in are all telling different versions of the same story: People of color are suffering—and dying—from this disease at alarmingly high rates.

Doctors and public health specialists are quick to point out that a complex set of factors are behind this deadly inequity. A greater percentage of African-Americans and Latinos hold service-industry jobs that don’t allow them to work from home—which leads to fewer of them being able to shelter in place, as so many medical experts and state officials have urged us all to do. People of color also tend to receive different, and inferior, levels of care than their white counterparts do whenever they engage with the American health care system, which could affect the rate at which they’re being tested.

But the biggest factor accounting for COVID-19’s uneven death toll is the presence of underlying health conditions—such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—in its victims. These conditions are also far more likely to afflict low-income communities of color than other communities. That fact was thrown into high relief recently with the publication of a startling new report from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health showing a correlation between the virus’s deadliness and long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, the technical term for what most of us call air pollution. Among the conclusions reached by the authors: COVID-19 mortality rates in areas with a higher level of such air pollution are 15 percent higher than in areas with an even slightly lower level of that same pollution.

And which groups of people are statistically much more likely to live in areas with air pollution levels of the sort that have been directly linked to pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, and even obesity? People of color, and especially those in lower income brackets. For more than a century, corporate polluters and cynical public officials have dumped waste and placed facilities that spew toxins in or near communities of color, taking advantage of the residents’ relative lack of political power. An entire environmental justice movement has risen up to fight this systemic form of racism.

A dust-filled street in Little Village, Chicago, after a coal-plant smokestack was demolished


But it’s not easy to eradicate injustice that’s quite literally been built into a community—especially an injustice with physical mass as large as the Crawford coal plant in Chicago. This past weekend, residents of the predominantly Latino and working-class Little Village neighborhood spent their Saturday before Easter gasping and wheezing after the demolition of the plant’s smokestack buried their area in a sweeping cloud of toxic dust. Horrific as it was, especially given the context of a pandemic that attacks the human respiratory system, this incident was just one more in a long string of environmental assaults committed against the residents of Little Village, who have lived for decades in the shadow of two notoriously polluting coal plants.

In a pandemic, everyone is at risk. But not everyone is at the same level of risk. Environmental racism is like a toxic cloud lingering over too many communities of color, making them more susceptible to COVID-19 by contributing to the same underlying health conditions that can catalyze its lethality. We need to understand, as a nation, that reducing air pollution isn’t just something to strive for. It’s a moral imperative. When we accept the shrugging nonchalance of fossil fuel companies and corporate polluters who insist that their emissions are just a necessary part of doing business, we’re not “creating jobs” or “supporting economies.” We’re chipping away at the health and resilience of our people.

Dirty air is deadly air. At this anxious moment in history, when the very act of breathing feels so fraught with uncertainty, we can’t afford to ignore the sirens all around us.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Science Spotlight

The global toll of premature deaths attributed to the burning of coal, gasoline, and diesel is breathtakingly high, with new research doubling previous estimates.

NRDC in Action

With pressure mounting, NRDC advocates are calling on lawmakers to step up protections for renters in the next relief package while also pushing for systemic changes that will help affordable housing stay that way.

Rockies Dispatch

The ongoing health and safety failures at the JBS meat-processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, highlight an industry-wide truth: It’s production over people, even in a deadly pandemic.


In Part One of our “Pandemic at Work” series, a hotel housekeeper, a fast-food worker/drugstore manager, and an elementary school janitor share their journeys through 2020—and anxieties for 2021.

NRDC in Action

To address the growing climate impacts on low-income people and communities of color, NRDC signed on to a historic platform that seeks to create a future that benefits all.


Detroit native Jeremy Orr combines his personal experience and community organizing roots with his legal expertise to help communities of color in Michigan and Illinois dismantle environmental racism.

Philadelphia City Hall early voting, October 2020
Personal Action

If you’re voting in person on November 3, go prepared, take the usual COVID-19 precautions—and have patience.

Northeast Dispatch

Black Farmer Fund is part of a collaboration of New York–based groups working to repair a system that has long discriminated against BIPOC farmers.

Southwest Dispatch

A year after the Kayenta Mine was closed, both the energy company behind it and the federal government overseeing it have done little to restore the lands they’ve trampled.


The scientific community is starting to confront internal biases that support social stratification, hinder international cooperation, and—sometimes—impair research.


Not wanting to buy into the exploitations of racial capitalism, I find freedom in living with less stuff—but more nature, more time, and more joy.

Personal Action

The COVID-19 pandemic is posing unprecedented challenges for the 2020 elections. Find out how to vote by mail and cast your ballot safely and successfully this year.

NRDC in Action

In the midst of a pandemic, NRDC advocates are stepping up their work to prevent the risk of mass utility shutoffs, now and for the long-term.

NRDC in Action

NRDC staffers are helping to build environmental equity and empower Latino voices for climate action—a cause that hits close to home.


The laborers who harvest our fruits and vegetables are heroes, although they’re rarely treated that way. Now climate change threatens their safety—and our food supply.


The documentary “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” examines the unnatural disasters of environmental and structural racism.


Most of the country’s Black Lives Matter protests are happening outside of cities—in communities exclusively designed for middle-class whites but increasingly diverse and grappling with policies that foster segregation.

onEarth Story

COVID-19 is revealing strengths—and weaknesses—that deserve our attention.


Whether they are delivering food or climate justice or standing up for clean air or access to nature, these activists are uplifting communities across the country.


NRDC’s Dawone Robinson discusses how social, political, and economic inequities lead to environmental injustice.

onEarth Story

It’s frightening to see just how fragile our societal ecosystem is. But we have the chance to prove how resilient it is, too.

onEarth Story

COVID-19 is revealing strengths—and weaknesses—that deserve our attention.

NRDC in Action

When social inequity is the issue, NRDC campaigner Rob Friedman falls back on the basics: people skills.

What's At Stake

Vulnerable communities across America pay the highest price for environmental justice issues brought upon by polluters.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.