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Fossil Fuels, Climate Change and India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Fossil Fuels, Climate Change and India's COVID-19 Crisis

The surge of COVID-19 cases and the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in India has shocked the world and led to a search for an explanation of how the situation got so bad so fast. Scientists are investigating several factors including new variants and public health officials have pointed to underinvestment in the country’s health system.

Undoubtedly, the causes are varied, and as I watched the numbers surge, I began to wonder whether it’s worth considering the role air pollution may be playing. Since the early days of the pandemic, researchers have understood that exposure to polluted air makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and India’s megalopolises are among the most polluted in the world. “We understand that the impact of pandemic can be higher in polluted regions where people’s lungs have already been weakened due to long term exposures,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy at Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. “That makes Indian cities vulnerable.”

There’s been some research on air pollution and COVID-19 in India specifically, but it’s probably first worth looking at the bigger picture. A slew of studies have shown direct links between exposure to air pollution and vulnerability to COVID-19. One paper published in December in the journal Cardiovascular Research found that chronic exposure to particulate matter—a type of pollution that results from a mix of chemicals that come from sources like smokestacks and fires—is likely linked to some 15% of global COVID-19 deaths. Particulate matter doesn’t just come from fossil fuels, but the study’s authors found that more than 50% of air pollution-linked COVID-19 deaths are specifically connected to fossil-fuel use.

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