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California’s COVID-19 economic shutdown reveals the fingerprint of systemic environmental racism


Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States often experience higher-than-average exposures to air pollution. However, the relative contribution of embedded institutional biases to these disparities can be difficult to disentangle from physical environmental drivers, socioeconomic status, and cultural or other factors that are correlated with exposures under status quo conditions. Over the spring and summer of 2020, rapid and sweeping COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders around the world created large perturbations to local and regional economic activity that resulted in observable changes in air pollution concentrations, compositions, and distributions. Here, we use the pandemic-related emergency order and subsequent economic slowdown to causally estimate pollution exposure disparities in California. Using both public ground-based sensor data and a citizen-science network of monitors for respirable particulate matter (PM2.5), along with satellite records of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), we show that the initial sheltering-in-place period produced disproportionate air pollution reduction benefits for Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, and low- income communities. By linking these pollution data with weather, geographic, socioeconomic, and mobility data in difference-in-differences models, we demonstrate that these disparate pollution reductions cannot be explained by environmental conditions, geography, income, or local economic activity and are instead driven by non-local activity. This study thus provides causally-identified evidence of systemic racial and ethnic bias in pollution control under business-as-usual conditions.

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