Air Pollution and COVID-19 in the GCC and the Middle East

NO2 levels

  As cases of COVID-19 mount across the Middle East, not everyone is equally vulnerable.  As with most illnesses, increased vulnerability to both contracting and surviving the virus is partly a product of living conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to health care, as well as factors such as age and pre-existing conditions. Past exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to respiratory illnesses; the evidence is mounting that this is the case with COVID-19 as well.  Air pollution particulates may also transport viruses. The pandemic thus throws into sharp relief why air pollution remains of the most important environmental and public health issues in the region, particularly in cities with significant concentrations of industrial, transport, and construction activities. Yet monitoring, regulation, and investment to address the problem is lacking, even in states with adequate resources and regulatory capacities.

The stay-at-home and economic shutdowns enacted as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic have had rapid, dramatic effects on improving urban air quality, providing an unanticipated opportunity to study the effects of emissions reductions and behavioral changes on air pollution around the globe. In the Middle East as elsewhere, the pandemic has served as a large-scale controlled experiment in improving air quality while residents were under stay-at-home orders and many economic and industrial sectors slowed activity. This policy brief documents some of these changes, showing significant reductions in harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide typically produced from vehicles and fossil fuel combustion across a number of cities in the Gulf and the Middle East. Identifying mechanisms to sustain these reductions and diminish transboundary transport of polluted plumes requires regional coordination as well as national action, especially when confronted with the health implications of increasing air pollution and intensifying man-made climate change.

Air pollution in the Middle East

Rapid urbanization and economic growth in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East over the past few decades led to dramatic increases in air pollution, particularly in metropolitan areas. In addition, the MENA region presents specific climatic challenges for air quality, given extreme periods of heat, low levels of precipitation, and frequent dust storms. Yet air pollution in the region is currently understudied compared to Asia, Europe, and North America (Barkley et al., 2017).  Local and regional air pollution studies are sparse and often not made publicly available.[1] Because of this lack of data, attributing air pollutants to emissions sources is particularly challenging. However, the advent of satellite imagery and other means of assessing air pollution is rapidly changing what we know about sources and transport of air pollution in the region.

A growing number of visualization applications help ordinary people access real-time air quality and meteorological information. For example, UNEP in collaboration with UN-Habitat and the Swiss IQAir recently launched a platform depicting air quality indices from over 4000 sites around the globe, including many in the Middle East. While ground-based air quality observations remain sparse, particularly in conflict regions, satellite observations are becoming more capable of measuring the variability of air pollution across regions and over time (Barkley et al., 2015; Solomos et al., 2017; El-Nadry et al., 2019; Li et al., 2019). The advent of higher resolution satellite imagery allows more accurate studies of the trends and transport of air pollution. Yet challenges remain, including the need for ground-truthing of satellite imagery and strategies for filtering out clouds and dust to adequately distinguish sources of man-made pollution.

As elsewhere, air pollution adversely affects human health, ecosystems, agricultural productivity, the built environment, and the regional climate. Large cities are particularly impacted by air pollution. Emissions associated with transportation and energy contribute to high levels of localized pollution within cities. Emissions downwind of industrial regions also impact population centers, especially pollutants associated with the oil, natural gas, cement, and chemical industries. Nitrogen oxides (NOx = NO + NO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are among the primary emissions from vehicles and local industry that contribute to the production of ozone (O3), a powerful oxidant that can cause respiratory damage. VOCs also act as carcinogens, and direct exposure can damage the central nervous system. Particulate pollution from industrial sources exacerbates respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and mortality (Brauer, 2010; Perez et al., 2020). In the MENA, large scale (synoptic) weather patterns further affect these pollutants, leading to unusually high levels of O3 production in the region (Lelieveld et al., 2009, 2015; Liu et al., 2009; Zanis et al., 2014).

Human-made pollution is mixed with dust, lofted from deserts into the atmosphere by large-scale weather patterns (primarily in winter) or local winds (such as the shamal winds in summer). Dust (generally categorized as PM10 with particle diameters greater than 10 micrometers) settles out of the atmosphere more rapidly than smaller particles such as PM2.5 and is largely filtered out by the upper respiratory system (nose and mouth), not penetrating as deep into the lungs as smaller particles. However, dust and sandstorms are still linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma (Thalib and Al-Taiar, 2012; Goudie, 2014; Maleki et al., 2016) and carry toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and mercury (Perez et al., 2020). Limited research has been done on the ability of dust to transport viruses, either in short or long ranges, but microbes and viruses have been shown to be more prevalent in ambient air during dust storms (Griffin, 2007; Chen et al., 2010). 

Conflict-affected countries in the region face additional sources of air pollution. These include direct attacks from shelling and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and indirect effects, such as the breakdown of solid waste collection and disposal system and uncontrolled burning of trash.  Emissions from political conflict also produce local and regional air pollution, especially from attacks targeting transportation, agriculture, burning of biomass (including burn pits), large scale oil refineries and ports, as well as coal, gas and oil-fueled electricity-generating power plants (e.g, Browning et al, 1991; Hopke 2009).  Makeshift informal oil refining, as took place extensively during the Syrian civil war, also generated intense localized air pollution with significant health impacts on local residents (Zwijnenberg 2016, 2020).

Increased emissions from the GCC and broader Middle East fuel changes in the global atmosphere. For example, pollution from airplanes and ships contribute to emissions beyond the region’s borders. CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industries such as cement production also add significantly to global greenhouse gas concentrations. Governance systems and ecological attributes make populations in the Middle East particularly and unequally vulnerable to the effects of man-made climate change (Sowers 2011, 2017, 2019).

MENA and COVID-19 – Air pollution and increased mortality 

Air pollution is known to increase premature death worldwide. Over 7 million deaths globally are attributed to air pollution, 4 million of which are associated with outdoor PM 2.5 pollution (Cohen et al., 2017). Projections based on population and development estimate a doubling of mortality by air pollution by 2050 (Lelieveld et al., 2015). Substantial evidence links respiratory infections with air pollution (Ciencewicki and Jaspers, 2007), including specific examples relating to the SARS epidemic in 2002-2004 (Cui et al., 2003). Much of the correlation between mortality and air pollution comes from past exposure to pollution, which leads to more severe complications from respiratory infections.

Evidence continues to accumulate linking mortality rates from COVID-19 with past exposure to air pollution in regions around the globe. Wu et al. (2020) show that an increase of only 1ug/m3 PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in mortality in the United States. Conticini et al. (2020) identify air pollution as a co-factor in mortality from the virus in Northern Italy. And Pansini and Fornacca (2020) establish correlations among poor air quality and mortality in eight countries. The spread of COVID-19 seems to increase with the extent of air pollution. Setti et al. (2020) use data from Italy to hypothesize that the virus travels longer distances (> 8 meters) on particulates (Setti et al., 2020), increasing the rate of viral spread in more polluted regions. Atmospheric conditions are also important for both new cases if COVID-19 and mortality rates, with lower mortality linked to higher temperatures and humidity (Ma et al., 2020; Wu et al., 2020). 

Ground, satellite, and visual observations show cleaner air as a result of the lockdown and stay-at-home orders enacted globally (Dutheil et al., 2020). Qatar, for example, reports a 20% reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a chemical species emitted in large part by vehicles and fossil fuel combustion. Dutheil et al. (2020) also show a dramatic decrease in NO2 over Wuhan from Sentinal-5P TROPOMI  satellite images. Residents of Jalandhar, India have a view of neighboring snow-capped mountains for the first time in 30 years, and across the country, people are marveling at the number of stars in the clear night sky (Lavakare, 2020). Resources coming online also allow researchers and the public to compare near real-time (15-day running average) air pollution observations during the COVID-19 lock-down with past conditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to stay-at-home orders in most MENA states, with start dates varying throughout the month of March (Table 1).

CountryInitial stay-at-home date
Bahrain25 Feb 2020
Palestine5 Mar 2020
Qatar  11 Mar 2020
Israel12 Mar 2020
Syria14 Mar 2020
Iran15 Mar 2020
Saudi Arabia15 Mar 2020
Lebanon16 Mar 2020
Kuwait16 Mar 2020
Jordan21 Mar 2020
Iraq22 Mar 2020
United Arab Emirates24 Mar 2020
Egypt24 Mar 2020
Oman 29 Mar 2020
Adapted from data taken from

The thermal images at the top show levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over select urban regions of the Middle East, comparing April 2019 to April 2020.  As nitrogen dioxide is emitted primarily from vehicles and fossil fuel combustion, it is reasonable to assume that stay-at-home orders and the shutdowns in economic activity are linked to the dramatic decreases in observed levels of pollution. 

The impacts of COVID-19 on sources of local pollution such as the burning of municipal trash are unclear. Both open-air burning (legal and illegal) and plumes from incinerators remain a significant problem in the MENA region, especially practices of burning during stagnant nighttime conditions. Emissions are highly dependent on what is being burned as well as local environmental conditions (Simoneit et al., 2005; Vreeland et al., 2016). Emissions from burning trash contain unknown and understudied toxins, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from plastics (Verma et al., 2016). Researchers are beginning to develop tools and models to study the changing waste streams that have been produced by COVID-19 responses, including the increased volume of medical waste and single-use plastics (Yu et al., 2020).  Any changes in the waste stream will impact the mix of toxins released into the atmosphere.   

Looking forward

As COVID-19 ravages public health systems and vulnerable populations, the responses to the pandemic also demonstrates the immediate positive impacts that emissions reductions have on air pollution. Lessons from COVID-19 thus provide timely insights for influencing urban planning and addressing air pollution. Urbanization, industrialization, and economic development do not inevitably produce high levels of air pollution and consequent public health hazards. The challenge is how to continue the trajectory of economic growth while shifting to cleaner and more resilient technologies, infrastructures, and behaviors. The COVID-19 lock-down provides an unintended controlled experiment demonstrating the effects that changes in emissions could have on air pollution in the region.  How can we ensure countries gather the necessary data to understand the implications of this large-scale experiment?

Understanding how reductions in emissions from different sectors impact air pollution can inform regulatory policymaking so that regulations improve air quality while minimizing the disruption to economic growth and daily life. The GCC has a pressing need to collect and share reliable data to motivate and incentivize residents, governments, and companies to change consumption and pollution habits. Analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery can provide much of the needed data to develop response plans that also account for emissions from neighboring nations, even when proprietary ground observations are not openly shared. Indeed, this open availability of data can be the foundation for a collaborative, regional approach to future planning.

Although many researchers are under stay-at-home orders, local daily observations of atmospheric pollutants and meteorological conditions should be maintained if possible, especially in cities and near industrial sites. While satellites provide valuable information, on-the-ground measurements add crucial observations and resolution not achievable from space, especially important for understanding the local transport of pollutants, source attribution, and photochemical processing. Halting observations is a lost opportunity to take advantage of this unanticipated global experiment. Additional studies collecting aerosols particles to look for pathogens (especially on dust) would also be of great value during these times. 

Comparing air quality data (on the ground and satellite) before and during the stay-at-home orders can provide insight into how emissions reductions from social responses to the pandemic impacted air pollution levels, especially with regard to reductions in traffic and emissions of NOx and VOCs (and impacts on O3).  Combining data from the social sciences with geospatial tools from the natural sciences can enhance policymaking decisions during crises, including the dissemination of crucial information to guide community resilience (Mollalo et al., 2020). Rapid assessment of changes in air pollution during COVID-19 lock-downs can help policymakers and the public visualize the regional and global impacts of reducing emissions on air pollution, demonstrating the value of emissions regulations and collective societal action. 

The GCC states also have the capacity to support innovation in solar energy and planning for more sustainable and resilient cities, given growing populations and increasing demands for energy. The recent collapse in oil prices provides further incentives to support economic diversification out of fossil fuels and into renewable energy. The GCC has ample potential to undertake large-scale investments in alternative solar energy to produce water as well as energy, as is demonstrated in several projects underway (Weinthal and Sowers 2020). The GCC also face strong incentives to invest in urban infrastructures that conserve water and energy resources while proving resilient to extreme conditions of high heat and dust storms.

Improving air quality is essential to public health, as air pollution makes populations more vulnerable to suffering severe effects from a range of respiratory illnesses. Exposure to air pollution increases mortality rates, and prior exposure to air pollution seems to increase the vulnerability of mortality from COVID-19.  The close link between air quality and public health highlights the importance of equity and social justice in urban governance. Reducing exposure to air pollution requires rethinking urbanization premised on highways, cars, and residential and commercial enclaves segregated by socio-economic class and national origin and moving out away from industrial and economic growth plans that rely on emissions-intensive activities, particularly when these are co-located with cities. Reducing exposure to air pollution requires rethinking urbanization premised on highways, cars, and residential and commercial enclaves segregated by socio-economic class and national origin. Reducing air pollution is also dependent upon economic growth that embraces renewable energy and limits emissions-intensive activities, particularly in and around cities.

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Article by Katharine Duderstadt, University of New Hampshire and Jeannie Sowers, University of New Hampshire

[1] Existing sources include an annual mean ambient air quality database of small particulates (PM2.5, where particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) and larger particulates (PM10) maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO) (World Health Organization, 2018). An Enhanced Particulate Matter Surveillance Program also studied geological dust, smoke from burn pits, and heavy metal condensate (Engelbrecht et al., 2009), while several AERONET sites in the Middle East observe aerosol properties of particulate pollution.  


Read more about the COVID project here.

Read about the CIRS project on Environmental Politics in the Middle East here.