Study: New links between air pollution and COVID19 rates are a lesson for healthy recovery in air-pollution hotspots like Western Balkans

Europe in transition

More links between air pollution and Covid-19 cases, hospital admissions, and deaths are discovered by the study of 355 municipalities in the Netherlands conducted by the IZA Institute of Labour Economics(1). Other studies found that long term exposure to PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and sulphur dioxide (SO₂) can reduce lung function(2) and cause respiratory illness(3).

The growing body of research adds urgency to efforts to prevent air pollution, especially in air-pollution hotspots like the Western Balkans, which is currently also recording increased rates of Covid-19 infections. Governments need to strengthen the implementation of legal measures guaranteeing healthier and cleaner air and thereby also ensure the resilience of their health systems.

Vlatka Matkovic, Senior Policy Officer at Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL) points out that “Clean air policies create immediate health benefits but also long-term ones as they help tackle the climate emergency. They are key to preventing disease and protecting those most vulnerable. That’s why clean air action has to be a top priority in ensuring a healthy recovery from Covid19.”

Viktor Berishaj, Energy Policy Coordinator for Southeast Europe at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe said: “Clean air is a must. The Western Balkan countries, in particular, cannot hope to emerge from the Covid19 crisis by returning to polluting as usual. The most obvious first step is to comply with policy frameworks already in place. The evidence to date is that they are failing(4). The European Commission must not miss the opportunity to use the Green Deal and own Green Agenda for the region to jump-start the required action.”

Zvezdan Kalmar, programme director at Serbia-based Center for ecology and sustainable development (CEKOR), said: “We in Serbia urgently need comprehensive national and local air quality plans. Air pollution will not be reduced if the government continues plans to increase coal-fired energy production, nor if it neglects enormous potential for investment in energy efficiency including heating systems. Already in late September we are likely to face a perfect storm of polluted air from heating and electricity production and increased infections from COVID19 due to high pulmonary stress mixed with seasonal flu. All these emergencies make a new green agenda a matter of utmost national interest.”



(1) Air pollution exposure linked to higher COVID-19 cases and deaths – new study, not yet peer-reviewed

(2) Pre-admission air pollution exposure prolongs the duration of ventilation in intensive care patients

(3) An association between long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and mortality from lung cancer and respiratory diseases in Japan

(4) Western Balkan coal power plants breach pollution limits by 6 times, for the second year in a row


Viktor Berishaj, Energy Policy Coordinator for Southeast Europe, CAN Europe, Mob +32 470 588 001,

Stevan Vujasinovć, Communications Coordinator for Southeast Europe, CAN Europe, Mob +381 63 390 218,


Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe is Europe’s leading NGO coalition fighting dangerous climate change. With over 170 member organisations from 38 European countries, representing over 1.500 NGOs and more than 47 million citizens, CAN Europe promotes sustainable climate, energy and development policies throughout Europe.



EU Parliament Scoreboard​: Protectors, Procrastinators & Prehistoric Thinkers

New in-depth data research from five leading climate and environment organisations reveals that only a minority of MEPs during the 2019 – 2024 mandate acted to protect Europe’s climate, nature and air quality. The majority of MEPs acted instead as either procrastinators or prehistoric thinkers, delaying real action with patchy and inconsistent voting records, or worse, completely failing to rise to the challenge of the crises Europe is facing.

Read More »