This health crisis does not exist in a vacuum, but rather in a world that was already suffering from many other social and economic plights- including structural racism, an extractive economy, and climate change. Layered on top of people who were already struggling to navigate through these oppressive systems, COVID19 becomes a threat multiplier. Undocumented workers, pregnant women of color, incarcerated people, and people living in poverty are just a few of the groups who’s livelihoods are more at risk now due to the global outbreak of the Corona Virus. We need to pay close attention to the analysis and data being presented on who’s being most affected by this health crisis and in what ways, so that when we rebuild a post-virus economy we do it right by centering those most vulnerable in our solutions and strive to achieve environmental, racial and economic justice.
Perhaps given the racial histories of this country, it is not surprising for many of us that the burden of this outbreak is falling mainly on our own Black and Brown communities. A recent article in the Hartford Courant reported that at one of his daily press briefings, Gov. Ned Lamont shared data showing that Black people have been nearly twice as likely as whites to contract the coronavirus, while Hispanic people have been more than one-and-a-half times as likely.
To understand the complexity behind these health disparities, we have to lay out the structures that have been built to prevent Black and Brown people from living in safe environments and from having control over their health. Employment discrimination, housing discrimination, redlining, food apartheid, mass incarceration, environmental injustices and conscious or subconscious discrimination in medical treatment pose as examples of structures that makes it more likely for us to have health issues like asthma or diabetes and sever our ability to navigate a health crisis like COVID19.
Not only are we navigating both the health and economic effects of this crisis but we are also the ones bearing the burden of fossil fuel and other hazardous air pollution, making us more vulnerable to COVID health complications. A recent article in the New York Times discusses how:
“In three of the states with the highest number of Covid-19 cases — Illinois, Michigan and Louisiana — African-Americans made up 40 to 70 percent of deaths from the disease, far outpacing the percentage of black people in each state. Many of the black communities ravaged by Covid-19 are “front-line communities” — where residents live adjacent to heavily polluting industries.”
– Rhiana Gunn-Wright, New York Times Opinion
And from this 2017 National NAACP Study we know that Black people are 75% more likely to live near industrial facilities than the average American is, as oil, gas and petrochemical industries have concentrated heavily in low-income, majority-black-and-brown areas that black people. The oil and natural gas industries violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air quality standards for ozone smog due to natural gas emissions in many African American communities, causing over 138,000 asthma attacks among school children and over 100,000 missed school days each year.
And while there has been inconclusive data on Asthma being a top risk factor to COVID, there is this early study from Harvard University causing an uproar in Washington as it links dirty air to the worst coronavirus outcomes. There is also this article in the NYTimes which notes that “it is well known that viral infections are the No. 1 cause of asthma flares in both children and adults under normal conditions”.
Furthermore, scientists are saying that pandemics like COVID19 might be more likely to occur if our climate changes drastically: “Warming and changing weather patterns shift the vectors and spread of disease. Heavily polluting industries also contribute to disease transmission. Studies have linked factory farming — one of the largest sources of methane emissions — to faster-mutating, more virulent pathogens [Rebecca Thiele, PBS]”. We need to better hold our government accountable to both preparing for and mitigating climate change so that the exacerbation of these already existing disparities and suffering can be limited.
The rhetoric that it is “opportunistic” for us to address more than one problem at a time needs to end. For many of us, seeing the ways that our society has become less individualistic as it creates solutions to help aid those most impacted this virus has been refreshing and inspiring. We’re seeing now that we can solve some of the toughest problems when we work together. But we can’t stop there. Taking inspiration from a talk given by Naimoi Kelin, “This is a moment that must revolutionize us. We need to be bold in thinking about ways to keep people safe and healthy”. And to do that we need to center our solutions in racial justice, climate justice, and economic justice.