Environmental Justice's Role in the COVID-19 Crisis

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As COVID-19 has swept throughout the world, reports of high-profile cases have given rise to the concept that this virus does not discriminate. It can hit any person with force, from our friends and neighbors to politicians and celebrities.  

Considering this crisis as a kind of equalizer may be an acknowledgment of our collective humanity and a call to support each other by physically distancing. However, before this virus, generations of inequity and unjust systems have placed certain communities significantly more at risk than others. The virus may not discriminate, but these systems do.

With recent demographic data on virus infections and fatalities, there is even more evidence that these system failures and inequities have severe consequences. Therefore, we must apply an environmental justice lens when allocating COVID-19 resources and supporting communities.  

Environmental Justice and COVID-19

Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, has led the call for states, counties, and labs to report racial demographics of the people being tested for, infected with, hospitalized with, or killed by the virus.  

“Sometimes racial data tells us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know,” says Kendi. 

This emerging data shows that African Americans make up over half of all coronavirus cases in the country, despite making up 13 percent of the US population. In Chicago, Black Americans reportedly account for 72 percent of virus-related fatalities, even though they make up less than a third of the city’s population. Expanding out to Illinois, 43 percent who have died from the virus are Black, while this demographic makes up 15 percent of the state’s population.  

Similar data and patterns are being reported from cities, counties, and states including Michigan, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Connecticut, and parts of Georgia.  

Some members of Congress have already introduced legislation to expand demographic data and create a commission to identify data collection barriers and recommend how to best use the data to promote health equity.  

Systemic Causes of Underlying Conditions 

For decades, researchers, and activists have documented the racial disparities that cause the underlying conditions leaving communities of color vulnerable. These systems show patterns of discriminatory practices that are all too apparent to be coincidental. 

When trying to receive healthcare, communities of color are more likely to experience barriers to effective care. In Native American communities, disproportionately high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, combined with overcrowded housing, make these communities even more vulnerable.  

Essential workers who do not have the privilege of staying home are largely made up of people from more vulnerable communities, specifically Black and Latinx workers. This includes more than one million farmworkers who are working to maintain food production while facing inadequate safeguards, limited access to medical care, and crowded living conditions. Undocumented immigrants needing to seek treatment for the virus are faced with the threat of deportation or arrest into ICE’s detention centers, where the coronavirus is spreading in horrifying and neglectful conditions. 

Historic redlining and discriminatory housing practices continue to prevent Black and Latinx communities from safe, affordable housing. Communities of color are disproportionately faced with inadequate transportation options, lack of access to fresh and healthy food, and exposure to polluting industries which poison air and water. All these injustices inflict the underlying conditions which make these communities particularly at risk from COVID-19.  

Impacts of Environmental Racism 

Harvard study analyzing thousands of US counties confirms the link between air pollution and COVID-19 fatalities. This study paired with countless others on pollution in communities of color affirm what the environmental justice movement has called out for decades.  

Lubna Ahmed, director of environmental health at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, stated, “In public health, it’s often said that your ZIP code is more indicative of your health outcomes than your genetic code.” 

The placement of coal plantswaste incinerators, refineries, landfills, bus depots, and other sites in communities of color has long emitted toxic pollutants into the water and particulate matter into the air. Air pollutants enter through the lung and go into the bloodstream and are linked to cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, chronic health issues that increase chances of contracting severe cases of COVID-19. The Harvard study also points out bad indoor air quality and poor ventilation are prevalent in low-income housing.  

As handwashing is critical to preventing the spread and contraction of the coronavirus, reliable access to water is just as critical. Last year, 23,000 homes in Detroit had water shut off and 37 percent hadn’t had renewed service as of January. While some cities have promised to restore water to residents during this crisis, it’s up to residents to know about the program and what steps to take to receive returned service. And thousands of residents have reported being told they don’t qualify for the plan.  

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has continued its multi-year rampage of rolling back environmental and health protections, like the recent repeal of automobile emission regulations, a move that lacked any credible justification. The EPA has “temporarily” suspended monitoring and punitive measures on polluters with no end date in sight. And we need justice and protection from pollution in communities that have been disproportionately burdened by pollutants for generations.  

Supporting the Environmental Justice Movement 

We must apply a historic lens and complete demographic data on virus cases when allocating resources and supporting communities. We need to ensure there are not just emergency supplies provided, but also an inspection of how underlying conditions are created and can be fixed. We need leaders that understand these inequities and fight to change systems. To create justice, marginalized communities must have decision-making roles in regards to their health, homes, and futures

Communities have long fought for environmental and social justice to address these inequities. Under-served communities have historically not had the political power to prevent new sources of pollution and eradicate existing ones. But organizing efforts of communities and activists have led to progress and there are many ways to lend support.  

  • Urge your Congressional representatives to join the call for demographic data and to support the Environmental Justice for All Act, by Congressman Donald McEachin and Chair Raul Grijalva.   

  • Small businesses support local economies and Black women alone are starting their own businesses at a faster rate than any other demographic. For business owners struggling under the economic weight of the pandemic – join our Green Business Network’s call to Congress to do more for small businesses! 

  • If you are able, donate funds to Mutual Aid Networks to help provide resources – the African American Policy Forum lists networks here

  • Volunteer or donate to support environmental and social justice groups like We Act for Environmental JusticeColor of ChangeHip Hop CaucusNAACP, and GAIA

  • Eating nutritious foods is a powerful defense against disease, and while food-insecurity has always been a reality in Black and Brown communities, this pandemic has made the necessity of access to healthy food all the more clear. Check out the Black Church Food Network and Soul Fire Farm's online web series for gardening info and join our Climate Victory Gardens campaign.  

  • Black and Latinx people are historically under-counted in the U.S. Census, which informs funding and representation in Congress. Make sure you’re counted in the 2020 Census and register to vote!  

  • Join the Prison Policy Initiative, National Organization for Women, Black Lives Matter, Mijente and other organizations in standing up for the incarcerated population and take action with the Humane Outbreak Response coalition.  

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