Last week, it became clear that communities of color from coast to coast are disproportionately being infected and dying from complications brought on by COVID-19.
“We’ve known literally forever that diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and asthma are disproportionately afflicting the minority populations, especially the African Americans,” said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He was standing beside Donald Trump at a White House briefing on April 7.
“Unfortunately, when you look at the predisposing conditions that lead to a bad outcome with coronavirus—the things that get people into ICUs, that require intubation and lead to death—they are just those very comorbidities that are unfortunately disproportionately prevalent in the African American population.”
In Chicago, for example, Black people have accounted for 72 percent of virus-related deaths, though they make up less than a third of the city’s population. In New York City, Latinx people are dying from coronavirus at more than double the rate compared to white people. It’s not that the diseases Fauci listed simply occur more naturally in people of color. Systemic factors—like modern segregation and racism in healthcare—help account for these outcomes.
A less-discussed but major contributor to the health disparities between people of color and white people in the U.S., one that has become especially glaring in the face of COVID-19, is environmental racism.
What is environmental racism?
Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. This happens when the government and corporations—through the placement of oil pipelines, forever chemical plants, toxic waste dumps, and polluting factories—expose low income, minority communities to known carcinogens, asthma-inducing pollutants, contaminated water, and other harmful pollutants at a higher rate than white, affluent communities.
This is often due to lax enforcement of environmental laws combined with the placement of undesirable land uses inside or near these communities. The result is a disproportionate rate of harmful and often deadly diseases and conditions within communities of color.
“Communities of color targeted for polluting facilities, waste sites, and the like also have higher rates of cancer, asthma, miscarriages, low birth weight babies–just to name a few adverse health conditions linked to pollution,” said Robin Saha, an environmental sociologist at the University of Montana.
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States in the U.S. are rife with their own examples of environmental racism. It is the reason why polluting facilities along the Mississippi River are primarily concentrated in Black communities like St James Parish, Louisiana. This area is known as “Cancer Alley,” where the risk of developing cancer is 700 times the national average. Another example is the Dakota Access Pipeline that currently runs along the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, despite a large Standing Rock-led protest movement opposing its construction. The original proposed route for the pipeline ran through Bismarck, North Dakota, which is 89 percent white, but was changed after the pipeline was rejected by Bismarck residents. At the time, Jesse Jackson called it “the ripest case of environmental racism I’ve seen in a long time.”
What does environmental racism have to do with COVID-19?
While COVID-19 can be harmful and even deadly to healthy people who contract the virus, as Fauci pointed out, those with predisposing conditions are even more likely to be put in the ICU and even die from the virus. Some of the conditions that make COVID-19 particularly dangerous, like asthma and cancer, can be caused by environmental hazards.
Put simply, if governments and corporations have been exposing a community to toxic hazards, causing a higher rate of disease, coronavirus is an even greater risk to that community.
This is one reason why advocates like Jumaane Williams, New York’s elected public advocate, and doctors like Aletha Maybank, chief health equity officer at the American Medical Association, urgently called for COVID-19 race and ethnicity statistics after a Harvard study linked exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality. Since then, some states have released that data showing that from Illinois to New York, Black people and Latinx people are being hit drastically harder by coronavirus than people of other races.
“The underlying social, environmental, economic and health conditions are the clear culprits for these disparate outcomes,” wrote a group of Columbia researchers in an article shared with VICE called “The Bronx as a Sentinel for Communities of Color in the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
“Environmental racism is a result of broader systemic discrimination that created and maintains structural disadvantage,” Saha said. “This shows up in the form of highly segregated, food-insecure communities with substandard and over-crowded housing. These communities are often lacking job opportunities, investment, basic services, and decent health care, especially preventative. This situation adds stress to residents’ lives and contributes to those underlying health conditions that make people of color more vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Since reports that communities of color are disproportionately affected by coronavirus, some politicians have attempted to address the disparity to no avail so far. “Inequality is a comorbidity,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in early April. Her district, with working class New Yorkers of color in the Bronx and Queens, are particularly susceptible to interacting with the virus. “COVID relief should be drafted with a lens of reparations.”
Saha said he agrees that COVID relief should focus on communities of color that have been disadvantaged in the fight against the virus. “Members of Congress making decisions about aid packages need to hear from affected communities, their leaders, and groups working on the frontlines of the COVID response,” he said. “Policy makers need to get a real handle on what our communities of color are currently facing and what they need.”
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