Given the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on Illinoisans’ lives and our economy, it’s understandable if many of us would like to return to “normal.”
But our actions now will determine what is “normal” from now on—and it can’t mean going back to the way things were before.
Our recovery must move towards an economy that not only creates wealth but does so in a way that is just, equitable, and sustainable. This means for people as well as the environment: sustaining human life requires a healthy environment, and justice requires that we stop sacrificing people and communities on the altar of short-sighted, exploitative economic growth which delivers benefits to only a few.
As we work to do all this, we are confronted with stunning inequities in our current system which existed all along but which the pandemic has laid bare.
There are deep racial disparities in deaths from coronavirus: 28% of the people who have died from coronavirus in Illinois are Black, even though Black people account for only 14% of Illinois’ population. In other words, twice as many Black people died as you would expect if everyone had an equal chance of survival.
As Governor Pritzker rightly pointed out, “Generations of systemic disadvantages in health care delivery and access in communities of color and Black communities in particular are now amplified in this COVID-19 crisis.”
These systemic disadvantages are plain as day in the data. Black people in America are disproportionately likely to have asthma, high blood pressure, and diabetes. People who are Black, Latino, or have low incomes also face higher exposure to housing-related health issues, including poor indoor air quality. Black and Latino people are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, including the specific type of particulate pollution associated with the higher risk of death from COVID-19. All these factors relate to the impact of the pandemic on people of color, and the fact that long-term exposure to pollution has been found to significantly increase the risk of dying from COVID-19.
At the same time pollution is worsening the death toll from coronavirus, the government agencies charged with protecting human health and the environment are either failing—as we saw recently in Chicago when a demolition community activists vehemently opposed unleashed a cloud of dust over Little Village—or deliberately refusing to do their jobs, in the case of the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency outright refusing to enforce environmental protections during the pandemic. Unlike some cities, Chicago has not seen meaningful reductions in air pollution during the pandemic, despite its residents driving less.
Not only do social and economic burdens compound the impact of disasters on people—so do other, simultaneous disasters, as we saw with the severe flooding in Midland, MI (about an hour’s drive from my hometown), where evacuees shunned emergency shelters due to the threat of coronavirus.
Tragic in their own right, these floods may offer a glimpse into our future: scientists project multiple simultaneous disasters will be a regular occurance in the decades to come, if we do not take aggressive action on climate change. The U.S. Department of Defense has called climate change a “threat multiplier,” and we are now seeing firsthand how disasters that are becoming more severe and more frequent in a warmer world can amplify public health threats—not just in the developing world, but right here in the Midwest.
Racial discrepancies in health, policies that put polluters before people, and worsening disasters fueled by climate change were all part of our “normal” six months ago. Coronavirus has made them more severe and more obvious.
On top of all this, coronavirus is driving massive and possibly persistent changes to the economy: one in five of restaurants may go out of business, affecting the food service industry that employs about 11% of American workers. The shift from brick-and-mortar to online retail has accelerated during the pandemic and is expected to stick, impacting the 6% of American workers in retail sales. Nearly one in four Black and Latino workers is employed in the service industry (compared to fewer than one in six white people), so these declines are likely to disproportionately impact people of color.
A growing number of large tech companies are allowing employees to work from home permanently; this could reshuffle the tech sector, with implications for real estate and industries that service downtown office hubs. Once again, this trend will not affect everyone equally: Black and Latino workers are significantly less likely than white workers to be able to work from home.
We can’t go back to the old normal, but we can chart a new path forward. A better future will not happen naturally, nor as the result of the “free market.” Our governments have written the rules which have led to the ongoing collapse of our environment, which have led to massive wealth discrepancies, and which have oppressed and impoverished people of color for centuries. Changing these outcomes will mean rewriting the rules.
Building our new normal requires understanding the deep connections between race, wealth, health, and environment. It requires smart, intentional changes to public policy that advance economic justice, create a safe and healthy environment, and allow people of color to live joyfully and without fear.
In my next blog, I will suggest principles for what these policies could look like.