More Than a Lens: Centering Justice Now and Post-Pandemic

As the global COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the spread of the virus is exposing deep and persistent fault lines of vulnerability along race and economic status, and a stark absence of social safety nets in this country. Historically, the environmental movement has largely failed to prioritize in its work the creation of strong social safety nets. Now, more than ever, we must assume this responsibility if we hope to build a just, equitable and livable future for all.

Few communities in the United States are more vulnerable to the virus than communities of color and low-income families. And much like the climate crisis, COVID-19 is a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing societal injustices experienced by Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. As local, state, and federal agencies respond to urgent healthcare and economic needs, resources must be directed specifically towards the most vulnerable communities to ensure a just response and recovery during and after the crisis. 

A fenceline community in St. Louis, Missouri; Photo: Paul Sableman, Creative Commons 2.0

Recent data reveal that Black and Latinx people are disproportionately suffering the consequences of COVID-19. In New York City, COVID-19 death rates for Black and Latinx people are twice the rate for Whites: 23 and 20 out of 100,000 people, compared to 10 out of 100,000. In Chicago, Black people account for 52% of the city’s cases and 72% of its deaths so far, while representing less than a third of the city population. Nationwide, the evidence of disparities continues to grow, as additional cities and states release data broken down by race. In Indigenous communities, not only is the lack of testing, supplies, and healthcare infrastructure especially serious, but virus outbreaks can pose a uniquely existential threat to the survival of certain communities that live in overcrowded conditions (making isolation and physical distancing impossible) and have less access to running water and steady food supplies.

These disparities are shameful. Yet, they are sadly unsurprising for those who have long worked to fight systemic racial and social injustice. Nor should they be surprising to those of us in the environmental movement, given the wealth of evidence showing that communities of color disproportionately live near sources of toxic air and water pollution, exposing them to a higher risk of serious health problems. That some of these very health conditions—asthma and cardiovascular disease, for example—have now been linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes underscores the cumulative nature of vulnerability that is experienced daily by low-income communities and communities of color.

Our most vulnerable communities face multiple and compounding threats in a crisis like this one. As the virus itself ravages Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, many of these people lack the luxury of working from home and have to continue placing themselves in harm’s way carrying out low-wage, consumer-facing service jobs. Previously seen as unskilled and replaceable, service industry workers are now essential to maintaining the basic functioning of our society. 

At the same time, these communities are also hit hardest by the need for physical distancing and the economic fallout as many businesses close. Official labor statistics from March 2020, which no doubt reveal only a part of the problem, show Black and Brown workers disproportionately affected by unemployment and job loss. As this period of crisis continues, it threatens to further weaken the stability of many vulnerable families and communities. Many will struggle with paying rents that already consume a large share of household incomes. 

Race has long been used as a wedge issue to divide public opinion against a stronger, universal social safety net. As our nation’s leaders scramble to fill the holes in the existing safety net, old political divisions that have kept the system inadequate and underfunded are once again playing out. Stimulus packages recently passed by Congress have attempted to bolster the American safety net. However, because the system was designed to weed out “un-deserving” people rather than expand coverage to all who need it, many people have yet to receive any support and many more still don’t qualify at all. 

Recently, NRDC signed on to the Five Principles of Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus, which affirm our commitment to ensuring that federal stimulus dollars support people, not corporate polluters, and provides a frame for building a more lasting, just society. The Five Principles outline the following priorities (below in bold) that NRDC has and will continue to integrate into our advocacy strategy:

  1. Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions. This includes low-wage workers, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous people, those that are currently incarcerated, and other communities that have been hit hard by COVID-19. We cannot afford for anyone to be left behind.

  2. Provide economic relief directly to the people. Social safety nets must include unemployment insurance, access to healthcare without cost, expanding food programs like SNAP, extending housing assistance, expanding childcare for working families and frontline workers, relieving student debt, halting evictions, foreclosures, and shut-offs of essential services like water and electricity, as well as expanding access to internet and phone services.

  3. Rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives. Financial assistance must be directed to workers, not shareholders or corporate executives. And the distribution of federal dollars must come with conditions, including company-wide enactment of a $15 minimum wage, representation on corporate boards, and the use of project-labor agreements and other high-road labor requirements. 

  4. Make a down payment on a regenerative economy, while preventing future crises. This crisis must usher in a rapid and equitable transition to an economy that tackles the climate crisis and offers economic opportunities that uplift communities of color and low-income families. This means widespread investments in public infrastructure, the replacement of lead pipes, the weatherization of homes and buildings, the restoration of our polluted waterways and wetlands, and a transition to clean energy.

  5. Protect our democratic process while protecting each other. It is critical that our democracy is not sacrificed during this crisis. The federal government must provide states with resources to ensure safe elections, including mail-in ballots. Additionally, Congress, state capitals and municipal governments should amend their rules to allow for a continuation of their important work as in-person sessions are cancelled. 

The Five Principles are a natural extension of both the Environmental Justice Principles, as well as the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, which NRDC signed onto in 2015. Those principles put forth a vision about how ideals like social, economic, and environmental justice should be achieved—through inclusive decision-making, bottom-up organizing, and allowing those who are directly affected to speak for themselves. It is in this spirit that we commit to deeper and regular consultation with partners on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and other interwoven public health crises, including communities of color and workers. And we affirm that, especially at this time of global uncertainty, there are different types of knowledge and expertise, all of which must be valued and uplifted. No one’s lived experience can be minimized.

A just response and recovery to COVID-19 means understanding the interconnectedness of this global pandemic with issues of income inequality, access to healthcare, environmental degradation, and racism. It means supporting those who have historically been made socially and economically vulnerable, as well as rethinking the way we provide care and create opportunity in our society. And it means standing with our many partners and advocates who are demanding a response to this crisis that ensures social justice and centers equity.

About the Authors

Rob Friedman

Policy Advocate, Environmental Justice, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Yukyan Lam

Staff Scientist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Khalil Shahyd

Senior Project Manager, EEFA, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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