When a Virus Exposes Environmental Injustice

Reducing air pollution isn’t just something to strive for. COVID-19 is illustrating why it’s a moral imperative.

April 17, 2020
A worker with a protective face covering disinfects a bus stop in New Orleans.

Sophia Germer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this week, the death toll from COVID-19 in New York City, where I live, surpassed 10,000. The country’s largest city has been the hardest hit by the disease. With more than 120,000 confirmed cases as of Friday, the Big Apple has seen its medical and public health infrastructures pushed to their breaking points. Ask any New Yorker about the sirens and they’ll tell you how much more frequent they are—how the sound made by speeding ambulances has, over the last month, become a fixed element of our urban soundscape. They seem to be everywhere. The disease seems to be everywhere too.

Which is true, to an extent—but also misleading.

While the disease is present in all five boroughs of New York City, COVID-19 cases aren’t distributed equally within each of those boroughs. A map recently released by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene broke down confirmed cases by ZIP code, and the results are shockingly clear: The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting low-income neighborhoods, which in New York also tend to be communities of color.

It’s not just New York City. In New Mexico, Native Americans account for almost 37 percent of positive COVID-19 cases, even though they represent just 11 percent of the state’s population. In Illinois, African-Americans are dying from the virus at five times the rate of white residents. In Louisiana, where African-Americans make up just under a third of the population, they account for 70 percent of its pandemic deaths. In Oregon, in Utah, in Alabama, in Georgia, in Michigan and many other states, the data coming in are all telling different versions of the same story: People of color are suffering—and dying—from this disease at alarmingly high rates.

Doctors and public health specialists are quick to point out that a complex set of factors are behind this deadly inequity. A greater percentage of African-Americans and Latinos hold service-industry jobs that don’t allow them to work from home—which leads to fewer of them being able to shelter in place, as so many medical experts and state officials have urged us all to do. People of color also tend to receive different, and inferior, levels of care than their white counterparts do whenever they engage with the American health care system, which could affect the rate at which they’re being tested.

But the biggest factor accounting for COVID-19’s uneven death toll is the presence of underlying health conditions—such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—in its victims. These conditions are also far more likely to afflict low-income communities of color than other communities. That fact was thrown into high relief recently with the publication of a startling new report from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health showing a correlation between the virus’s deadliness and long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, the technical term for what most of us call air pollution. Among the conclusions reached by the authors: COVID-19 mortality rates in areas with a higher level of such air pollution are 15 percent higher than in areas with an even slightly lower level of that same pollution.

And which groups of people are statistically much more likely to live in areas with air pollution levels of the sort that have been directly linked to pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, and even obesity? People of color, and especially those in lower income brackets. For more than a century, corporate polluters and cynical public officials have dumped waste and placed facilities that spew toxins in or near communities of color, taking advantage of the residents’ relative lack of political power. An entire environmental justice movement has risen up to fight this systemic form of racism.

A dust-filled street in Little Village, Chicago, after a coal-plant smokestack was demolished

Maclovio

But it’s not easy to eradicate injustice that’s quite literally been built into a community—especially an injustice with physical mass as large as the Crawford coal plant in Chicago. This past weekend, residents of the predominantly Latino and working-class Little Village neighborhood spent their Saturday before Easter gasping and wheezing after the demolition of the plant’s smokestack buried their area in a sweeping cloud of toxic dust. Horrific as it was, especially given the context of a pandemic that attacks the human respiratory system, this incident was just one more in a long string of environmental assaults committed against the residents of Little Village, who have lived for decades in the shadow of two notoriously polluting coal plants.

In a pandemic, everyone is at risk. But not everyone is at the same level of risk. Environmental racism is like a toxic cloud lingering over too many communities of color, making them more susceptible to COVID-19 by contributing to the same underlying health conditions that can catalyze its lethality. We need to understand, as a nation, that reducing air pollution isn’t just something to strive for. It’s a moral imperative. When we accept the shrugging nonchalance of fossil fuel companies and corporate polluters who insist that their emissions are just a necessary part of doing business, we’re not “creating jobs” or “supporting economies.” We’re chipping away at the health and resilience of our people.

Dirty air is deadly air. At this anxious moment in history, when the very act of breathing feels so fraught with uncertainty, we can’t afford to ignore the sirens all around us.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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