COVID-19 is, arguably, a generation-defining crisis. The novel coronavirus has put the world into quarantine. But it is clear that this is no longer just a ‘health crisis.’ As time goes by, the virus has been a catalyst for tough conversations; essentially taking a bright yellow highlighter and marking the problems and inequalities so that they are no longer invisible or avoidable.
As cases continue to rise, we are now in a place to understand who is being most affected. Black Americans, Latinxs and First Nations People (specifically residents of the Navajo Nation) are disproportionately contracting – and dying from – the virus.
This, as many experts have discussed, is for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, take into consideration the historical link between class and race. Right now, staying home is a privilege. Many working class jobs are still requiring their employees to work on site, leading to a higher risk of exposure. Then, take into consideration living conditions. Public housing units, small apartments in large cities: these are not ideal for quarantine. Many undocumented farmworkers, who continue to work in the fields, live in trailers or share homes with multiple families. It’s no wonder many of New York City’s wealthiest retreated to their rural second homes to ride out the shelter-in-place.
Lastly, many low-income neighborhoods of color have been victims of what is coined “environmental racism” which can take shape in many different ways – take the ‘cancer belt’ in the South or Flint’s water contamination as key examples. These pre-existing health issues have made these residents more at risk for COVID-19 complications, leading to death.
To get a sense of the current numbers, as broken down in Scientific American, Michigan’s black population makes up 41% of COVID-19 deaths, although only being 14% of the state population. Louisiana COVID deaths were 60% black residents, even though they barely make up a third of the population.The Navajo Nation is experiencing ten times the rate of infection to their neighboring state, Arizona.
But, like most things, these disproportionate rates didn’t happen in a vacuum. As indigenous activist Kandi Mossett-White was quoted in the Guardian, when asked about how First Nation lands experience environmental injustice, she responded:
“The federal government put us on reservations on land they believed to be worthless, but many turned out to be rich in ‘resources.’ This means we’re in the way of profits. In most cases we don’t want these megaprojects coming in and destroying our land and water, but it happens anyway…After the oil boom in 2007, the number of missing and murdered indigenous women increased, and so did drugs. Gangs came and recruited our young people to sell drugs and many of these young men are now in jail or dead.”
Clearly, the reservations struggling during this current outbreak is not new but rather another level added onto decades of suffering.
Flint, Michigan, a predominantly black town, still does not have clean water after the 2014 discovery of lead poisoning allowed by the governor to save on a spending budget. Six years without clean water.
The entire Gulf Coast, of which Louisiana is a part, has been dubbed the “cancer belt” because of mass industry making its home in the area. Toxins from these plants have led to asthma being commonplace, as well as a host of cancers. One resident was quoted in the Scientific American,
“Apparently we are being looked upon as a sacrifice zone for the nation and the rest of the world to have sulfur free gasoline,” referring to the way refining removes sulfur from crude oil.
So it is no wonder that low-income communities of color are being infected by COVID at an alarming rate. As former head of the EPA, Mustafa Ali, explains:
“Environmental injustice is about [the state] creating sacrifice zones where we place everything which no one else wants. The justification is always an economic one, that it makes sense to build chemical plants on so-called cheap lands where poor people and people of color live, but which are only cheap because all the wealth and economic opportunities have been stripped out. The people who live in these areas are unseen, unheard and undervalued.”
Unfortunately, in the US today, geography seems to be destiny. When big corporations are allowed to sacrifice people for profit, there is a problem. Then when a natural disaster like Hurricane Dorian or Maria hits, water gets contaminated or a pandemic spreads – those communities are hit that much harder.
“COVID showed that it is the result of all these years of policies and practices that have really been detrimental to the health of minority communities and has put them at risk,” said Shafiei, a former member of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council from 2012 to 2018.
So what can we learn from this? COVID-19 can teach us a very valuable lesson, if we listen. Many are hoping to ‘get back to normal,’ but was our ‘normal’ really equitable, inclusive and sustainable? Clearly not. Perhaps as we move toward the A.C. (after covid) era, we will be that much more aware of how environmental justice and equity play a much more embedded role in our everyday lives.
Astor, Maggie. “Environmental Justice Was a Climate Forum Theme. Here’s Why.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/us/politics/environmental-justice-climate-town-hall.html.
Cabrera, Yvette. “Coronavirus Is Not Just a Health Crisis – It’s an Environmental Justice Crisis.” Grist, Grist, 24 Apr. 2020, grist.org/justice/coronavirus-is-not-just-a-health-crisis-its-an-environmental-justice-crisis/.
Lakhani, Nina. “’Racism Dictates Who Gets Dumped on’: How Environmental Injustice Divides the World.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Oct. 2019, www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/21/what-is-environmental-injustice-and-why-is-the-guardian-covering-it.
Tigue, Kristoffer. “COVID-19 and Climate Change Threats Compound in Minority Communities.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 20 Apr. 2020, www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-and-climate-change-threats-compound-in-minority-communities/.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Expert, Dr. Amy S. Tolbert, CSP, specializes in helping individuals expand their productivity and organizations increase profitability through virtual and live experiential learning, online courses, leadership development and global business communications.