COVID-19: An Environmental Justice Crisis
“The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around,” said Martin Luther King Junior in his final speech encouraging sanitation workers to continue fighting for better working conditions and wages. King realized that social justice could not be achieved without healthy living environments. He was fighting to end segregation, stop massive industries from harming vulnerable communities, and ensure everyone has a safe place to live, work, and play . Although King made this statement in 1968, his description of the nation continues to ring true in 2021. As the coronavirus has shown us, disparities in health continue to persist. These disparities are due to the lack of healthy living conditions in black, brown, and low-income communities. As King alluded to in his quote, health and the environment are linked. This direct correlation must factor into healthcare, pandemic prevention, and other public health policies.
King’s fight for healthy living environments was one of the sparks that ignited the environmental justice movement of the 1980s . Environmental justice advocates for the fair treatment of all people, regardless of color, race, and income in respect to environmental laws and policies . This movement has been championed by minority and low-income communities who are disproportionately exposed to environmental pollutants. The individuals living in America’s most polluted areas are those who are people of color or little wealth . Environmental regulations in America are “not color blind,” as communities with weaker political voices are exposed to more harmful living conditions . White, high-income communities have economic power, which directly ties to political power. As a result, these communities have the ability to dictate zoning rules, keeping factories, landfills, refineries, etc. out of their backyards . In contrast, low-income and black and brown communities have little economic capital and political influence. As a result, corporate decision-makers take advantage of these communities and build facilities with negative environmental impacts in these neighborhoods .
This zoning is especially unjust because these vulnerable communities experience significantly worse health as a result of being exposed to environmental toxins . Zip code is an important indicator of life outcomes . For example, the Sierra Club mapped polluting industries, medical waste incinerators, superfund sites, and railroad tracks transporting dangerous cargo in Memphis, Tennessee. They found that these sites were primarily located in African American neighborhoods. This is because African American neighborhoods are built on cheap and undesirable land due to segregation laws, and these communities lack the political power to demand change . As a result, they have worse health. For example, these communities experience an infant mortality rate twice that of the national average, and lead poisoning is the leading cause of illness among the children of Black Memphis . Furthermore, low-income and minority communities living in impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago and Detroit, where economic inequality and pollution have persisted, experience some of the highest mortality rates in America . As Fatemeh Shafiei, director of environmental studies at Spelman College, said, “Geography is destiny” . Racial and economic disparities are reinforced by environmental regulation, residential segregation, and differences in exposure to environmental toxins.
Health is directly tied to the environment, and the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this point. The communities most affected by the pandemic, people of color and low-income neighborhoods, are those exposed to the most environmental toxins, such as air pollution around manufacturing plants, buried waste, contaminated water walls, etc. For example, although African Americans comprise 30 percent of the population in Chicago, they represent 60 percent of the COVID deaths in the area . Further, Latino communities are disproportionately affected by COVID, which is only exacerbated due to overcrowding, workplace exposure, and lack of health insurance in these communities . The Navajo Nation is another example of this inequity, as the community has a positive COVID test rate nine times higher than that of the rest of Arizona. These high rates are directly related to the poor living conditions, underfunded health system, and contaminated wells experienced by this population, as a poor environment leads to increased disease spread and severity . All three examples of COVID inequities are directly tied to the environment these populations live in.
However, the importance of understanding context and environment when examining health disparities is often ignored. For example, the U.S. Surgeon General essentially blamed the smoking and drinking habits of African American and Latino communities for the severity of COVID in these populations . However, this statement forgets the history of structural inequities that leads to higher rates of unhealthy habits in these groups. For example, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by COVID due, in part, to high rates of underlying health conditions in these populations, such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Minority populations have a higher rate of experiencing these health conditions because of the context they live in. These communities tend to be oversaturated with unhealthy, fast foods and are far from affordable grocery stores . Diet and behavior are driven by context, and it is important not to overlook the environment when thinking about health.
The government’s pandemic policies have also severely ignored the environmental disparities experienced by vulnerable populations. The populations hardest hit by COVID live in overcrowded communities with immense air pollution and harmful living conditions. The government’s stay-at-home orders only exacerbate health disparities, as they force these individuals to retreat to toxicity, not safety . Furthermore, during COVID, the Trump administration has relaxed environmental restrictions due to worker shortages, social distancing, and travel restrictions . Polluters no longer have to monitor and report air and water emissions during the pandemic, likely leading to a spike in air pollution and more chemical spills . This decision blatantly disregards the harmful effects of the environment on vulnerable communities, especially since studies have linked exposure to air pollution to an increased risk of COVID deaths . These practices to stop the spread of COVID prioritize white, middle/high-income communities while increasing harm to minority and low-income neighborhoods.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health crisis – it is also an environmental justice issue. Health and the environment are one and the same. As King stated, “the nation is sick. Trouble is in the land” . Current environmental restrictions and practices, such as unfair zoning laws placing vulnerable communities near landfills, factories, etc., stay-at-home orders, and EPA relaxations, are disproportionately harming the health of vulnerable communities, making them more susceptible to pandemics, such as COVID. These current practices are ethically unjust. The right to a healthy living environment is a key part of the American dream, and it is tied to the right to health. COVID has exposed how years of housing segregation and zoning laws have put minority communities at risk . This cycle must end. To address and treat COVID and other health disparities, the environment must be examined, and structural disparities must be acknowledged.
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