Environmental Justice

COVID-19: Substantiating the Impacts of Environmental Racism

Jessamine De Ocampo, MJLST Staffer

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic is highlighting the numerous socio-economic inequalities in America. Because of these inequalities minorities are dying at disproportionally high rates. In addition to various barriers to health care, minority communities are inequitably exposed to hazardous environmental conditions that may end up affecting their long-term health. Under-served communities, including communities of color and the poor, are disproportionately impacted by environmental problems. Under-served communities historically lack the political power to prevent new sources of pollution and eradicate existing ones. As a result, generations of inequity and unjust systems have placed certain communities at higher risk than others. For example, in Harris County, Texas, 40 percent of those who died from COVID-19 were African-American, though African-American’s accounted for only 20 percent of the county’s population. Similar COVID-19 fatality patterns can be seen in Georgia,  Detroit, Michigan, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Chicago, Illinois. Environmental justice advocates have long argued that environmental racism is killing their communities, but COVID-19 brings new light into just how detrimental the severity of environmental racism can be.

Environmental justice advocates seek to shield low-income and minority communities from the worst impacts of air pollution and environmental degradation. A recent Harvard study analyzed thousands of US counties in order to find a link between air pollution and COVID-19 fatalities. The study reflects that coal plants, waste incinerators, refineries, landfills, mines, smelting plants, and other sites, often located in communities of color, have long emitted toxic pollutants into the water and particulate matter into the air, increasing air pollution which in turn leads to various pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. These chronic health issues increase chances of contracting severe cases of COVID-19.

In Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, exists an industrial corridor stretching about 85 miles, containing more than 140 chemical factories and oil refineries. This area is commonly known as Cancer Alley. These chemical factories and oil refineries release large amounts of particulate matter, which has been listed as a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Cancer Alley is one of the most polluted places in America, and someone has died from cancer in almost every household in the area. In the community of Reserve, a predominantly African-American working class neighborhood nestled in the middle of Cancer Alley, the risk of cancer from air toxicity is 50 times the national average. Now, Cancer Alley has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.

Similarly, Native American Tribes have long held the burden of having their lands used for toxic dumping sites. Environmental injustice, among other facts, has led to varying risks of illness on Indian lands. Now, they are bracing for the worst impacts of COVID. Kevin Allis, chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians stated “When you look at the health disparities in Indian Country — high rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma and then you combine that with the overcrowded housing situation where you have a lot of people in homes with an elder population who may be exposed or carriers — this could be like a wildfire on a reservation and get out of control in a heartbeat.” And then, there are the residents of Oakland, California where mainly low-income African American and Latino residents are exposed to a disproportionate amount of airborne toxins as compared to the rest of the surrounding Alameda County. East and West Oakland residents have higher rates of asthma, strokes and congestive heart failures and during the COVID pandemic, these communities are the hardest hit in Alameda County.

Robert Bullard, who some consider the “father of environmental justice” stated in a recent interview:

When you have poverty, lack of access to health care, [high rates of] uninsured, many who have no private automobiles and are dependent on the buses and public transportation, and neighborhoods in pollution sacrifice zones you’re going to get people who are vulnerable. The coronavirus is basically taking advantage of those vulnerabilities, and you’re seeing it play out in the deaths.

While the environmental movement has taken off in recent years with the growing certainty of climate change, environmental justice cases have almost slipped through the cracks. As organizations begin to plan for a new world shaped by lessons learned during the pandemic, the influence the environment has on health, and the disproportionate burden on minority communities, needs to bear a greater weight in our political discourse. As former democratic primary candidate and current Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders stated, “access to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental right of citizenship. To deny such rights constitutes an environmental injustice that should never be tolerated.” The death rates and disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority groups only compounds the evidence that unhealthy environments are detrimental to society/humanity. In addition to monitoring the biological environmental consequences of our societies, we also need to be considering the social consequences.