Connecting the dots between environmental racism and COVID-19

The System is Not Broken, it was Built This Way

by Vernice Miller-Travis

Have you ever had a moment in your life when everything you’ve ever cared about and worked on came crashing down in one fell swoop? That’s what the Coronavirus pandemic has done for me; this viral pandemic has unleashed a global health crisis of unfathomable proportions. This was a worst case scenario in a public health class I took in graduate school in the early 90s.

I remember thinking then that this was a preposterous scenario, but if it ever did occur, I  knew where the pain points would be felt most––in Black, Indigenous, Latino and other communities of color, in immigrant communities, among people with disabilities, and for low wealth communities. At the time, I was a graduate student in Urban Planning at a major university located in Harlem where I was from.

These pain points were obvious to me because I had experienced this same pattern again and again. In fact, I enrolled in urban planning school because my community was battling every branch of government to stop the siting and operation of multiple polluting facilities that were causing major health and air quality issues for the 100,000 people who lived just north of campus. A few years into the battle, we partnered with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Harlem Hospital to look into the source of the high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases that were rampant among my Harlem neighbors. It turned out that my community had the nation’s highest incidence of asthma, highest rate of premature deaths from asthma, and some of the highest levels of fine particle pollution in the country.

Through a job as a research assistant with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, and my grassroots organizing efforts, I came to understand how systemic, structural racism—including U.S. government policies and practices—had been designed, implemented and enforced to protect white privilege at the expense of people and communities of color. In this case, through the legacy of residential segregation, Black and other people of color were forced to live in communities where the practice of Redlining and Expulsive Zoning ensured the intentional siting of nearby polluting facilities.

Systemic race-based local land use policies and practices gave rise to the phenomenon of Environmental Racism. For many this would result in a lifetime of exposure to toxic and hazardous air pollutants (from diesel engines, power plants, pulp and paper mills, oil refineries and chemical manufacturing) starting in utero and spanning across our lifetimes.

Sustained exposure to toxic air pollution results in frequently underappreciated environmental triggers of health disparities––from disproportionate levels of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis to emphysema, COPD, heart disease, strokes and lung cancer. African Americans and other people of color who live in these communities also have higher rates of premature death from respiratory and other related diseases. This is our baseline day-to-day reality.

Now, data emerging on who is most affected by COVID-19 is driving home the fact that these policies—implemented and enforced over generations—have increased the health risks of this pandemic among people and communities of color. Recently, the Harvard School of Public Health released a study that said living in a county that experiences even a small increase in exposure to fine particle pollution will result in a higher likelihood of acquiring COVID-19 and dying from it. According to the American Lung Association, more than 21.2 million people live in counties with unhealthy levels of year-round particle pollution.

The Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses have been demanding that the CDC release data breaking down COVID-19 cases by race and ethnicity. Initially, there was a lack of responsiveness to this request, but over the last few weeks the CDC has released disaggregated data about COVID-19 infections. The results are startling though not unexpected. African Americans and Native peoples have astronomically high rates of infection, and much higher death rates. The flawed and damaging explanation for this––from no less than the Surgeon General––is that bad personal choices over a lifetime have caused pre-existing health conditions that predispose these populations to COVID-19. This is badly misplaced—and frankly, racist—to assign personal blame in this manner. The real culprit is policies that disregard people’s well-being and continue to put them in harm’s way, generation after generation.

The narrative that is widely shared, “We’re all in this together,” is a false one. It should instead be “If we’re all in this together, then we can’t continue to leave anyone behind.”