According to the CDC, 160 to 214 million Americans could be infected by the novel coronavirus over the course of the pandemic. Of those infected, 200,000 to 1.7 million are projected to die. The sudden onslaught of COVID-19 has taken the nation by surprise. Cracks in the United States health infrastructure have been exposed, amplifying feeble preparedness and ability to protect the average Americans, let alone the most vulnerable populations. The elderly and those with predisposed health issues have been found to have a higher risk of developing severe symptoms, and while this is true, this analysis only scratches the surface of understanding what populations remain especially vulnerable. In addition to class differences, which have already been noted due to unequal access to tests between the rich and the poor, environmental quality is also a factor. In her book Farming While Black, environmental activist Leah Penniman outlines the relationship between environmental racism and negative health outcomes in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. Using this framework, we can apply an intersectional lens to understand how gaps in environmental justice and public health are setting communities of color up for tragedy.
Environmental racism describes the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps and other polluters which ultimately lower the quality of life for low socioeconomic groups. Spearheading the birth of the Environmental Justice movement of the 1970s, discourse on environmental racism works to uncover how policy, enforcement of laws and regulations, deliberate targeting of people of color for toxic waste facilities and exclusion of people of color from ecology movements affect environmental quality. In 2018, EPA researchers confirmed that race, not poverty, is the strongest predictor of exposure to health-threatening particulate matter. The EPA also found that Black Americans are significantly more exposed to air pollutants, resulting in higher rates of lung disease, heart disease and cancer. Applying these frameworks at a local level, The University of Michigan’s School of Public Health estimates that air pollution kills more than 650 Detroiters a year — more than twice the number of residents killed by gun violence annually. As stated previously, the severity and death rate of the coronavirus increases for those with chronic heart and lung conditions. By looking at the current health prognosis for many Black American citizens, we can anticipate that Black people and others in low-socioeconomic statuses are going to be among those most strongly affected by COVID-19.
Considering the longstanding, generational influences of environmental racism and the pitiful response of the Trump administration towards the coronavirus, the potential for positive change is bleak. Since his election, the Trump administration has rolled back 95 environmental rules and protections at the expense of environmental preservation and public health. The administration has steadily chipped away at the EPA’s funding, minimized environmental liabilities for corporations and has notably withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement. Nevertheless, more people are becoming knowledgeable about the incompetencies in U.S. environmental and health policies and are demanding more from their elected officials. Some of these proposed solutions include establishing Medicare for All, enforcing more stringent regulations for air and water purity, relocation of landfills and increased access to COVID-19 testing facilities for low-income individuals.
When outlining populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19, it is imperative that we apply a conscious, critical and intersectional lens that considers populations in the context of social dynamics and systems of power. By doing so, we can begin to more correctly project COVID-19’s impacts and develop a plan of action to keep vulnerable populations safe, healthy and alive.