Special Focus: COVID-19 and Environmental Justice

Mustafa Ali’s video “Why COVID-19 is an Environmental Justice Issue Too | Op-Ed | NowThis News

COVID-19 has dominated much of the news and life in America since early 2020. Since the first confirmed COVID-19 case was detected in the U.S. on January 20, 2020, the number of confirmed cases has grown exponentially. By mid-October, the number of confirmed cases had exceeded 8 million with over 218,000 deaths.

What does COVID-19 have to do with environmental justice, you may wonder? Environmental justice doesn’t exist in a bubble. It is related to, and intertwined with social, cultural, political, economic, health and policy issues. People of color and those of low-economic status are at the greatest risk of poor health outcomes, and lack access to proper healthcare or insurance. These groups often do not have political power, or do not know that they have the political power, to fight back against injustices.

The coronavirus does not discriminate against who it infects, but there are many factors that put certain groups at a higher risk than others. Many of the same environmental justice issues that DWEJ fights to improve are the same ones that can put a person at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. 

The evidence of greater risk to historically vulnerable populations became clear early on, as communities of color in Michigan and around the country were hit much harder than their white counterparts. In early June, data on confirmed COVID-19 cases, showed that African Americans’ death rate was disproportionately higher than all other groups.

COVID and Race

In Michigan, African Americans are 13.7% of the state’s population. Yet, African Americans make up 39.6% of total COVID-19 infections.
Deaths from COVID are similarly disproportionate: African American’s made up 42.5% of Michigan’s deaths
(Source USA Today, 7/21/2020) 

The city of Detroit’s mortality rate for African Americans was  157 per 100,000— more than double the national average for African Americans and almost 5x higher than the national average for White Americans. 
(Source USA Today, 7/21/2020) 

Understanding the Demographics of COVID

Researchers are still trying to understand why communities of color, especially African Americans, were hit so much harder than other groups. Many factors have been identified that may have contributed to these devastating numbers in and around Detroit:

  • Living in historically heavy industry neighborhoods, which bear the heaviest brunt of pollution
  • Over exposure to air, soil, and water pollutants, as well as low access to healthy diet options
  • Greater occurrences of underlying chronic medical conditions—especially diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses
  • Inadequate access to health care, lack of health insurance, and less usage of health care overall
  • Less trust in medical science compared to other groups, due to historic experience of discrimination by the medical community
  • More likely to be considered essential workers (nursing, food industry, etc.), resulting in greater risk of exposure
  • Less ability to socially distance due to housing conditions and greater reliance on public transportation
  • Limited job options and less flexibility, resulting in reduced ability to miss work
  • Environmental, social and income conditions, as well as discrimination that create toxic stress and can lead to further health problems

Black Lives Matter

COVID-19 has exposed, more than any event in recent history, the racial, social and economic gaps in America. These gaps made the coronavirus more deadly to communities of color, and are the same gaps that fuel environmental and social injustice. Everything is connected.

It is not surprising that when acts of police brutality against Black Americans, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd amongst others, occurred during the first few months of the pandemic in the US, Black Lives Matter protests broke out nationwide, and even globally. People had had enough with racial and social injustices and the normalization of police brutality.

On top of coming up with a sound plan for managing the virus and a vaccine, we must also continue to address the persistent, systemic gaps that leave some Americans far more vulnerable than others.

DWEJ is committed to serving our community during this time of crisis. The pandemic is only of the many symptoms of the fact that climate change is real and a growing threat to the environment and our species. In order to avoid pandemics like these from repeating themselves, we need to fight to reduce our carbon emissions and slow down the warming of the globe. We need to engage and educate our communities about the importance of building climate resilient societies more than ever.

If you would like to help Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice continue in our mission to improve the lives of all Detroiters, especially the most vulnerable, you can get involved by signing up for emails and action alerts, making a donation, or becoming a sustaining donor

Photo by Marc Klockow. Find him at klocko.co and @marcKlock.

Your recurring gift can help create a healthy, clean and safe Detroit.

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