Coronavirus recovery requires end to environmental racism

Communities of color have longer-term exposure to elevated air pollution levels

The dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Alexis Schwartz

“Safer at Home” they say. But all who are weathering the pandemic at home do not have the same level of safety; many people’s health has already been compromised precisely by the location of their residence. A lot of things are unknown about COVID-19, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Where people live is of large significance to infection recovery.

Studies have found that people who contract COVID-19 and have lived in areas with high air pollution are much more likely to be gravely affected than people who have lived in areas with less air pollution. Microscopic air pollution particles are linked to chronic health conditions, including respiratory illnesses, which increase COVID-19 morbidity.

Communities of color often live in the shadows of sites that emit pollution. Research is finding that people of color, especially African Americans, are succumbing to COVID-19 at a much higher rate than white people and that this trend is connected to communities of color having longer-term exposure to elevated air pollution levels. Explanation for these groups having such exposure is found in environmental racism — the disproportionate distribution of environmental risks along racial lines, often without the input of affected communities.

Environmental racism is deeply ingrained in America; parallels to depictions of it in historic literary works occur in the present day. In the 1961 satirical novel “Catch-22,” a World War II Native American soldier recounts his family’s tribulations: “Every place we pitched our tent, they sank an oil well … And every time they hit oil, they made us pack up our tent and go someplace else. We were human divining rods. Our whole family had a natural affinity for petroleum deposits, and soon every oil company in the world had technicians chasing us around.”

Significantly, the soldier dies of pneumonia at an early age, per his longtime premonition. Assault of Native land is very much alive today; it is exemplified by the Dakota Access Pipeline project. The government did not adequately engage the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe during the pipeline’s permitting process, and subsequently the Tribe has been embroiled in a fight for years against the pipeline, which spans across sacred land and endangers their water supply. How are they to wash hands with running water to avoid the spread of COVID-19?

Here in Colorado, the predominantly Hispanic and immigrant population in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in Denver is being divided by highway construction of the Central 70 Project, despite neighbors’ objections. This construction will add significantly more greenhouse gas emission pollution to the 80216 zip code, which is already the most polluted in the United States. This is in sharp contrast to Boulder, a very affluent, very white city, having codes that limit structures’ height so as not even to interfere with its residents’ splendid mountain views. The “not in my back yard” phenomenon, by which people support developments ideologically but oppose those developments existing near their own residence, is problematic, as it requires sacrificing those who have less political clout for the benefit of those in power.

As Colorado members of Congress continue working to address the health needs resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, they should strongly support pandemic packages that reduce the pollution that has led to severe health disparities in frontline communities prior to the crisis, and contributed to their higher mortality rates during the pandemic.

We call on the Colorado delegation to support COVID-19 packages that include investment in the clean energy sector to mitigate detrimental effects of polluting industries, extend and modify residential and commercial tax incentives for energy efficiency, and prioritize measures that support clean transportation solutions by lifting the current tax credit cap for electric vehicles. If more people were able to take advantage of a tax credit for electric vehicles, the resulting reduction of greenhouse gasses could improve air quality, and lead to fewer premature deaths from poor air quality.

By investing in clean energy, Colorado can make strides in phasing out environmental racism, thus increasing our resilience to the pandemic and achieving overall improved health in our state as a whole.

Alexis Schwartz is political organizer at the Colorado Sierra Club.

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