'Inequality is a comorbidity.'
US House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently argued that "Covid deaths are disproportionately spiking in Black and Brown communities. Why? Because the chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, and the wealth gap are underlying health conditions. Inequality is a comorbidity."
The latest data from the United States has proven her statement to be incontrovertible fact.
African American, Native American, and Latinx communities that have suffered from decades of environmental racism are contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus and dying of Covid-19 at higher rates than their white counterparts. This macabre new manifestation of deep-rooted inequality is telling a story that is centuries old, a legacy of colonialism but also an integral part of globalisation.
Environmental racism is the pattern of inequalities that links the discrimination of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities to the polluted areas in which they are often forced to live – including near toxic waste sites and landfills with higher levels of air, water, and soil pollution.
The pattern of targeted inequality tends to be that the higher the levels of pollution, the higher the levels of poverty, disease, state negligence and corporate abuse. The higher the levels of pollution, the lower the levels of education, access to healthcare and environmental services on a national and global scale.
Prudently linking together this system of racial inequality, Eric Holthaus has written in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis: 'Climate change is racist because the system that caused it is racist.'
Environmental racism is responsible for poorer public health outcomes among African American and Native communities in the United States and Canada and Roma communities in Europe, for example, and has now placed them at greater risk from a disease primed to exploit pre-existing health issues and infrastructural shortcomings.
In the UK, The Guardian reported that "the first 10 doctors who died of Covid-19, and two-thirds of the first 100 health and social care workers, were from ethnic minorities." Black men and women are nearly twice as likely to die with coronavirus as white people in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Even at this early stage, data surrounding new US cases and deaths has unveiled these patterns. African-American communities in Detroit and Houston, cities heavily impacted by industrial pollution, have borne the brunt of the new pandemic.
Michigan’s Wayne Country, including Detroit, has seen a death rate 250 percent higher than the Michigan average. In Houston, two-thirds of Covid-19 deaths have been among African Americans, even though they make up just over 22 percent of the city’s population.
These disproportionate death rates are unsurprising when environmental racism is taken into account. Detroit is one of the most impoverished US cities, and three-fifths of the city’s residents lived with no running water for years after being unable to pay their bills.
Michigan is also home to Flint, a community whose population is roughly 54 percent African American and where, to save money, state-appointed “emergency managers” changed the water supply and inadvertently poisoned the city’s residents with lead.
When the danger came to light, those officials gave false promises that the city’s water was safe and ignored complaints for 18 months before acknowledging the reality of the situation.
Residents of Africatown, Alabama, face a similar struggle after decades of exposure to hazardous chemicals from a local paper plant before pollution controls were implemented in the 1990s. With many inhabitants succumbing to cancer in the 2000s and the state failing to act, residents have now resorted to legal action against the former plant’s owner, International Paper.
Across the border in Canada, another paper company has found itself at the centre of a firestorm after a famous Nova Scotian helped shed light on state negligence and corporate abuse in her home province. In 1967, paper mill company Northern Pulp – a subsidiary of Paper Excellence and ultimately of the Indonesian forestry giant Sinar Mas – paid the Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN), a local indigenous community, for the use of a harbour on their land under the false pretence the water would remain clean. Instead, the company, uninhibited by authorities, continually pumped effluent into the harbour despite decades of protests up until this year.
Northern Pulp’s activities contaminated the Boat Harbour lagoon and the surrounding area, while also exposing the indigenous and African Canadian communities living nearby to toxic waste and higher rates of lung disease and cancer. In an attempt to satisfy new restrictions in the Boat Harbour Act 2015, the company proposed an effluent pipeline into the ocean, simply shifting the toxic waste from one place to another. Instead, the Act finally forced the plant’s closure.
Actress and Nova Scotia native Ellen Page captured the local communities’ fight against Northern Pulp in a new documentary, There’s Something in the Water. While her involvement has brought global attention to this particular example of environmental racism, it also echoes the inequalities that leave minority communities unheard until wealthier, whiter voices force authorities to pay attention.
Lest Europeans think this problem lies an ocean away, a new report by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has exposed how “systemic and systematic discrimination” has forced Eastern and Central European Roma populations to live in toxically polluted areas lacking electricity, running water, and basic sanitation.
Indeed, the historic persecution of Europe’s largest ethnic minority is every bit as emblematic of environmental racism. Historical prejudices against this population across Europe have become institutionalised, normalised, and accepted, contributing to the exclusion of Roma communities.
The EEB’s report explains in detail how “antigypsyism” has resulted in far poorer health outcomes for Roma men and women. In Hungary, where the Roma community makes up nearly a tenth of the population, Roma women have a life expectancy roughly 18 years lower than non-Roma counterparts.
In Bulgaria, nearly 90 percent of the 750,000 members of the Roma community do not have access to safe water, while less than half have health insurance.
While these factors are lethal on their own, they also leave marginalized populations at greater risk in the context of the ongoing pandemic.
Air pollution, estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to cause “about seven million premature deaths” annually, causes many of the cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that classify individuals as vulnerable to Covid-19.
In a similar vein, the WHO points out that a “significant amount of disease” is preventable through access to clean water, sanitation services, and hygiene. A lack of access to these services is responsible for 13 percent of all deaths of children under five.
While commentators in the United States attacked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her comments, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) declared on 7 April that the “longstanding neglect” of Roma communities is “leaving them highly vulnerable” to Covid-19. And for good reason – protective measures such as frequent handwashing and social distancing are unattainable luxuries for hundreds of thousands of Roma who live without running water in overcrowded spaces across Europe.
If the current health crisis offers an opportunity for fundamental change, one of the first targets must be the structural factors perpetuating this environmental racism across North America, Europe, and the rest of the world.
Louise Montgomery is a freelance writer on environmental and climate change affairs. She previously worked as a legal consultant on pesticides law in Vietnam and as a policy official for the Scottish Government relating to marine legislation. She holds an LLM in Global Environment and Climate Change Law from the University of Edinburgh.
Image: 'Justice For All' march, Washington DC. Lorie Shaul, Flickr.