Environmental Justice (and Some Economics) in Light of COVID-19

It’s no secret that policymakers discriminate against disadvantaged communities. In 1982, North Carolina needed a location for toxic waste-in particular, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB)-contaminated soil from highways. As a result, legislators settled on dumping the soil in a landfill right in the vicinity of a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Warren County. Following this, protests sprung up. Not only in Warren County, but across America. Though there have been other protests before the ones in response to Warren County, no other one has ever been enacted on such a large scale. This event is widely understood to be the catalyst for the Environmental Justice Movement.

Since then, the movement has stayed alive. But why is this enthusiasm for change important, especially now?  While it’s true that reversing the trend of rising climates is necessary in order to slow the melting of ice caps and preserve biodiversity. And, of course, we need to notify decision-makers that switching to renewable energy not only mitigates greenhouse gas emissions but saves money. But I would argue that perhaps the most important reason for change is humanity.  What the Warren County protests have shown, disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected by the lack of environmental regulations. During the era of COVID-19, the disparity between white communities and people of color has never been as evident. Those at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19 are people of color. Why? The average median income of people of color is significantly lower than their white counterparts. As a result, a higher number of people of color cannot afford to stop their work, which involves interacting with the community, without the opportunity to work from home. Furthermore, a higher percentage of people of color are suffering from the economic crisis that COVID-19 has imposed. In fact, the employment change in Asian American communities is the most significant, with a -15% employment change, followed by -14% employment change in black persons of color, and a -13% employment change in Hispanic/Latino populations. The employment change in white communities is the least severe, at -9% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). 

It doesn’t stop there. In his lecture, Facing the Challenges of Health Policy & Economics during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Professor Timothy McBride, an economics professor of Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, considered that unemployment has a greater impact than a loss in income: it also means a loss in insurance coverage. In fact, among the 10 states with lowest levels of insurance, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, and Alabama also are among the top 10 states with the highest rate of increase in COVID-19 cases (FamiliesUSA, 2020). Clearly, there has not been a time where proper insurance coverage was as crucial.

So where does the environment come in? It has long been known that communities consisting of a high amount of people of color are often confined in areas with higher rates of pollution. In fact, African Americans with a median income of 50 to 60 thousand dollars per year still experience a higher amount of pollution as compared to white communities living in abject poverty (under 10 thousand dollars in revenue per year) (Nature, 2020). As a result, African American women are 20% more likely to have asthma (as someone once told me, the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” directly reflects this statistic). COVID-19 is a disease that has been shown to target our respiratory systems; it follows that a higher proportion of African American individuals suffer a higher death rate from the pandemic than their white counterparts. During the pandemic, the effects of environmental racism have become more noticeable than ever before. 

So, keep fighting for our environment. It’s a crucial step toward ending injustices in our community. When you look closely, lives depend on it.

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