The recent coronavirus outbreak has permeated all aspects of our daily lives, especially the ways in which we engage with each other and the environment. As emissions decrease and pollution lessens, the “what” that we focus on is shifting from issues of environment to issues of environmental justice.
But “who” is being most affected by the outbreak? Skyrocketing unemployment will precipitate a sharp increase in poverty, consequently widening racial disparities. Researchers at Columbia University predict that poverty will rise twice as much among blacks as among whites. In the U.S., people of color are more likely to be predisposed to deadly illness and disease, largely due to historically increased exposure to toxic hazards and air/water pollution. Since black Americans are affected far more by lung conditions than white Americans, a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 deaths are made up by African Americans (DeParle 2020). In Chicago, for example, black people have made up 72% of virus-related deaths, even though they make up less than a third of the population, at nearly six times the rate of white Chicagoans. Latinos are also being hit particularly hard by the outbreak: In New York, Latinos make up 29% of the population, but comprise 39% of those who have succumbed to COVID-19, dying at more than double the rate of white people (LCLAA 2020). Coronavirus relief packages exclude undocumented Americans, which makes up 21% of the Latino population.
Low-income populations tend to live in more urban areas and in closer proximity to others. Even if they aren’t laid off, many people simply can’t afford to stay home from work, increasing their exposure to the disease. These populations also make up a huge amount of “essential workers” who are in jobs at high risk of COVID-19 exposure. Rent is still being collected at a large scale, but even freezing rent only delays mass evictions and a surge in homelessness.
In tandem with racism in the healthcare system, environmental racism has created monumentally increased risk and decreased resiliency within populations of color. The Natural Resources Defense Council describes environmental racism as the injustice faced by “communities of color, which are often poor,” who “are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts” (Miller and Skelton 2020). People of color are disproportionately harmed by industrial toxins on their jobs and in their neighborhoods (Bullard 1993). The pandemic has shed greater light on issues of environmental racism and injustice, and has only further exacerbated existing health and economic disparities between people of color and white people in the U.S. (Ettachfini 2020).
So “how” do we engage during times like these? It’s difficult to create solutions for engagement when the disparities in access and safety are so glaring. Many organizations, companies, and even schools have turned to online platforms for communication and some maintenance of normal interactions. We have had the opportunity to experience virtual learning firsthand, which has brought about both challenges as well as unexpected advantages. Organizations such as Oregon Humanities have begun hosting their projects through video platforms. Not only has the transition to gathering online made programs such as their Conversation Project more accessible, it has also allowed people to discuss and grapple with the stress and hardship that comes along with a global crisis. However, the transition to internet-reliant work, school, and communication has made internet inaccessibility an even issue, prompting some to argue for universal internet access to bridge the digital divide.
We are all facing hurdles and have been forced to change the way that we are living. Whether it’s orders to shelter-in-place or the sheer prospect of our gloomy situation, people around the world are facing financial, emotional, and mental stress. Now more than ever is it vital to practice engagement and seek understanding across our differences.
- Bullard, Robert D. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press, 1993.
- DeParle, Jason. “A Gloomy Prediction on How Much Poverty Could Rise.” The New York Times, April 16, 2020, sec. The Upshot. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/upshot/coronavirus-prediction-rise-poverty.html.
- Miller, Vernice, and Skelton, Renee. “The Environmental Justice Movement.” NRDC, March 17, 2016. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/environmental-justice-movement.
- Ettachfini, Leila. “Environmental Racism Is Why Coronavirus Is Damaging Communities of Color – VICE.” Accessed May 1, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/k7ev93/coronavirus-death-rates-environmental-racism.
- Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and El Comité Mijente. “The Impact of COVID-19 on Latinos in the U.S.” April 11, 2020. Accessed April 16, 2020.