[As the COVID-19 death toll has surged past 125,000 in the United States and continues to rise worldwide, communities of color in the United States are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In this interview, Carly A. Krakow, co-editor of Jadaliyya’s Environment Page, reflects on the connections between the pandemic and preexisting environmental racism and injustice.]
Jadaliyya (J): How has the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted communities of color in the United States, and how is this vulnerability linked to environmental injustice?
Carly A. Krakow (CAK): In the United States, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic both in terms of the number of infections and fatalities. An ABC News/Ipsos poll finds that Black and Latino Americans are three times as likely as white Americans to personally know someone who has died from COVID-19. A Washington Post analysis of available data in April 2020 showed that majority-Black counties had triple the number of cases and six times as many deaths as majority-white counties. While there is a need for nationwide data to fully understand the scope of this devastation, there is already sufficient evidence to point to a definitive conclusion: communities of color are being disproportionately harmed. Nearly twenty-three percent of people reported to have died nationwide were Black, although Black people make up thirteen percent of the overall population. New findings from researchers based at Yale, the University of Pittsburgh, and Tufts suggest that, in the United States, Black people are 3.57 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people, and Latinx people are 1.88 more times likely to die than white people.
For communities of color, factors including inconsistent and inferior access to healthcare, working in essential services, and crowded housing conditions have increased vulnerability to COVID-19. As public health scholar David Williams notes, this is consistent with structural racism that has led to higher levels of most major diseases among African Americans. The economic impacts are also severe and disproportionate: unemployment for white people dropped from 14.2 percent in April to 12.4 percent in May, while unemployment for Black people increased from 16.7 to 16.8 percent.
Air pollution is directly linked to higher COVID-19 death rates, and communities of color are subject to “pollution inequity.” A 2019 study found that Black and Hispanic people in the United States “bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution caused mainly by … white Americans.” Black children are twice as likely as other children in the United States to develop asthma. A 2017 study found that “persistent residential segregation traps minority children in unhealthy, polluted neighborhoods.” Black people are seventy-five percent more likely to live in “fence-line” communities. These are communities in direct proximity to industrial and service facilities, often subjected to toxic chemical emissions from these facilities.
It is not solely this infrastructure of marginalization that makes communities of color so susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19. The Trump administration has actively exploited the pandemic, seizing this period of crisis to slash environmental laws meant to protect the public from toxic exposure. These policies hit hardest in communities already at heightened risk. Environmental injustice has a sinister history in the United States long predating the pandemic and Trump’s presidency, but it is worsening in new and dangerous ways.
At its core, environmental justice, as defined by sociologist Robert D. Bullard, is “the principle that all people are entitled to equal environmental protection regardless of race, color or national origin.” In the current political context, with a president who has supported racist groups and promoted discriminatory policies, and who is considered racist by a fifty-two percent majority of Americans, we cannot waste time contemplating whether the exploitation of the pandemic to increase environmental injustice might be incidental. These actions are consistent with Trump’s history of racism, including a long list of discriminatory immigration policies such as the “Muslim ban.”
Especially given the surge in international attention recognizing the importance of anti-racism following the 25 May 2020 killing of George Floyd, it is necessary to recognize how the Trump administration has exploited the pandemic to enable pollution for corporate benefit, negating the rights of communities of color.
J: What are some specific decisions the US government has made to permit increased pollution and worsen environmental injustice during the pandemic?
CAK: In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which Trump has stacked with staffers hostile to the EPA’s mission, issued an “enforcement discretion” policy. This is “an open license to pollute,” as described by former EPA leader and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) president and CEO Gina McCarthy.
On 19 May 2020, Trump issued an executive order broadly seeking to suspend environmental regulations. This order aims to enable polluters to disregard fundamental clean air and water protections under the guise of supporting the economy in the context of the COVID-19 national emergency. On 4 June 2020, Trump issued another executive order to waive mandatory environmental reviews of infrastructure projects. Although these measures cite the current state of national emergency as justification, there is no indication of future plans to reinstate the environmental protections that have been targeted. With no clear end date in sight for the pandemic national emergency, and in light of Trump’s firmly established anti-environmental regulation stance, it can be assumed that these policy changes will stick around and do long-term damage.
As Walter Benjamin writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” I have often found that these words pointedly capture our era of protracted environmental injustice, but they are especially pertinent as we are living through a moment in which an official “state of emergency” is being weaponized to violate rights, and worsen the long-term emergency of environmental racism.
Another key example is the April 2020 rollback of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule, which regulates mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, and other heavy metals released from coal- and oil-fired power plants. The Obama administration estimated that MATS co-benefits would include prevention of eleven thousand premature deaths and of tens of thousands of illnesses annually—saving up to eighty billion dollars over five years. New changes to the method of cost-benefit analysis disregard these co-benefits, strategically paving the way for deregulation of toxins deemed by the fossil fuel industry as too expensive to limit.
This list just partially captures the full picture. As with immigration policy, the pandemic serves as a cover to escalate the systematic dismantling of public protections.
These actions financially benefit the fossil fuel and chemical industries, while elevating healthcare costs for people sickened by toxic exposure, particularly harming people of color who are less likely to have health insurance. Preexisting healthcare disparities disproportionately make the coronavirus a short-term death sentence for too many in communities of color, while opportunistic environmental deregulation worsens toxic exposure and institutes long-term death sentences.
Environmental racism is also worsening at state and city levels. Residents of Detroit, Michigan, where about eighty percent of the population is Black, have been struggling to protect themselves from COVID-19 due to ongoing water shutoffs. These shutoffs were declared a human rights violation by three UN special rapporteurs back in 2014. The city acknowledged the urgent need for sanitation during the pandemic and promised to restore water services, but reported shutoffs have continued. Black people comprise fourteen percent of Michigan state’s population, but a staggering forty percent of COVID-19 deaths.
J: In addition to such direct efforts to eliminate environmental protections meant to safeguard public health, to what extent are other aspects of the US government’s response to the pandemic negatively impacting minority communities in the United States and indirectly contributing to environmental injustice?
CAK: The examples above are some of the most direct decisions implemented so far that target public protections by dismantling environmental policies. However, there have also been numerous actions at the federal and municipal levels, as part of the broader pandemic response, that are negating racial, environmental, and economic justice and will have insidious impacts on the health of people in minority communities.
First, the Trump administration has been widely criticized for its efforts to deliberately downplay the magnitude of the pandemic earlier this year, delaying efforts to implement widespread testing and increase medical services. The consequences of this campaign of minimization and denial are most brutally crushing communities of color from every vantage point, due to all of the aforementioned vulnerabilities making these communities more susceptible to the medical and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Second, while this campaign was being waged, other governmental efforts to undermine an equitable and transparent response were underway. For example, a number of US senators sold large amounts of stocks in the weeks before the pandemic hit the United States. These included Republican Senator Richard Burr, who sold up to 1.7 million dollars in stocks in February, allegedly based on information to which he had privileged access as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. A federal investigation into Burr’s activities is ongoing, and he has, at least while under investigation, stepped down as chair of the committee. How are these allegations of pandemic profiteering linked to environmental injustice? Burr appears to have been actively promoting the narrative that the United States was “better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus,” as argued in a co-authored Fox News op-ed, published on 7 February 2020. On 13 February 2020, he then sold a large percentage of his stock portfolio, much of which was “invested in businesses that in subsequent weeks were hit hard by the plunging market.” A persuasive case can be made that this financial gain was dependent on keeping the public in the dark about the coming health consequences and economic crash, which would soon hit hardest in communities of color.
Additionally, as the Washington Post reported, “a group of former Trump administration officials and campaign alumni” are being hired by businesses to help “tap into coveted financial and regulatory relief programs.” Federal filings show that businesses and healthcare manufacturers have rushed to hire “Trump alumni,” who have helped get clients “designated as ‘essential’ services” and have assisted with “securing meetings at the White House and federal agencies on their behalf.” Lobbying firms (such as Ballard Partners, a prominent lobbying firm with strong Trump ties and a president who is a major Trump fundraiser), have been taking on new clients that are in search of coronavirus-related lobbying assistance, including those aiming for fast-tracked EPA approval.
While information about alleged governmental corruption in the context of the pandemic will continue to evolve in the coming period, at the very least these activities suggest that many unanswered questions remain about how US politicians have strategically concealed and revealed information about the pandemic.
A parallel of this pattern—greed at the expense of the public’s right to knowledge and preparation—is playing out regarding the withholding of information about the climate crisis, which will disproportionately impact the same Black and brown communities.
As journalist and scholar Harriet A. Washington notes, “It’s true that pathogens are democratic by nature. It’s also true that marginalized minority ethnic groups have increased exposure to environmental pollution and reduced access to health care.” These factors combine to make people of color “less able to resist and survive infections such as the coronavirus.”
Third, there have been major issues with funding and supplies getting to the communities most in need. Eight billion dollars in direct emergency relief promised to Native American tribal governments as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was delayed. Tribes have legally disputed the allocation of funds to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations, insisting that this funding should be allocated only to tribes directly. The distribution of funding has now begun, with the portion for the Alaska Native Corporations temporarily on hold. This is seen as long overdue by many tribal leaders, including Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who argues that the only way for the government to “repair some of the injury that's been inflicted” is to ensure that it distributes all, not just some, of the promised funds to tribes.
Inadequate and faulty supplies have also caused problems. For example, hundreds of thousands of masks believed to be unsuitable for medical use were supplied to Navajo Nation hospitals through a federal contract. A Native American hospital in the Seattle area requested testing supplies, but in response received a delivery of body bags from the county health department.
The relationship between environmental racism and increased vulnerability to the pandemic is again evident. Energy production and resource extraction have long histories of harm for Indigenous communities. Now, during the pandemic, work is proceeding on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Many Native American tribes have already been firmly resisting the pipeline for years for the threat it poses to Indigenous lands and water resources. Work during the pandemic is sparking new fears that allowing large numbers of workers into communities could increase the risk for the spread of COVID-19 in an already-vulnerable population struggling with poor healthcare and difficulty accessing sufficient amounts of food.
Fourth, it is worth reflecting on another relevant aspect of government response currently in the headlines: use of tear gas by police forces on protesters rallying nationwide against racism and police brutality, in at least one hundred cities, in recent days. Tear gas, a chemical weapon illegal in war under the Chemical Weapons Convention, is permitted for riot control. There have long been pushes for regulations to prevent its excessive use. Zeynep Tufekci notes the cruel irony of unleashing a chemical weapon on people protesting the killing of George Floyd, whose last words were “I can’t breathe,” during the outbreak of a disease that targets the lungs. Tear gas weakens the lungs, and coughing in response to tear gas produces respiratory droplets that spread COVID-19, increasing susceptibility to the disease.
People may not immediately link tear gas to environmental injustice, but ultimately environmental justice is about health. Indiscriminate use of tear gas is a manifestation of the same structures of injustice that have been laid bare by the pandemic regarding environmental racism.
J: A recent study in Nature Climate Change finds that amid worldwide lockdowns, daily carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by seventeen percent compared to 2019. There is an expectation, however, that this drop will not be sustained, and that as economic activity resumes globally, emissions will increase. What is the connection between the climate crisis and the types of environmental injustice that you have discussed?
CAK: It is true that short-term reductions in carbon emissions are not expected to last as economic activity returns to pre-pandemic levels. The pandemic is no guarantor of societal change, but, as Arundhati Roy writes, it can be a “portal”—one through which we drag “our dead rivers and smoky skies,” or one through which we walk without this baggage, prepared to fight for authentic change.
As long as environmental injustice persists, climate justice remains impossible. Environmental injustice manifests at the local level. Such examples are too numerous to list here, but include the water contamination crisis in the majority-Black city of Flint, Michigan (lead poisoning, one of the key issues in Flint in relation to aging, contaminated water pipes, is plaguing many communities of color nationwide due to exposure to old and peeling lead-contaminated paint, federally outlawed in 1978 but still on the walls of homes in many of the country’s poorest neighborhoods). Another example is the planned Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux Native American Reservation, and spurred an international solidarity movement in resistance. Also, cancer rates dramatically increased when a Shell/Motiva oil refinery released two million pounds of chemicals in the 1990s into an area now known as Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” comprised of predominantly Black, low-income communities. (Seventy percent of people who have died from COVID-19 in Louisiana were Black, even though Black people are only thirty-two percent of the state’s population.)
These “local” crises, in actuality, are not merely local: extractive industries driving community-level injustice are the same ones fueling the global climate crisis. These are the same industries directly benefiting from the Trump administration’s exploitation of the pandemic to reduce environmental regulations.
In Flint, Michigan, a city of over one hundred thousand people, residents were collateral damage when the city government switched to a cheaper water source in 2014, which exposed residents to dangerous levels of lead and caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. The EPA and officials at the state and city levels knew and concealed this information. This cycle—prioritizing financial interests over public safety—follows the same pattern as governmental excuses to prevent meaningful action on climate change. On various scales, people are deemed expendable, while economic gain for the elite is prioritized. Again, this cycle predates the Trump era, but is being pursued with newfound intensity and impunity.
This pattern aligns with calls for seniors to “sacrifice” their lives and risk contracting coronavirus for the economy, as infamously advocated by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Once again, a template emerges of promoting the “sacrifice” of the vulnerable for the financial gain of the powerful.
Local-level environmental racism and the international climate crisis cannot be separated. Solutions to each are dependent upon one another.