As borders close and governments introduce unprecedented legislation, COVID-19 has made health the major news headlines. We are all at risk of catching and spreading this invisible killer - health, we are reminded, is a universal issue. However, we aren’t all exposed to the same level of risk; COVID-19 discriminates. In general, health risks are not equally distributed; certain illnesses impact certain communities and individuals more than others. Why is this the case?
In ‘Cancer Alley’, Louisiana, for example, the likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer is 50 times greater than the national average. This is because the area has a concerning air pollution problem: the chemical plants and oil refineries dotted along the Mississippi are spewing out known carcinogens including PM2.5, a fine particle pollutant linked to respiratory diseases. The closer a person lives to one of these petrochemical plants, the greater their risk of illness. So why is it that people live in these communities?
Black communities often lack the political representation or power needed to block the construction of factories near their homes. This explains why black and minority ethnic individuals (BAME) in the US are more likely to be exposed to poorer air quality and harmful pollutants. It is predominantly black communities that live closest to the photochemical plants in ‘Cancer Alley,’ and often these communities existed before pollution was an issue. Such is the case with St. John the Baptist, the community neighbouring the Denka plant in Louisiana, where 92% of the community are black.
According to Professor Robert Bullard, a leading campaigner against environmental racism, there is a strong link between ‘Place and Race.’ He believes that one’s zip code is the most reliable predictor of poor health and wellbeing, and that BAME communities are being ‘sacrificed.’ In recent months this relationship between zip code and health has become clearer with COVID-19 cases and deaths.
"COVID-19 has highlighted that systemic racism can manifest in something as indiscriminate as a microscopic virus."
In Louisiana, black people make up 32% of the population but, disproportionately, 56% of COVID-19 deaths. It is similar in Michigan, where black people make up 14% of the population but 41% of COVID-19 deaths. These statistics can be explained by historic discrimination, weak environmental regulations, and Redlining, a practice dating from the 1930s, where government surveyors would segregate non-Northern European immigrants and People of Colour into ‘hazardous’ neighbourhoods.
There is little coverage of health discrimination in the media in comparison to discrimination in the workplace, in education and housing. COVID-19 has highlighted that systemic racism can manifest in something as indiscriminate as a microscopic virus. COVID-19 fatalities have exposed which communities have inadequate funding and access to healthcare, health insurance, proper nutrition, environmental protection and more.
The Denka Performance Elastomer Plant in St. John the Baptist Parish (Matthew Hinton/The Times-Picayune and The Advocate).
COVID-19 is not necessarily deadly - many carriers are asymptomatic - but it can be very serious, especially for patients with underlying health issues like asthma, obesity and lung disease. BAME communities in the US have higher rates of some of the illnesses that make COVID-19 more dangerous. For example, data from 2015-17 shows that non-Hispanic black adults ‘had the highest prevalence of obesity (38.4%)’ in America. It is the same case for asthma, where 11.2% of African Americans suffer from asthma compared to 7.7% of white Americans. BAME individuals are therefore statistically more vulnerable to this pandemic.
A terrifying reality is that the existing health inequalities in the States are likely to increase, in part because President Trump has weakened or removed important environmental regulations. Take, for example, the carcinogen Chloroprene. The Environmental Protection Agency states that this potent carcinogen is unsafe to breathe above 0.2ug/m3; in St John the Baptist, that community in Cancer Valley, monitors have recorded levels ‘routinely dozens of times above’ this recommendation. By deregulating, Trump is removing the incentives needed to keep levels of air pollution safe. The levels of Chloroprene and other pollutants may rise in communities like St. John the Baptist, which will exacerbate already acute health issues.
Hog farming is another industry that leaves black communities exposed to higher levels of toxic pollutants. In order to deal with the growing demand for animal products there has been an exponential growth in factory farming. Intensive, caged farming comes with environmental consequences.
Farm corporations are ‘disproportionately placing environmental and public health burdens on low-income communities of colour.’ Take the issue of excrement disposal in North Carolina; here, open-air cesspits are filled with waste from hog farms - when these cesspits reach maximum capacity they are sprayed onto grassland. Not only is the stench suffocating, the toxic chemicals are dangerous, and where this excrement is dumped is influenced by the racial makeup of communities. 1.5 times more African Americans and 2.18 times more Native Americans live within a three-mile radius of industrial hog operations than White Americans. We choose where we pollute, and in North Carolina this choice is being influenced by the racial landscape.
A senior scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council, Jennifer Sass, describes environmental injustice as ‘both racist and classist, but mostly racist.’ Race appears to influence one’s environment, exposure to pollution and therefore general health. Discrimination in healthcare and exposure to pollution not only increases the risk of developing an illness such as COVID-19 for BAME individuals, but also the severity of the consequences of that illness.
A typical hog waste lagoon in North Carolina (photo courtesy of Flickr user Picstever).
This reality is not limited to America. Worldwide, BAME communities are at a greater risk of health related problems caused by their environment. The link between pollution and poor health in the States also exists in the UK. ‘Black British Africans are 28% more likely than their white counterparts to be exposed to air pollution.’Research from the Office for National Statistics has shown that as a result black people are 1.9 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts in the UK. Historic health conditions, living conditions, and occupation have seen BAME individuals make up ‘11% of those hospitalised with COVID-19 but over 35% of those admitted to critical care.’
In the UK (and in the US) BAME communities are often located near airports, power plants, and busy roads, meaning they are exposed to higher levels of air, noise and light pollution. Although these communities suffer the worst from the effects of pollution, they are not necessarily the ones emitting the pollution.
"...health, pollution and climate change are linked on a macro-level."
The 2016 Black Lives Matter London City Airport protest shone a light on the fact that the neighbourhoods surrounding City Airport are majority black, yet those who use this airport tend to be middle-income white commuters. Aviation users are polluting these areas but are not the ones experiencing the negative consequences of their actions. This trend extends further; health, pollution and climate change are linked on a macro-level.
The UK is a massive polluter. In fact, the UK is the number one global polluter when you take into consideration historic carbon dioxide emissions per capita. To put that statistic into context, China, the current leading carbon emitter in 2020, is only 19th on that same list. Our immoderate use of coal in the past means our nation’s contribution to the climate emergency is undeniable. British fossil fuel consumption is impacting climate and pollution levels elsewhere, and causing health problems at home and abroad.
The current coronavirus pandemic has exposed the link between race and health problems, and the simultaneous resurgence of the BLM movement has helped raise awareness of the realities of racism in America and worldwide. It has encouraged much needed conversations about how black people suffer disproportionately, at the hands of both police and polluters. At this point in time black lives need to be actively protected and uplifted, as they are at the greatest risk of police brutality, discrimination and health problems, including COVID-19. We need to actively work towards changing this.
It is shocking how often this web of links between health, race and climate change is overlooked. It is important that generally accepted actions, like catching a flight from London City airport or eating a factory-farmed pork sausage, are no longer seen as inconsequential or mundane; they influence the environment and the people around us, and they impact BAME communities more than others. It is key that all of us continue to educate ourselves on the reasons why we must say again and again: black lives matter.