Lord Willing and the Creek Don't Rise
Americans are fighting the climate crisis and COVID-19 on little more than a hope and a prayer. And at the intersection of climate change and Coronavirus, there are a number southern sayings that perfectly describe our experience today: "Hotter than the screen porch to hell"; it is far too warm to venture outside. If I could imagine the temperature of Satan's housecat sitting on a dryer, I'm pretty sure it would be close to the noontime heat of Mississippi in July. These colorful adages are a familiar mask for the pain and added stress of managing our health in the midst of an ever-warming planet, a global pandemic, and systemic racism. It leaves many of our friends and neighbors in a constant state of wondering -- that same feeling we get when the rivers start to swell and the floods come. "Lord willing and the creek don't rise." When will it get better for us?
"Pandemics are made worse by our overheating climate and those effects are felt most harshly in black and brown communities. We're supposed to shelter in place, but the places we live are overwhelmed with pollution, making our lands and water toxic."
Make no mistake, pandemics are made worse by our overheating climate and those effects are felt most harshly in black and brown communities. We're supposed to shelter in place, but the places we live are overwhelmed with pollution, making our lands and water toxic. We're supposed to wear gloves and masks, but even during a global pandemic -- we suffer from racial profiling and are asked to leave the premises when doing these very things that are proposed to save lives.
Global pandemics are not new. However, the ever-increasing changes to the atmosphere mean pandemics are coming faster than scientists and doctors had expected. From 2000 to 2020 alone we saw Ebola, SARS, Zika Virus and COVID-19. The latter has given us a glimpse of not only how pandemics impact people of color, but also how government agencies and leaders respond. There is no question that the Coronavirus pandemic is impacting black, brown, and indigenous people worse than any other demographic in the nation. A study from Yale found that Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to die of Coronavirus than white Americans. This was certainly acknowledged within minority communities early, though this should not have been a surprise to any of us. Even as it was discovered -- that black and brown people were dying at a faster rate -- states were reopening and the term “essential worker” grew to include not just doctors and nurses, but also bowling alley attendants, nail technicians, and beauticians -- people who experience more financial pressure to work yet have lower access to benefits like paid sick leave and healthcare.
"Global pandemics are not new. However, the ever-increasing changes to the atmosphere mean pandemics are coming faster than scientists and doctors had expected."
Due to longstanding environmental and social disparities, minority communities also have higher rates of chronic conditions that put us at risk for more severe illness. For example, it is known that black and brown people as well as lower income people tend to have higher average exposure to air pollution. It is also known that air pollution exposure causes many of the same chronic diseases that make pandemics like COVID-19 more deadly, including heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Inequity in access to healthcare and the quality of care, may then contribute to even worse outcomes, including higher mortality rates. Add this to ample evidence that racism in healthcare settings often results in people of color receiving a lower standard of care. By now, Black folks just plain don't trust these systems to have our best interests at heart. Many tend to delay or avoid seeking care because of negative experiences or distrust stemming from the legacy of racist and unethical medical research and experimentation on people of color. And add to that: unchecked pollution from petrochemical and oil and gas operations given carte blanche by this administration and that has exacerbated the problem for minorities. And also weather on steroids: extreme heat, hurricanes, wildfires and flooding.
"Data is still being collected on exactly how extreme heat compounds the effects of COVID-19 on low income communities and people of color, but it can be seen that a relationship does exist ... America has not prepared to lessen the impacts of structural racism."
Data is still being collected on exactly how extreme heat compounds the effects of COVID-19 on low income communities and people of color, but it can be seen that a relationship does exist, and that it is exacerbated by oppressive systems of racial inequity. But, America has not prepared to lessen the impacts of structural racism. Instead, its racist policies have placed a higher burden and lower value on the lives of black and brown people, like the 100 rollbacks forced through by the current leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency. And instead of safeguarding our lives through systems meant to protect the health of those most vulnerable among us, protections are being cast aside for profit. Coronavirus has revealed just how deadly inaction can be.
With economic resources stretched thin by COVID-19, thoughtful government spending and prioritizing projects that produce results is a must -- this includes providing better information regarding mapping of heat islands and a better understanding of the risks associated with low income and minority communities. Local governments need resources to support sustainability planning efforts such as development of climate action,mitigation plans, and renewable energy portfolios. More information is needed about the public health risks of expanding petrochemical operations in areas susceptible to climate change-induced storms, flooding, and sea level rise. For example, in St. James Parish in Louisiana, part of the corridor known as "Cancer Alley" and studies have already shown a correlation between the rampant air pollution in the area and Coronavirus deaths.
The storm of COVID-19 is not over and the dangerous, destructive impacts of climate change are just beginning to be felt. Both conditions are leaving too many Black, brown, and poor bodies in their wake. Nevertheless, I am hopeful when I see the intense engagement of environmental justice advocates with global policy, alongside mothers and children who are demanding that the EPA end their racist agenda. These people are insistent that we have justice in every breath for every child. We will register and we will vote, reminding those in power that our voices cannot be silenced or suppressed. Lord willing, and the creek don't rise.
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