As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, public health data continues to show that the virus’s worst effects are felt by communities already weighed down by the burden of multiple social and environmental stressors. As of May 3, in CPR’s home city of Washington, DC, African Americans account for 79 percent of coronavirus deaths, despite making up only 45 percent of the city’s population and 47 percent of diagnosed cases. This inequitable trend appears to be playing out across the country.
Widely cited research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has also connected long-term air pollution exposure and coronavirus mortality, prompting researchers to explore this link in their own communities. Using Harvard’s data, Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic mapped particulate matter emissions against parish-level health and COVID-19 data in Louisiana. Their findings confirmed the suspicions of local environmental justice advocates: Most of the parishes with the highest per capita death rates are in Louisiana’s industrial corridor, often referred to as “Cancer Alley.” Long before the pandemic, grassroots organizations like Concerned Citizens of St. John have demanded better accountability for chemical polluters clustered in the region. The pandemic has only reinforced their position, as the parish has one of the highest death rates in a state that has the fifth highest COVID-19 death rate in the nation.
How do these social and environmental stressors interact to increase community vulnerability to COVID-19? How can we build resilience in the face of a pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis? These questions and more were addressed last week in CPR’s fourth installment of our climate justice webinar series, titled, “Vulnerability and Resilience to COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis.” The featured speakers were Dan Farber, Dr. Monica Schoch-Spana, and Dr. Aaron Bernstein.
Farber, a CPR Member Scholar and UC-Berkeley law professor, discussed federal powers that may aid in the United States' response to the coronavirus. One example is the Stafford Act, which President Trump used to declare a national emergency, enabling the government to distribute supplies and emergency assistance. Farber also commented on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent actions to weaken enforcement and power plant mercury and air toxic standards (MATS), how these decisions are unjustified, and how they only serve to endanger communities already located near hazardous facilities.
Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and Senior Scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, discussed strategies for building community resilience to disasters, pointing attendees to the COPEWELL Self-Assessment Toolkit, a rubric she developed with other researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Schoch-Spana also described disaster planning measures that states should pursue during the pandemic, such as identifying additional evacuation sites to ensure families can maintain social distancing.
Bernstein, a pediatrician and Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University (C-CHANGE), discussed the connections between climate change and health and how environmental degradation through deforestation, for example, can increase the risk of future infectious disease outbreaks by increasing human and animal contact. Bernstein also described the parallels between COVID-19 and the climate crisis – one a rapid, visible disaster and the other slow-moving, yet both bearing fatal and far-reaching consequences. He urged public health and policy practitioners to continue connecting the dots between climate change and health, saying, “We can learn from the COVID experience that when health is on the table, when it’s made personal, people are willing to do extraordinary things.”
To conclude the discussion, the speakers shared what they think should be the key investment to protect vulnerable communities and build resilience, whether in response to COVID-19 or the climate crisis. Among their responses: “Invest in participatory planning so that vulnerable populations have an active voice in making decisions about strengthening resilience in their community” and “campaign finance reform.”
To hear the full discussion, you can watch the webinar recording on YouTube or right here in this post.