When entering the sixth month of the “new normal” consisting of self-quarantining, wearing masks, social distancing, and constant sanitation, it is strange to think back to a time before COVID-19. Life has been stripped of large gatherings, in-person events, and even hugs. Instead, we wake up to terrifying headlines displayed across countless media platforms broadcasting the increased mortality rate in the country. While associating the rapidly rising death count with individuals can be difficult, it is crucial to understand how COVID-19 is affecting certain groups of people unequally and the reasons behind it.
COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and impacted communities of color all over the world, providing a textbook example as to how apparent environmental racism truly is. Environmental racism refers to how communities composed predominantly of BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color) are affected by environmental hazards due to public policies and industrial practices substantially more than predominantly white communities. Many industrial operations such as waste disposal, toxic dumping, factory gas emissions, and even natural disasters and diseases, are the product of intergenerational discrimination and political neglect.
The legacy of systems that produce and institute inequalities in exposure to harmful environmental pollutants are fueling this pandemic and the deaths of millions. In the United States, there is a substantial wealth gap between the white and BIPOC population. According to the APM Research Lab, only 8.1% of white people live in poverty, while 20.8% of Black people, 17.6% of Hispanic people, and 10.1% of Asian people are impoverished. This inordinate poverty among communities of color directly connects to their increased likeliness of contracting COVID-19. Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than white people, Indigenous people are 3.5 times, Pacific Islander people are 2.8 times, and Latinx people are 2.5 times more at risk. Therefore, 17,000 Black, 500 Indigenous, 50 Pacific Islander, and 3,000 Latinx Americans could still be alive today if they had the opportunity to live with the same conditions as those of many white people.
Even in Massachusetts, there is a significant correlation between race and infected individuals. Massachusetts ranks 10th nationally for the highest number of confirmed cases (116,182) and 4th for the highest number of COVID-19 related deaths (8,551). According to the Boston University School of Public Health, communities with larger populations of BIPOC have the highest rates of infection across 38 of the largest cities in Massachusetts. Towns such as Brockton and Randolph, with large Black communities, Chelsea and Lawrence, with large Latinx communities, and finally Revere, Everett, and Lynn with populations composed over 50% of BIPOC have been severely impacted by COVID-19. Hispanic and Black populations only make up 12% and 9%, respectively, of the total Massachusetts population. However, the rate of infection is disproportionate to their population, at 16% and 21%.
Micheal Curry, former president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, noted that these statistics may not be an accurate representation of those affected by COVID-19 due to the lack of testing for BIPOC. The interview by Joseph Benacourt, who works at Mass General Hospital, remarked how Curry stated, “Too many black families are being told when they call in, [saying], ‘I’m sick,’ … and [the providers] say, ‘Just stay home, stay sick. We’ll presume you have COVID-19. You don’t need a test,’ but they’re not getting the advice about how to isolate at home and do those things.” Even in our own surroundings, there are racial injustices regarding COVID-19.
Neighborhoods with predominantly BIPOC populations tend to have lower property values due to a long history of racial segregation and redlining. These lower prices have drawn builders and architects to construct pollution-producing facilities here rather than in affluent, majorly white neighborhoods. Due to the historical and still present wealth gap, BIPOC tend to populate areas used for mining, oil and gas extraction, or around rivers used as dumping outlets. Areas such as those stated previously have been known to create many environmental-related health risks and could explain another aspect as to why communities of color are more susceptible to COVID-19.
Poverty and race are so closely correlated to COVID-19 cases and deaths because of the environment many impoverished BIPOC are forced to live in. In 2016, the Environmental Research Letters published a study which concluded that over the past 30 years, there has been a steady pattern of placing hazardous waste facilities, which release many harmful environmental toxins, in impoverished communities of color. Air pollution from these buildings can have significant side effects on nearby people such as respiratory diseases, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and cancer. Contracting any of these side effects, especially those that impact the respiratory system, worsens the state of COVID-19 in patients, dramatically decreasing their chances of survival.
Environmental racism did not begin with COVID-19, but it has now become more evident due to the current pandemic. With greater education on these injustices by centering the voices of those who are impacted the most and pushing back on the system that has disproportionately targeted BIPOC on the environmental and racial level, we can become more aware and continue to work on creating a better, more equal, and safer environment for all.