My Turn: Coronavirus – a call to conscience?

For the Monitor
Published: 5/8/2020 7:00:43 AM
Modified: 5/8/2020 7:00:32 AM

Growing up in rural New Hampshire, I always took blue skies and starry nights for granted. Sure, our well water tasted funny sometimes and smoking in restaurants made those rare nights out less fun, but my surroundings were otherwise healthy and so was I. The last thing I could imagine was succumbing to a novel virus like COVID-19.

Then, after high school, I signed up to serve with AmeriCorps in inner-city Washington, D.C., and encountered a new reality. While I worried about whether my students would finish their homework on time, they worried about staying healthy in the face of systemic poverty, racial inequity and often a chronic disease like asthma – through no fault of their own.

Already then in 2001, national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed substantially higher rates of asthma among African American children, and the gap would rise sharply in the years to come. By 2018, black kids were twice as likely as white kids to suffer from the respiratory disease and fully 10 times more likely to die as a result. (Asthma is the leading chronic disease among children worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.)

Although many of the asthma risk factors my students faced – from segregated, substandard housing to epigenetics and racially biased research – were far from my mind at the time, one leading cause was impossible to ignore: air pollution.

Those starry nights I had enjoyed growing up were now a rare occurrence, and not just because of all the city lights. Smog from cars and smoke stacks was 40% higher than federally approved levels, and the exhaust I inhaled while riding my bike along busy streets was starting to make me wheeze. As much as I loved D.C., I took the option few students of mine had and left for greener pastures after my term of service.

The following year, I enrolled at Yale, where epidemiologists were “discovering” what was already painfully clear to my students: exposure to dirty air – with its demonstrated links to asthma, heart disease and cancer – is anything but equal or fair.

In D.C. and other urban areas around the country, the research found, racist housing and economic policies have meant low-income communities of color are clustered around fossil fuel-burning power plants, industrial sites and freeways that spew microscopic particles of soot known as PM2.5. The pollutants penetrate deep into the lungs of innocent bystanders, damaging the lining and causing inflammation while also contributing to global warming. When residents are exposed for an extended period of time, they are less able to fend off respiratory infections and more likely to contract asthma and other diseases.

These findings were confirmed by government scientists at the EPA and informed the Obama administration’s efforts to boost fuel economy standards and cut power plant emissions as part of a comprehensive climate agenda – rules which President Trump has repeatedly sought to roll back.

They are also tragically relevant today as Americans in general, and black Americans in particular, reel from a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed over 71,000 lives since January – more than any other nation by far.

Even before the emergence of COVID-19, the National Academy of Sciences reported that over 100,000 Americans died annually from air pollution, at a financial cost of $886 billion a year. Now, nationwide research by Harvard epidemiologists finds higher levels of pollution are clearly associated with increased hospitalization and death from COVID-19, as people in areas like Washington, D.C., with elevated PM2.5 are far more likely to die from the virus than those in nearby counties with less pollution. The findings track with previous research on air pollution and respiratory infections.

More troubling still are the enormously disproportionate effects of coronavirus on people of color like my former students. According to the latest available data from the CDC, black people made up 36% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations and 39% of child hospitalizations last week – roughly three times their share of the U.S. population. Likewise, an Associated Press analysis of all the available data revealed that African Americans comprised about a third of coronavirus deaths to date, even though they make up just 13% of the U.S. population. Topping the list was Washington, D.C., where black people account for 76% of fatalities but less than half the population.

Although we still have much to learn about the virus and its effects, these data clearly show that persistent racial inequities – from substandard housing and health care to low-wage frontline employment and exposure to environmental pollution – are compounded by the pandemic. The cost in innocent lives lost, especially among people of color, is a stain on our collective conscience.

Nowadays, my three mixed-race kids still enjoy those blue skies and starry nights I took for granted as a boy here in New Hampshire, our home. But I am not so sanguine about their future health as I once was about mine.

Although my black wife overcame great odds to earn a Ph.D., even she cannot assume the health and economic security promised with educational attainment and a steady job: respiratory disease is her birthright, the genetic inheritance of a South African upbringing where black people are systematically denied equal opportunity, much like the U.S. Whether those traits find expression in our children is up to us – all of us.

So far, the COVID-19 data for New Hampshire are not encouraging, as African Americans are infected and hospitalized at three to four times their share of the state’s population.

For the sake of all our kids, I pray this pandemic will help us see, and stop, the interlocking injustices of racism, disease and the pollution of our planet. As we begin the painstaking process of economic recovery, let’s do more than rebuild the old – let’s reimagine a new more equitable and sustainable society for all.

(Dan Weeks is a co-owner at ReVision Energy, a benefit corporation leading New Hampshire’s clean energy transition. He is the author of “Democracy in Poverty: A View from Below.”)

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