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How racism, COVID-19 and air pollution reveal striking patterns of inequality



Hello from London. This is Katherine, taking over today from Eamon.

Today we’re asking: What do the environment and the protests over the killing of George Floyd have in common?

It may seem difficult to draw a direct link between police brutality and pollution. But add the impact of COVID-19 to the mix, and we can map out how all of these crises exist in the same universe, where health, safety, and access to clean air collectively reveal striking patterns of inequality.

Protests over police brutality and structural racism in the U.S. aren’t necessarily new, but the current wave has exploded with a force many attribute to the trauma of the pandemic and the accompanying swan-dive into economic crisis on a scale not seen since at least the Great Depression. In the U.S. alone, at least 115,000 people have died due to COVID-19, and at least 42.6 million people have lost their jobs. Both the deaths, and the job losses, have been disproportionately borne by black Americans.

In the U.S., a recent pre-print from Harvard reinforced previous studies that have emerged during the pandemic that show black Americans are much more likely to die from COVID-19—as the percentage of black residents in a neighborhood goes up, so does the death rate.

In the U.S., those deaths are largely explained by socio-economic factors—as they are here in the U.K., where government research has confirmed that black Britons, and some other communities of color, are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 due to factors including overcrowded housing, living in deprived neighborhoods, over-representation in essential but badly paid jobs, insufficient access to the health system, and underlying conditions heavily linked to stress and poor quality of life.

Meanwhile, exposure to high levels of air pollution has been repeatedly linked to vulnerability to COVID-19. The pattern emerged even when the hotspots were Wuhan, a manufacturing hub, and northern Italy, another manufacturing hub with high levels of air pollution.

In the U.S., black people are more likely to be exposed to air pollution than white people, largely due to where they live, with the accompanying risk of asthma and other respiratory systems. In fact, a frequently cited paper from researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency published in April 2018 found that the exposure to air pollution was more closely linked to race than poverty. I worry, too, that cities and regions that were already struggling financially, and that are disproportionately black, will increasingly lack the resources to adapt their infrastructure to climate change or recover from ever-more-frequent disasters, like flooding and hurricanes.

It’s clear that poor environmental conditions and protections can’t be separated from racial inequality or the COVID-19 epidemic. In fact, we wrote a lengthy story on how virologists say environmental degradation is responsible for the pandemic. Poor air quality contributes to both, helping to reinforce a punishing feedback loop of poor health, economic inequality, housing segregation, and over-policing for black Americans.

None of this is new. But by connecting the dots, perhaps we can explore holistic solutions.

More news below.

Katherine Dunn

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