A remarkable thing about covid-19, the coronavirus-caused disease spreading around the globe, is that it induces severe and deadly illness in some people, while other people become only mildly sick. So far, we know that being older or having preexisting health conditions puts a person more at risk of serious symptoms. Unfortunately for so many people, the polluted air they breathe every day likely has already damaged their lungs and made them more vulnerable to the new coronavirus.
Covid-19 tends to come with a fever and a dry cough. The virus attacks the respiratory system and becomes fatal when patients succumb to acute respiratory distress syndrome, which causes the lungs to fill up with fluid. The virus has been most deadly to those over the age of 60, as well as people with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease.
Guess what is a major driver of all of the diseases above? Air pollution. And who is most likely to be exposed to poor air quality in the U.S.? Low-income families and communities of color. Who’s the most likely to die prematurely due to reduced air quality? The elderly. Today, black people are three times more likely to die from asthma than white people. That becomes 10 times more likely for black children. Black people also suffer the highest death rates from heart disease.
That’s why the covid-19 outbreak is an issue of environmental justice, and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said as much on Twitter Monday.
“This crisis isn’t simply a public health issue. It is directly related to social equity and environmental justice,” McCarthy wrote. “It is directly related to our fight for clean air, clean water, a healthy environment, and healthy communities. #COVID19 is affecting all of us—our health and our way of life, but low-income communities and communities of color may face added risk.”
So far, no research has examined the demographics of communities seeing higher incidences of the coronavirus. There also hasn’t been any research into how poor air quality could exacerbate symptoms of the virus. The irony of the virus beginning in China, which has among the worst air quality in the world, wasn’t lost on Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia Medical Center, she told Earther.
“It’s possible that one of the reasons why the virus had been so virulent could be linked to environmental exposures like air pollution,” Lovinsky-Desir said.
We do know, though, that air pollution impacts the respiratory immune system as toxic particulates enter and inflame the lungs. Poor air quality plus covid-19 may prove to be a deadly mix for communities already suffering at the hands of a global economy that relies on the burning of toxic fossil fuels.
The recent shutdown of normal daily activity due to covid-19 has actually caused air pollution to decrease dramatically throughout China and Italy, the two countries with the highest number of cases. Absent a global health crisis, however, vehicles are regularly spewing toxins into the air around us, while refineries and power plants burning fossil fuels actively emit particulate matter and carcinogens into the backyards of a select few.
“If you are exposed to pollution, then there’s an enhanced risk. If there’s a disproportionate number of Americans of color in those areas, so by extension, they are going to be more ill, for sure,” Rey Panettieri, a pulmonary physician and vice chancellor for the Institute for Translational Medicine and Science at Rutgers University, told Earther. “Vulnerable populations—and I use that in a broader sense—are certainly disproportionately affected by all illnesses, and with the rapid nature of the spread of the virus, I think those are going to be disproportionately affected, so yes, I am concerned.”
The result of all this air pollution, globally, is 7 million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., air pollution has been on the rise for the first time in a decade. (Thank Donald Trump.) Improvements to air quality from 1999 to 2013 reduced the number of premature deaths among the elderly, resulting in $24 billion a year in savings, but they continue to be the most at-risk. Air pollution is so deadly that health professionals are calling it a pandemic, noting that fossil fuels are the leading source of this death and despair worldwide.
Now, covid-19 is likely further heightening the risk of death for these communities.
“I expect that there will be much higher rates of infection and death in low-income communities and even more so in low-income communities of color because of all the pre-existing conditions—both medical and social conditions,” Mark Mitchell, an associate professor of climate change, energy, and environmental health equity at George Mason University and chair of the National Medical Association Council on Medical Legislation, told Earther.
These social conditions include higher rates of poverty, inequalities in healthcare, and disparities in access to paid leave. There are also lifestyle practices, such as multi-generational housing where grandparents, their children, and grandchildren may all live under the same roof. This is more common among immigrant families and people of color. So is the regular use of public transit.
That’s why some community organizers in cities that face higher rates of air pollution due to industry activity are doing all they can to connect with locals and keep them informed about the virus. In Richmond, California, home to the Chevron Richmond Refinery, which has come under fire in recent years for releasing toxic gases, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) has been trying to give members vital information on how to protect themselves from the virus.
Many of the group’s members are elderly, and many suffer from asthma or cancer. So far, the organization doesn’t know of any confirmed covid-19 cases. Because APEN works with Asian Americans, it’s also especially concerned about increased racial profiling and hate crimes, Megan Zapanta, the Richmond organizing director for the network, told Earther. Ultimately, the resources these communities need during the time of covid-19—stable housing, healthcare access, secure jobs—is what they need always.
“We want to really think about resilience in all sorts of terms, where it’s not just resilience when there’s a giant disaster or pandemic,” Zapanta said. “Or also resilience when there’s an economic downturn, which all these things are related, or when there’s a housing crisis.”
The U.S. government has only so much control over the spread of covid-19. However, the government response—mandating paid child care, improving the cleaning of public transit, and injecting more than a trillion dollars into the market—shows what’s possible, whether there’s a pandemic raging or not. The response to the coronavirus gives us a sense of what the U.S. government is willing to do when it hits emergency mode. The shame is that our leaders have to wait for disaster to implement such policies.
“We know that we have the technology now to switch to close down these [polluting] facilities and switch to cleaner renewable energy and to stop this exposure that predominantly affects low-income communities and communities of color,” Mitchell said. “And that it will have the immediate effect in improving health and will help to reduce susceptibility to other diseases like the covid-19.”
The federal government can opt to save lives year-round if it addresses this air pollution pandemic, too. Doing so could save lives in weeks. Healthier communities are always the right answer, and they’re better equipped to survive these types of global health disasters. Let’s start there.