The roiling traumas of racial injustice, coronavirus, and climate change are a “veritable witch’s brew of community risk,” according to a panel of five environmental justice leaders recently brought together by Grist. The antidote? To make sure that “normal” is never the same again.
“Black communities are simultaneously confronted by the acute violence of police brutality and the chronic, slow violence of unequal environmental health impacts,” said Adrien Salazar, senior campaign strategist for climate equity at Dēmos in New York City. For proof, look no farther than the higher rates of COVID-19 infection among communities of colour in North America.
Salazar argued that these communities must be at the centre of any recovery efforts. Yet recent U.S. stimulus packages such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act have handed trillions of dollars to corporations, while ordinary people “have been fighting for the inclusion of key measures, like rent cancellation and a national utilities shut-off moratorium.” The callous default to “designating some communities as sacrifice zones” needs to end, he said.
For Kerene Tayloe, director of federal legislative affairs at WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Washington, DC, it is critical that the post-pandemic recovery take full account of social and economic (that is, racial) determinants of health, as well as those driven by environmental factors.
“Health care isn’t just access to doctors and medicine,” said Tayloe. “It’s about: Is your home healthy? Is your community healthy? How is that impacting you?” Health directives on social distancing and sheltering in place fail to account for the reality of people’s lives—if your rental apartment is not up to code, for example, added time indoors breathing mould or allergens could present a higher risk than COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the ongoing incineration of pandemic-generated medical waste is all too often being carried out in communities of colour, while the laws surrounding its treatment are patchwork and state-level. “In all likelihood, the resulting pollution will get put back into the very same communities that are dying at high rates from COVID-19,” Tayloe wrote, showing that policy-makers must take full account of the “very cyclical process of harm” that COVID-19 is bringing into focus.
Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress in Washington, said a just recovery will acknowledge that the U.S. is “built on stolen land and stolen labour,” and will “provide adequate, modern levels of social rights, health care, and welfare for all people”—the latter not just moral responsibility but also a legal one. NoiseCat, a member of the Secwepemc and St’at’imc Nations near Lillooet, BC, reports on the pandemic’s “wildfire” spread in places like the Navajo Nation, a virulence that can be directly traced to “immense gaps in the social safety net”.
Too many homes in some Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada lack both electricity and running water, and many communities lack supermarkets, drugstores, or other basic health amenities, all conditions that can foster viral spread, he noted. And the Indian Health Service (IHS), upon which many American Indigenous peoples rely, is shockingly underfunded compared to Medicare: “IHS spends about US$4,000 per person, whereas Medicare spends more than $13,000 per patient,” NoiseCat said.
With no federal safety net in sight, “communities like the Navajo Nation have been filling that gap by taking care of each other,” he added. But recent surveys conducted by Data for Progress show that improvements may be coming: “Support for the Green New Deal and for green jobs jumped 10 points during the pandemic.” And “historically, it has not been unusual for moments of positive change and prosperity to follow crises like this.”
Mariah Gladstone, founder of IndigiKitchen on the territory of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, said exerting sovereignty to establish safety measures like curfews and being proactive with masks, testing, and distancing protocols—even as Montana starts to open up around them—is helping her community avoid widespread COVID-19 infection.
“For tribal nations, I think it is essential that we recognize our own sovereignty and our own ability to assert that sovereignty,” she wrote. “I think having that local recognition of what’s needed, and the willingness to take actions that are not popular but are necessary, will ultimately help communities thrive and survive.”
Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director at the Greenlining Institute in Oakland, said it’s critical to confront the dual poisons of racism and militant ignorance. Any response to the pandemic must be built on “an inclusive vision that deals with the root causes that got us into this crisis,” he said. Also imperative: respect for expertise (on everything from viral disease to air pollution to climate change), and the determination to hold policy-makers accountable for reinforcing and amplifying what those experts say.
“Our response to this crisis must meet the urgent needs of those who are hit hardest by the pandemic and looming recession: front-line workers, immigrants, the unhoused, and black and brown people,” he said. “It must be guided by an inclusive vision that deals with the root causes that got us into this crisis, and centres climate, economic, and racial justice.”