Environmental racism shares blame for COVID-19 disparities

Air pollutants from transportation and manufacturing create disproportionate risks. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

As states and cities roll out race and ethnicity data for coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, stark racial inequalities in U.S. public health are coming to light.

The American Public Media (APM) Research Lab, a team of researchers and journalists focused on data-driven reporting, looked at roughly 8,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. through April 13, for which race and ethnicity data were publicly available. Their results, which were published on Tuesday, were alarming: on average, black Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans.

The disparity is even more startling in individual states and cities. In Chicago, two-thirds of all people who died from COVID-19 were black, despite black Chicagoans making up only 29 percent of the city’s population. In Michigan, the gap is wider still: Half of the people who died of COVID-19 in the state were black, despite being only 14 percent of the state’s population.

Recent reporting on these disparities have focused on a wide range of factors, from food deserts that aggravate obesity and diabetes in low-income black communities, to racial biases among health care workers that result in worse treatment.

However, there’s an acute and highly visible reason for the gap: environmental racism, in which polluting facilities like landfills, factories and highways are built in and around predominantly black communities. 

Air pollutants from transportation and manufacturing, for instance, create disproportionate risks. Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely than white Americans to be exposed to particulate matter — tiny particles in the air like smog and soot that cause respiratory diseases and cancers — according to a 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Inhaling those same particles is a major risk factor for dying from COVID-19. A Harvard study published April 5 looked at 3,000 counties across the U.S. and found that counties with higher levels of long-term particulate pollution had substantially higher death rates for COVID-19, even after controlling for availability of hospital beds, socioeconomic factors and behavioral factors like smoking and obesity.

Unequal exposure to pollution might be one reason why the disparity is so egregiously wide in the industrial Midwest. A 2019 study from Ohio State University looked at levels of air pollution in six Midwestern states, finding that as recently as the 1990s, “hotspots” of pollution remained high in low-income and predominantly black communities, despite plant closures and new regulations. 

It’s less clear whether pollution levels have decreased in those states since, but for older black Midwesterners, the long-term damage has already been done, leaving them more likely to die from COVID-19.

The causes of these issues are multifaceted and deeply rooted in America’s long history of racial inequality. Regardless of exactly how and why things got this way, however, the pattern is unmistakable. Far too often, black communities are treated as dumping grounds, poisoning thousands in the process. Now, at the peak of an unprecedented public health crisis, this toxic legacy is on full display.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.