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Environmental Injustice and COVID Deaths


New York is studying the impact of environmental racism and injustice in creating conditions that lead to high deaths from COVID-19. The impact should not surprise you:

Communities of color that have long lived in the shadow of power plants, highways and waste transfer stations were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Black and Latino residents have had significantly higher death rates than their white counterparts — often due to higher rates of preexisting respiratory conditions that trace their root, in part, to living in highly polluted areas of the city.

A Harvard University study showed that a person living for decades in an area with high levels of particulate matter — often the exhaust resulting from fuel combustion — is 15 percent more likely to die from Covid-19 than someone in a region with one unit less of fine particulate pollution.

Against that backdrop, Espinoza saw a newfound urgency to not only expose the environmental injustices that exist throughout New York, but create new standards for the government agencies she works with to undo them. Her office hopes to release a draft report in the coming months.

“The reality is more folks are recognizing, day by day, that structural racism impacts every aspect of how a person moves through society,” Espinoza told POLITICO. “There is a reckoning that your health and your physical environment and your economic outlook are intrinsically linked to each other and have to be addressed systematically in order to improve people’s lives.”

New York has joined a wave of local governments that have increased efforts after emerging from the pandemic to address environmental racism. Across the Hudson River, New Jersey recently passed a law to deny permits for power plants and other high-polluting sources in neighborhoods that are already disproportionately exposed to environmental and health risks. Other cities are looking at tearing down highways that divide Black communities and expose residents to excessive vehicle pollution and traffic.

Again, natural disasters are really natural events exposing preexisting inequalities. COVID, at least in its first months before taking the vaccine became politicized by Republican media and political figures hating their own voters, very much reflected this. Who got the disease, who got sick, who went to the hospital, and who died all very much reflected lifetimes of environmental inequality. As always, these events should create the political space to prevent this kind of inequality. But they never actually do.

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