COVID-19, Racism, Poverty, and Environmental Justice

Terry McGovern, JD, is chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, and a human rights lawyer.

Kathryn Gibb is a Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, MPH 2020 candidate.

Jenny Cheng is a member of the Global Health Justice and Governance Program within the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.

Across the country, there is an alarming trend of COVID-19 mortality in Black populations. In Chicago, Los Angeles, and Michigan, Blacks comprise the majority of COVID-19 related deaths, despite being a small percentage of the overall population. In New York City, low-income and communities of color are predominantly located in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and experience similar COVID-19 disparities in outcome than more affluent white COVID-19 patients. Queens residents account for 31 percent of the city’s cases and 30 percent of the city’s deaths. Brooklyn and the Bronx are not far behind, accounting for 27 percent and 23 percent of the city’s cases respectively. So why do certain areas and populations see more mortality and illness from COVID-19? There are many intersecting factors, one of which is environmental injustice.

The NYC neighborhoods of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx have a history of exposure to environmental exploitation, as higher income neighborhoods with more political sway refuse to house any waste. The latest example of environmental injustice is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) temporary policy — with no end date — that suspends penalties for noncompliance with routine environmental monitoring and reporting for companies if COVID-19 is the stated reason. In the midst of this crisis, the federal agency charged with protecting citizens from environmental toxicity is not helping but hurting vulnerable neighborhoods.

Countless studies have shown that air pollution hot spots tend to be concentrated in low-income and Black neighborhoods. A whopping 80 percent of the entire city’s trash is processed in just three low-income communities in NYC — Southeast Queens, North Brooklyn and the South Bronx. In Queens, heavily polluting garbage trucks contribute to traffic, noise, and air pollution, and residents have said they are “kept up by smells from the waste transfer stations.” These areas are burdened with excess air pollution, such as black carbon, from truck traffic. In the South Bronx, Mott Haven and Port Morris are surrounded by highways, fossil fuel power plants, waste transfer stations, and diesel truck-intensive facilities. It is no surprise that community members in these areas suffer from an asthma rate that is eight times the national average. Air pollution is also a major driver of risk factors for coronavirus: chronic respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease. A study recently found an increase of one microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter air pollution is associated with a 15 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

The EPA has historically failed these communities, particularly under the current Administration. It has refused to ensure that states update their inadequate and out-of-date water quality standards and failed to act on the issue of ozone pollution from upwind states. While some state and local governments are attempting to protect these communities from bearing the brunt of pollution, the lack of cohesive policy is reducing the effects of any of these changes.

Furthermore, the Queens health system is overwhelmed, with only 1.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people compared to 5.3 in Manhattan. In addition, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are home to 67 percent of the essential workers that make our city thrive, toiling in food service, transportation, janitorial services, and as aides to the elderly. These essential workers cannot stay home to social distance; they rely on the MTA to get to work and often live in close quarters. In the South Bronx, NYCHA residents have been subjected to poorly maintained apartments, leaving them vulnerable to developing chronic conditions like asthma. With far fewer healthcare resources, more community members unable to safely quarantine, and an increased exposure to environmental pollutants, communities of color in NYC have been set up to suffer far more greatly during this pandemic.

Communities affected by environmental contaminants are being put in danger, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This unprecedented state of emergency should prompt a serious overhaul of environmental policy at the local, state, and federal levels. Otherwise, we are putting the lives of the most vulnerable in this country at risk.

Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professor and Chair, Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health