Environmental Injustices Worsen the Impacts of Coronavirus

By: Sophia Mayott-Guerrero

The coronavirus has shed a harsh light on injustices in our healthcare system, workers rights, and unfair pollution distribution. Even those who are privileged to avoid the worst impacts of the pandemic cannot ignore the faults in our systems of power and safety nets. Everyone, especially those with political clout, must recognize that people of color and people living on lower incomes are experiencing higher rates of complications from coronavirus. 

Compounding environmental injustices, including inequitable distribution of air pollution, green spaces, and access to healthy food, all contribute to health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19.

Neighborhoods that have fought decades of toxic air pollution are showing higher rates of coronavirus infection, complications, and fatality. This dangerous trend is no anecdote. Communities who live near heavy industry are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and historic redlining policies and economic exclusion have caused lower-income and Black and Latinx residents to find a home in these neighborhoods.

To build on a body of research that has shown unfair pollution burdens, compounded with a lack of health care, on people of color and lower-income communities both in Colorado and nationally, a new study from Harvard University demonstrated a clear connection between fine particulate pollution (PM 2.5) and higher death rates from COVID-19. Once again, this study found that communities of color were more likely to face a pollution burden and therefore poor health outcomes. 

Unfortunately, political actions at the federal level have not matched scientific evidence pointing to harm and injustice caused by PM 2.5. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration chose to maintain current PM 2.5 standards, while weakening fuel economy standards and suspending enforcement of environmental laws. 

Beyond recent federal decisions, historic votes from certain legislators have determined the fate of air quality in Colorado and across the United States. Despite representing a state that suffers from 125 million metric tons of hazardous emissions, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner voted to allow the Trump administration’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan to move forward in 2019.

In spite of these federal attacks on bedrock environmental protections, Colorado is poised to move forward. In the 2020 Colorado legislative session, environmental justice champions are pushing forward bills to increase fines to hold corporate polluters accountable (HB20-1143) and increase public protections from toxic emissions (HB20-1265). Accountability measures and increased public protections from corporate polluters have long been necessary, but the COVID-19 pandemic underscores their urgency. 

Local environmental factors, including access to parks, also have a big impact on our well-being. 

Denver park with buildings behind

Public health research has demonstrated the benefits of green spaces on physical and mental health. Not only do parks promote physical activity and direct health benefits; they also regulate urban ecosystems by reducing air pollution, managing stormwater, and cooling urban heat islands.

Given the extensive benefits of green spaces and Colorado’s pride in outdoor opportunities, it should follow that every person statewide has equal opportunity to access them. But, racism in land use and housing planning have informed a landscape of unfairness across Colorado’s green spaces. In Denver, white residents enjoy better park access than people of color, and therefore have easier opportunities to experience related health benefits.

Green Spaces in Denver County

Neighborhoods with more than a 50% Hispanic population have 11% less green space than others (University of Colorado Denver Community Based Research Team).

Access to healthy, nutritious, affordable food is just as important as clean air and green space. Nutrient-dense foods boost brain and body function and reduce likelihood of diabetes and heart disease. Plus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that healthier diets might lead to $71 billion per year in savings.

Census tracts lacking access to fresh food

Census tracts in the Denver area with low access to fresh food (Denverite, OpenStreetMap).

But, in Denver, 49 percent of lower to moderate-income neighborhoods do not have convenient access to grocery stores. While community-led programs like the Growhaus and Denver Urban Gardens have developed new distribution chains and education programs to address this injustice, policies must be passed to secure longevity in their work. 

Fighting for environmental justice begins with identifying specific problems. But the work doesn’t end until everyone who calls Colorado home can access clean air, green space, healthy food, health care, and a job that does not put their health at risk. 

As we navigate the COVID-19 crisis as individuals, families, a state, and a global community, we have an opportunity to inform policies that do more than just cut down on carbon emissions. The path we take out of the climate crisis and this public health emergency can change the future of our world. 

With injustices abundantly clear, now is the time to innovatively bridge gaps in our economic and healthcare systems, decrease pollution in the most impacted areas, invest in workers rights, and find policy solutions that close racial gaps to genuinely benefit all Coloradans.

Sophia Mayott-Guerrero

Sophia Mayott-Guerrero, Conservation Colorado’s Communities and Justice Advocate