Inequality, race and COVID-19

Inequality, race and COVID-19
A homeless man on Broad Street in Richmond, Va., March 18, 2020. (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury)

By Kendyl Crawford and the Rev. Dr. Faith Harris

Does COVID-19 have the potential to change everything for our world?

It is hard to tell at this stage of the pandemic. What has changed for most of us is Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 55 (Temporary Stay at Home Order Due to Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)). We have more time to sit with our thoughts, reflect and even brood over the global and local situations.

For those of us working towards a healthy climate and environmental justice, the high vulnerability of people of color, especially for the African American, Native American, and Latino communities, to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is just one of the inevitable outcomes we anticipated. Those who have spent any time learning about racial inequalities know that crises, whether the climate crisis or the COVID crisis, amplify inequality and have the potential to deepen the cracks and fractures among us.

Think about which communities depend on the public transportation system and often work service jobs coming into contact with large numbers of people. Think about which communities have high health disparities — dealing with high rates of hypertension, asthma, obesity and diabetes.

Communities denied access to environmental benefits like clean air, access to fresh foods, trees and parks are the very same ones overburdened by poverty, institutional racism, lack of medical care and health insurance and disproportionately burdened by toxic air pollution, crowded housing, high energy burden and dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure. They are on the frontlines bearing repeated exposure to COVID-19 and disproportionately dying from complications from the disease.

Since we have more time than anticipated for reflection this Earth Month, it seems sensible to consider the 2020 General Assembly session. Virginia Interfaith Power & Light along with the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative advocated for low-income Virginians and communities of color during this year’s session.

The leadership of Dels. Mark Keam and Charniele Herring and Sens. Ghazala Hashmi and Sen. Mamie Locke stood out on the issue of environmental justice and now, for the very first time, once Gov. Northam adds his signature, there will be a commitment from our state to “promote environmental justice and ensure that it is carried out throughout the commonwealth.”

We know, however, that this is not enough. Through this crisis, it has become apparent that we need to take an approach in our policymaking that prioritizes caring for our neighbors and caring for Creation — like the Green New Deal that would expand health care coverage while also addressing worker rights and safety. Wisdom suggests we take a second look at the Green New Deal.

The Virginia Mercury is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.