As data began showing that Covid-19 death rates are significantly higher among African Americans and Latinos, the White House asked US Surgeon General Jerome Adams to deliver a special message, calling these historically marginalized communities to step up and help stop the spread of the virus by “avoid[ing] alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.”
Adams went on to temper his comments, stating that it was “possible” that social ills were contributing to the alarming rates of death in these communities. But he did not name which social ills he was referring to, and he certainly made no direct reference to structural racism. Later, Adams said he meant no offense to any group of people and encouraged all communities to take similar measures. But his assumptions were clear, echoing racist ideas that have long been part of America’s commentary on black health and black death.
The pattern of victim-blaming arises any time inequities in the health and wealth of communities of color are laid bare. Instead of addressing how decades of structural racism, political exploitation, and economic exclusion have compounded health and wealth disparities in black communities, the American habit has been to trivialize those inequities as the result of individuals’ behavior.
In addition to this victim-blaming, Adams’s call for African Americans to “step up” by not smoking fails to take into account that the “smoking” that exacerbates the death rate in these communities is not voluntary. Rates of cigarette and vaping usage are similar among African American, Latino, and white communities. But long-term exposure to air pollution is not. This health disparity, which is often the result of fossil fuel polluters’ locating in poor black and brown communities, is an underlying condition created by environmental racism.
Science has drawn the connection between environmental pollution and mortality rates for Covid-19. Earlier this month, Harvard released a new study that confirmed a significant relationship between Covid-19 fatalities and other conditions related to long-term air pollution exposure. The study showed that those who have lived in places with significant air pollution (cities) are 15 percent more likely to die from Covid-19 than those with the same health profile who live in less polluted areas.
And who is most likely to be exposed to long-term air pollution? Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director at Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, spoke to Forbes on the subject: “Exposure to air pollution is majorly affecting the risk of people dying from Covid-19 and we know that African Americans, in particular, are exposed to more air pollution than whites.”
According to recent data, African Americans are exposed to 21 percent more air pollution than white Americans, measured by the amount of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns they inhale (the PM 2.5 standard). Hispanic Americans are exposed to 12 percent more. The Harvard study found that chronic exposure to higher levels of PM 2.5 directly increases the chances of death after contracting Covid-19.
Other data sets further illuminate the situation: Seventy-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a toxin-spewing coal plant; 71 percent of African Americans and 80 percent of Latinos live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards.
This long-term exposure has direct consequences for health. One in six black kids suffers from asthma (compared with the national average of one in 10), and Latino kids are 2.5 times more likely than whites to develop the condition. This is the involuntary “smoking” that Adams fails to recognize—a systemic inequality that hurts communities of color.
The additional irony is that while Adams admonishes black and brown communities to “step up” to prevent the spread of the virus, the Trump administration has used the present pandemic crisis as an opportunity to weaken key environmental protections, effectively putting the same communities at even greater danger.
As just one example, on March 23, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a blanket waiver of reporting air pollution emissions from power plants and industrial polluters for an indefinite period of time. This announcement directly followed lobbying efforts by the oil and gas industry, and resulted in a broad “enforcement discretion policy” through which the EPA indicated it would temporarily cease the enforcement of some compliance regulations for facilities that were facing complications related to the pandemic.
The policy specifically relaxed mandates on monitoring, testing, and reporting of regulated emissions during the temporary period, and softened penalties for failures of air emission control or wastewater treatment. Ironically, the policy increased the responsibility of private actors to adhere to environmental regulations, a move that some have said could hamper the development of new tools to monitor air pollution. It’s too early for data, but the likely result is that black and brown communities will breathe dirtier air and drink more polluted water.
What’s more, the Trump administration released its final rule this month rolling back President Obama’s fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, reducing the standard for vehicle fleets from 54 miles per gallon by 2025 to an average of only 40 miles per gallon. This assault on federal environmental protections is not new. The Trump administration has repealed or is in the process of repealing at least 95 different environmental rules, with 25 having a direct and adverse impact on the nation’s air quality, and dozens more that will indirectly increase air pollution.
Surgeon General Adams’s critique is drastically misplaced. It is not the communities suffering that need to step up but rather the Trump administration, which has consistently acted to put us all at risk by extending carte blanche to polluters. Dr. Adams has gotten one thing right: The devastation we see in black and brown communities is something we must all step up to address. Sending that message to the president and the EPA may be a good place to start.