The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the chronic inequities that sicken and kill members of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities through a combination of environmental injustice, poor health care access, and poverty. The climate crisis is worsening, with unprecedented hurricanes, floods, and fires becoming the norm. When extreme weather events combine with pre-existing health care disparities, these communities lack the resources for resiliency, and rarely receive the state and federal assistance necessary for recovery. Our leaders must recognize that climate action, racial justice, and public health are all deeply intertwined, and seek to address all of them.
We can see the through lines between climate change, polluting industries, and COVID-19 at North Carolina’s numerous factory farms. These farms, which can contain millions of hogs, chickens, and turkeys, struggle to keep hazardous animal waste pits called “lagoons” from repeatedly washing away due to hurricane flooding. Toxic animal waste pollutes river basins and streams, and flows into the Atlantic Ocean, creating algal blooms that harm aquatic ecosystems. In addition, some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in our area are with Black and Brown factory farm workers who’ve been denied proper protective equipment. Separately, factory farms, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic are all extremely dangerous; but combined, lagoons overflowed by hurricanes and the poor working conditions that sicken workers are killing people, the economy, and the ecosystem.
Lower paid workers have always been responsible for clearing away this contaminated animal waste and hurricane debris. In the face of coronavirus, they are also responsible for cleaning up medical waste, putting them at increased risk of exposure. Low-income communities and communities of color live closest to factory farms, landfills, polluting factories and refineries, and sewer treatment plants that overflow after megastorms. The Environmental Justice movement seeks to confront these inequities as stemming from one thing — institutional racism.
Climate change, environmental injustice, and how hard we’ve been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic are all exacerbated by polluting industries, failing government oversight, and the undermining of science. Poorer communities have been impacted first and worst by these issues. Proximity to polluting industries increases the risk of respiratory illnesses, which in turn can make a COVID-19 infections more severe. And COVID-19 and the resulting economic crash have kicked an unprecedented number of people off their employer-sponsored health insurance, depriving millions of Americans of coverage just when they need it most. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that half of low-income communities in the United States do not have ICU beds. This is a disaster not just during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as we anticipate coming environmental crises.
The data shows that climate change is going to make hurricanes and floods more frequent and severe in the coming years for North Carolina and other states. Wealthier people can rebuild after disasters, while less privileged Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities do not have the same medical care, insurance, and shelter. The devastation of lost homes and flooded neighborhoods poses a threat for generations to come, as does increased hazardous waste and other toxins in drinking water, like coal ash and E. coli, a result of these superstorms. In 2018, Hurricane Florence overflowed the factory farm “lagoons” where hazardous hog waste piles up, poisoning farmland and waterways. Communities without resources cannot be resilient when these crises take over because of historical barriers they have faced to building health and wealth.
For these exact communities, we must work towards a better future. And that starts with prioritizing environmental justice, public health and climate action.
Omega and Brenda Wilson are co-founders the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) in Mebane.