The intersectionality of COVID-19, the environment and climate justice
In the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, awareness of climate change and environmental concerns seemed to be at an all-time high. Unfortunately, since COVID-19 took over our lives, many people have been wrongly treating the pandemic and environmental degradation as two separate emergencies. Some claim that environmental action should be put on the backburner in favor of dealing with the effects of the pandemic, while others have celebrated “wins” for the climate as our harmful activity slows due to quarantines and social distancing. In reality, the pandemic is not in the best interest of the planet. Many of the causes of the outbreak and its subsequent effects only highlight our harmful relationship with the environment and the necessity of taking action.
In recent months, posts have spread all over social media in some variation of “the earth is healing,” sometimes with a half-joking addition of “we are the virus.” These remarks are often accompanied by a fake picture of dolphins returning to Venice’s canals, a video of newly audible bird songs or a depiction of air pollution declining in urban areas. While the people sharing these ideas likely aim to simply make a point about how our normal activity hurts the planet, these posts are inaccurate representations of our engagements with the environment both before and during the pandemic.
First, the effects the pandemic has on the environment will be detrimental in the long-term. It is true that greenhouse gas emissions will probably decrease globally by up to 8% this year, according to the International Energy Agency. A drop of that size is significant: it will be the largest emission drop of the past eight decades. This decrease is mostly due to the massive change in people's habits all over the world, especially in terms of personal travel and vehicle usage. However, other parts of the economy such as manufacturing, food production and product transportation have not been put on pause. In fact, in an effort to combat the economic crisis, these industries are ramping up their emission potentials more than ever. In China, one of the first places to begin reopening, officials have approved an onset of new coal-fired power plants in the interest of boosting the economy. This investment in coal and the infrastructure changes that come with it will have immense ramifications on public health due to air pollution and on the climate, which will last for generations.
In the United States, a similar pattern is taking place — powerful companies worried about financial losses are asking for both money and regulatory rollbacks, and the government is meeting their requests. According to policy analysts at Friends of the Earth, it is likely that when the pandemic ends, the industries that release the most emissions, such as the oil and gas industry, will emerge more profitable than ever before. As a result, annual average carbon dioxide emissions will heavily increase this year, albeit at a slightly slower rate than usual, and once normal activity fully resumes, that rate will return to its original high rate of exponential growth. Despite the dramatic changes in our activity, 2020 is already the second-hottest year on record and is projected to become the hottest year in history.
These figures further demonstrate the eco-fascist ideology that the “earth is healing, we are the virus” mantra promotes. However innocent the “earth is healing” messages may seem, it is dangerous to imply that it will take removing the agency of everyday people to save the earth while the companies and unjust systems that cause the most harm to the environment continue to do damage unabated. There are already examples of people in power requiring individuals to sacrifice their own needs, interests and even lives in the name of “saving the earth.” The most frightening effect of accepting this ideology is that it could lead to a government that resorts to authoritarian policies to deal with the impending climate emergencies. This idea is rooted in white supremacy and antisemitism, as many eco-fascists believe that racial purity is what is needed to save the planet and that neo-Nazism should be combined with environmentalism to accomplish this. And as the data shows, even when citizens across the globe drastically change their behavior for months on end, it is still not nearly enough to offset the broader structural factors.
It is also important to recognize the connection between the COVID-19 outbreak and our treatment of the environment. There are many misconceptions about how the virus actually spreads to humans, with some asserting that someone ate a bat and others confident that it was created in a laboratory (a theory that has been widely disproven). The truth is that the exact circumstances under which the virus emerged are unknown. What we do know is that it causes a zoonotic disease, meaning it was passed from animals to humans, and that it spread at a wet market where fresh seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables were sold in Wuhan, China. It is unclear whether the virus jumped from animals to humans at the market or if the market simply acted as a superspreader event. Many experts claim the latter. Scientists are relatively certain that this particular strand of COVID-19 originated in bats, but humans probably contracted it from another animal that had been infected.
All zoonotic diseases begin in reservoir species, which are species on which a pathogen lives and reproduces without hurting the animal — in the case of COVID-19, likely bats. The reservoir species is not afflicted with the disease, but it can pass the pathogen to other species. Vector species, such as ticks, mosquitoes and flies, also play a significant role in spreading diseases that eventually make it to humans by picking up the pathogen from animals that carry it and transferring it to other species.
Malaria, ebola and lyme disease are all examples of well-known zoonotic diseases, but they are more common than we think — about 60% of known infectious diseases and 75% of new and re-emerging diseases in humans originate from animals. The cause of this increase is largely due to human-caused climate change, deforestation, development, pollution and industrial animal farming — all disruptions of the natural environment that decrease biodiversity and force animals to migrate or be moved into new spaces outside their natural habitats. In these new spaces, they come into contact with other species that they otherwise would not have, increasing the likelihood of transmission between reservoir species, vector species and other animals. Industrial animal farming and the animal trade industry create particularly good conditions for pathogens to be transmitted between animals, placing them in extremely close quarters in unsanitary environments. To slow the rising levels of zoonotic diseases in humans, we must confront our destruction of the natural world.
Beyond addressing the causes of the pandemic, we also must address the climate injustices that have heightened the effects of COVID-19 in low-income communities and communities of color. People in these communities are not only more likely to contract the disease, but also to experience more severe and detrimental health impacts, including death. In Boston, Black and Latinx/Hispanic residents together account for 65% of the total cases despite making up only 45% of the population, and Black residents account for 35% of total deaths despite making up only 25% of the population.
Country-wide statistics follow a similar pattern. Americans living in counties with Black communities larger than average are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those in above-average white counties. There is little to no data on the rates of infection and death in Native American communities in the United States, but Indigenous populations face disproportionate risk in public health emergencies and are seeing higher numbers of both as well as devastating effects to their economy.
Many of these discrepancies are due to environmental injustices. Those living in food deserts are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and those living under poor environmental conditions are at higher risk for respiratory diseases. In both these cases, people of color are more likely to be affected. A 20-year study about the connection between race and toxic waste sites found that race is more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities. In terms of food deserts, households in poor Black communities are on average 1.1 miles farther from a supermarket than households in the poorest white neighborhoods. These patterns are direct effects of white supremacy, and they are deadly. Diseases related to food insecurity make the effects of COVID-19 more severe, and a Harvard University study found that living in a place with poor air quality makes one more likely to die from COVID-19, even when accounting for other factors such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomic status and access to healthcare. It is clear that climate inequities have set the stage for the inequities of a pandemic.
Climate concerns, systemic racism, inequities in healthcare and housing, food insecurity and global disease outbreaks are not isolated problems. They are inextricably linked issues resulting from a system built to benefit some by harming others. The COVID-19 pandemic is making our world more vulnerable, but it is also exposing the vulnerabilities that already existed. It is vital that we acknowledge these facts so that we can take responsibility for the damage we’ve caused and begin to repair it — because as our problematic relationship with the environment continues to worsen hand-in-hand with the social injustices of our society, global emergencies like this one will become less and less of a rarity.