No Justice, No Peace: On Pandemics, Race, and Environment

How the fight for social, racial, and environmental justice became one struggle.

Posted Jun 08, 2020

On June 27, 1969, Life Magazine published “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” Ten pages laid out yearbook-style showed the names and pictures of 242 young Black, white, and Latino men killed over seven days during the U.S. war on Vietnam. By then, over 43,000 Americans had died in Vietnam. The photos “had an impact on American perceptions of the nature and the cost of the war. It was personal—and devastating,” said The Military Times, 50 years on. For many, it signaled a turning point, a call for a decisive change of direction that would lead to safety and salvation for Americans sent to a senseless war.

On May 24, 2020 The New York Times published the names of 1000 victims of COVID-19, following earlier journalistic attempts to capture the magnitude of the pandemic in graphic display. With reported deaths rising to 100,000, the naming of dead Americans was framed within the ritual mourning of Memorial Day weekend. As memes of it multiplied with superimposed images of a president indifferently playing golf, it became a powerful reminder of our nation’s failed political and health care systems.

These types of media representations are meant to suggest the universal nature of tragedy in lives lost to pandemics and wars. But that sentiment is complicated by demographic disparities anchored to deep-seated inequalities in times of social devastation. Searing injustices have been an endemic problem in the US as elsewhere for centuries. Today, this reality has muscled its way to the foreground as rates of infection and death have proven to be disproportionately higher in non-white populations.

By mid-May, according to APM Research Labs, the overall “COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans [was] 2.4 times as high as the rate for Whites and 2.2 times as high as the rate for Asians and Latinos.” These disparities have been much greater in major cities, where African American and Latino/a workers hold a large portion of essential/frontline jobs where doses of the virus (aka viral load) are highest.

As this statistical picture came rapidly into focus, the demand for clearer racial and ethnic data increased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was roundly criticized for failing to release such data, while some local and state authorities either scrambled to sort out relevant information or failed altogether to provide any (mid-May, this included Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming). Data on Indigenous Americans have been the most opaque and incomplete, with some states erasing Native communities from their reports by lumping them into the category of “other.”

Long-entrenched systemic factors play a role in these inequalities, environmental racism among them. Historically, discrimination against low-income minority populations has put them at higher risk of exposure to poisonous air, toxic water systems, food insecurity, and over-crowded housing, among other factors. These effects of racial and ethnic segregation correlate with the very comorbidities that the CDC has associated with COVID-19 death rates. Inequality is itself a comorbidity, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) recently pointed out.

But it’s equally important to understand that environmental injustices that have led to these physical and social vulnerabilities existed long before the coronavirus appeared. They are part of the long history of white supremacy expressed in the racist patterns by which U.S. environmental regulations have been enforced.

About half of Native Americans live on reservations. Lack of health care facilities, family clusters living in housing without electricity or running water, and a majority without health insurance ensure they “suffer disproportionately from hypertension, asthma, cancer, heart, and cardiovascular disease; [while] they are 600 times more likely to die of tuberculosis and nearly 200 times more likely to die of diabetes than other groups.” Like the 1918 flu, which hit them four times as hard as the general US population, Native Americans have been extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. Based on available numbers in the May APM report, the Indigenous mortality rate in the COVID-19 pandemic was eight times as high as the white mortality rate in New Mexico and five times the rate for all other groups in Arizona.

By mid-May, American Asians were dying from COVID-19 at rates slightly higher than the white population. These numbers are incomplete because of underreporting in some states, or, as with Native Americans, because some states decided either to count them as “other” or not at all. What is known is that American Asian fatalities are lower than Latinos and Blacks, and roughly level with a proportion of their share of the population. But Asians in America face another risk in the form of hate crimes that have been linked to xenophobic, anti-China rhetoric from right-wing media and politicians who aim to racialize the causes of the coronavirus. Many Asian American doctors have found themselves facing threats and discrimination as they fight to save American lives affected by COVID-19.

Latinos comprised 80 percent of the first hospitalizations at San Francisco General Hospital. American Latinos not only work in essential jobs with greater exposure to doses of the virus. They also face systemic and anti-immigrant racism. These structural factors put them at higher risk than the general population. Employers chose not to provide protective personal equipment; language barriers continue to limit access to aid; health services accorded to other residents are inaccessible; and years of intensifying anti-immigration terrorism on their communities have led to self-isolation and fear.

In Chicago, 70 percent of the first recorded deaths were African Americans. Throughout the country, Black Americans began dying at rates disproportionate to the white population. Their exposure to high doses of the virus as frontline workers, coupled with decades of structural effects from environmental injustices—lack of adequate health care, housing discrimination and segregation leading to food insecurity and higher exposure to pollution and toxic environments—made them highly susceptible to the comorbidities that can increase the risk of death from COVID-19 (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, asthma). By mid-May, one in 2,000 American Blacks had died from the disease. In Kansas, Blacks were dying at seven times the rate of whites; in Washington D.C., six times, in Michigan and Missouri five, and in New York, Illinois and Louisiana, at three times the rate of white deaths.

At the same time, Black and Latino Americans have been hammered by job losses and economic insecurity at higher rates than white workers. The legislation aimed at alleviating pandemic-related economic hardship offered no evidence that these injustices would be addressed. There was some hope as several European governments showed it was possible to help struggling workers in the form of work programs and subsidized paychecks; Spain passed legislation that ensures long-term basic minimum income to citizens in need. But whereas Europe made the effort to boost lives at the bottom, the US government opted to loot for the top, sending taxpayer money to fatten US billionaires’ wallets by some $282 billion (so far), while providing scraps to workers through an incoherent, short-term extension of unemployment insurance.

Further upward redistribution in the US has been teed up for pharmaceutical giants and high tech mega corporations hawking tracing algorithms that will neither reach those excluded by the digital divide nor guarantee the civil rights of those tracked.

The day after The New York Times published their memorial issue, George Floyd was murdered. A massive mobilization followed to call an end to police brutality and the vicious white supremacy underlying it. As one medical expert put it, “When you talk about the pandemic right now, the black community in America is hit with not one pandemic but two pandemics, COVID-19 and the chronic problems of racism and police violence." The movement to end racial injustice is a fundamental part of one struggle for social, economic, and environmental justice. Let’s not let media and political leaders separate them to divide us. No justice, no peace.