The global climate crisis has challenged the COVID-19 response, further underlining the disproportionate impact of climate change on health. Communities vulnerable to climate related health impacts are the same who are experiencing higher COVID-19 mortality, and the synergistic effects of COVID-19 and climate have further exposed the deep-rooted structural racism present in the United States. As we look back on one year of this pandemic, it’s important to reflect on what we have learned about impacts, and we must enact equitable solutions to address root causes of disease and build equity, rather than perpetuate disparities.
Climate change from human activity leads to increased risk for drought, flooding, and natural disasters. However, these effects are not equally distributed. Minority communities are at increased risk for climate change effects due to historic economic disenfranchisement. People of color often have fewer resources and less access to healthcare because of our policies and structures, making adaptations to impending climate stress more challenging, particularly those associated with increases in temperature and sea level rise. These communities are also frequently subjected to environmental racism, where minority communities are unfairly burdened with increased exposure to pollutants and toxins. Past policies, including those that have endorsed redlining, gerrymandering and gentrification, force low-income community members to live close to industries, highways, and landfills.
These same environmental justice communities are also confronted by higher rates of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These adverse health outcomes are a result of limited and delayed healthcare access, inadequate living conditions, and language barriers. Additional comorbidities and social disparities have resulted in higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death in Black, Asian, and minority communities. Climate change further increases risk for cardiovascular and respiratory conditions due to increased exposure to ozone, particulate matter, pollen, and extreme heat events.
The current climate crisis has the potential to exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic, and the response to future pandemics. Climate change hinders the COVID-19 response because extreme weather events cause mass displacements of people and disrupt an already strained health system. These events can cause a surge in COVID-19 cases, make it difficult for COVID-19 patients to receive healthcare, and disrupt vaccine distribution, just as we saw in Texas . It will be the vulnerable and marginalized populations who will suffer the most from COVID-19 since they are at the greatest risk of adverse outcomes from both climate change and the health system in the United States. Furthermore, as the world grapples with a pandemic, all resources have been redirected into COVID-19 prevention, management, and vaccination. One of the “side effects” of this treatment has been delaying climate action, which translates to delaying climate solutions that would help address the intersections of climate change AND COVID-19.
Climate change and COVID-19 both bring to light the prevalence of structural and environmental racism in the United States, manifesting in policies and practices that are inherently racist. Public and political acknowledgement of structural racism in the United States is the first step in making real change. The Black Lives Matter movement and refocusing of the current Presidential Administration on Environmental Justice and Climate Change has enabled us to make that first step.
And now, it’s up to us to help turn recognition into action. The fights for social equity and climate change are inextricably linked. We need to work with local governments to fund programs that address the causes of structural and environmental racism in communities instead of masking the symptoms. Addressing redlining and historic racism in communities, increasing health access in lower income and minority communities, making environmental justice a priority at the local and national level, and providing affordable climate safe housing options will help provide equity in facing climate change and current and future pandemics. All of us can voice our opinions and actively advocate for these things in our communities by talking with local elected officials and applying friendly pressure them to support social and climate projects.
Jessica Schiff is a Master of Science candidate in Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Harvard T.H. Chan’s School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health. Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.