Op-Ed

What Do Clean Air, COVID-19, and Earth Day Mean to Me – Cleveland Branch

April 22, 2020 / By Danielle Sydnor, Cleveland Branch President

Cleveland President Danielle Sydnor - Earth Day

The virus has been said to be an equalizer among humankind, but that cannot be further from the truth. COVID-19 has sparked a fire within a variety of groups of people. The world is concerned about how we can flatten the curve, limiting the number of people contracting the novel coronavirus. The fact is that people who live at or below the poverty level (mostly black and brown people) are more likely to contract and die from COVID-19. Why? There is a lack of clean air in these communities, with toxins causing asthma. Asthma, a respiratory condition marked by spasms in the bronchi of the lungs, causes difficulty in breathing. We know that COVID-19 can cause tightness in the chest and shortness of breath. Have you put the pieces together yet? Black and brown people are more likely to contract COVID-19 than any other group of people because of the lack of clean air in our communities.  

The issues that we, Black people, are having with COVID-19 didn’t start in 2020. This environmental racism has been going on for decades. Environmental racism is a concept in the environmental justice movement, which developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. The term is used to describe environments injustice that occurs in practice and in policy within a racialized concept.¹ A 2018 study released by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Center for Environmental Assessment indicated that people of color are much more likely to live near environmental wastelands and breathe polluted air. Specifically, the study finds that people in poverty are exposed to more fine, particulate matter than their wealthier counterparts. The study’s authors analyze, “results at national, state, and country scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”² Clean air is a civil right and we must all do our part to protect and provide clean, quality air in all communities and especially those likely to suffer from health disparities. 

Asthma hits Black people particularly hard, and the health care system often fails them. An estimated 15.3 percent of Black children have the disease compared with 7.1 of their White counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, African-Americans are nearly three times as likely to die from asthma as White people.³  In 2001-2005, Black children, regardless of family income, reported higher rates of asthma. Thirteen percent of Black children had asthma. This compares to 8 percent of White, 8 percent of Hispanic, and 12 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives children. Since 1980, the difference in asthma rates between Black and White children has become larger. Black children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma and are four times as likely to die from asthma as White children.4 From 2007 to 2009, Black persons had higher rates for asthma emergency room visits and hospitalizations per 100 persons with asthma than White persons and a higher asthma death rate per 1,000 persons with asthma. Compared with adults, children had higher rates for asthma primary care and emergency room visits, similar hospitalization rates, and lower death rates.5 Our next generation of leaders are suffering more than anyone, aren’t we supposed to be leaving this earth better than how we found it solely for the sake of our offspring? 

Anyone with moderate to severe asthma, or an autoimmune disease, is more likely to contract the novel coronavirusCOVID-19 can affect your respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs), cause an asthma attack, and possibly lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory disease.6 Anyone struggling with asthma and living in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, such as Black and Brown people, is at risk of contracting the coronavirus.  

People living near polluting systems, such as fossil fuel power plants and highways with high volumes of vehicle emissions, are vulnerable to COVID-19. Cleveland/Cuyahoga County has an F-rating for “Ozone” in the American Lung Association State of the Air. High ozone, when inhaled, can damage the lungs. Relatively low amounts can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and throat irritation. Exercise during exposure to ozone causes a greater amount of ozone to be inhaled and increases the risk of harmful respiratory effects.7 This shows us that not only are Black people more at risk, but we can’t even get the exercise needed to stay healthy during this time of quarantine.  

It would be a shame to return to the same level of air pollution, pre-pandemic, when we are needing to stop our climate from changing.  

So, what does Earth Day, clean air, and COVID-19 mean to me? It means providing all Black and Brown people with the same right to clean communities and better protection from the novel coronavirus. 

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