The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are worsening environmental health injustice in North Carolina and across the world.
The intersection of climate change, this viral pandemic, and existing health care disparities is mixing a toxic brew for people suffering from heart and respiratory diseases. In the Fayetteville Observer, Raleigh physician Josiah Carr explains the deadly interplay between COVID-19, air pollution, cardiovascular disease, and rising global temperatures.
Carr writes, “This was one of the worst North Carolina flu seasons in recent memory, and now we’re in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in 100 years. While we don’t yet know the full climate impacts on the spread of these virus strains, we do know climate change worsens the spread of disease generally. And the carbon pollution that causes climate change has been linked to higher COVID-19 death rates.”
Carr concludes, “The data is mounting that the climate crisis is already making us sicker, and studies will likely continue to demonstrate rising health impacts related to climate change. So it is imperative that our leaders take action by implementing common-sense measures that will not only protect future generations, but the health of all our citizens today. We must all urge President Trump, Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, and all of our state and local officials to literally save lives by addressing this crisis now.”
Heed Dr. Carr’s words. Tell Senators Tillis and Burr to support the Clean Economy Act!
This message is being amplified on the national level by candidates like Joe Biden, who points to the Trump Administration actively allowing unchecked air pollution, which adds to existing vulnerability to diseases like the novel coronavirus. Both factors hit hardest the communities who already suffer disproportionately from higher incidence of respiratory illness and poorer access to health care, namely communities of color and low income. Studies have shown communities with the worst air quality are showing higher fatality rates from COVID-19, and black Americans are contracting and dying from the disease at higher rates than white Americans. These communities are also disproportionately serving on the front lines in essential occupations.
“Covid is shining a bright light on the structural racism that plagues our laws, our institutions and our culture,” Biden told supporters at an online event on Earth Day. “And it’s a wake-up call, a wake-up call to action to climate change overall and to climate justice.”
Finally, we see one of the most flagrant intersections between the pandemic, vulnerable populations, community health impacts, and bad public policy in the large and growing clusters of COVID-19 illness associated with meat processing plants.
While it appears that North Carolina has been slowing the growth of COVID-19 cases more generally, the disease is exploding out of the crowded, unsafe working conditions at plants like the Tyson poultry processing plant in Wilkes County.
The Smithfield pork processing plant in Bladen County is another dramatic example of the problem. In fact, as of April 30, there were 15 meat processing plants in North Carolina showing 604 cases of coronavirus infection — and the number is continuing to mount and to spread to surrounding communities.
Despite this dramatic and rising public health threat, President Trump used his emergency authority under the Defense Production Act to order meat processing plants around the nation to stay open last week. This has stripped workers, states, and local communities of the authority to order these plants to institute health protections for their workers as a condition of remaining in operation. In normal times, the corporate meat industry has already been one of the worst violators of clean water protections and labor and animal rights, and this pandemic is laying that bare, as its low-wage workers, particularly Latinx workers, are victimized by a confluence of cultural, corporate, and government power.
Until state and federal policymakers recognize these connections and act to address them, these overlapping public health crises will continue to mount.