Air Pollution, Lack of Clean Water Increase Infection Risk for Poorer Communities
Chronic health problems—often owing to high levels of pollution—and poor access to clean water are putting poor, Indigenous, and non-white communities across the world at greater risk of infection and hospitalization in the face of COVID-19.
Such is the story revealed by a recent collaboration between Microsoft and health care data firm Jvion that sought to “identify the populations most vulnerable to severe complications following a coronavirus outbreak,” writes Grist. The resulting interactive map, produced by aggregating “socioeconomic and environmental factors, such as lack of access to transportation, exposure to toxins, unemployment, and mortality rate,” revealed certain communities to be especially vulnerable—in the world’s poorer and developing regions, and in the forgotten areas of the wealthiest countries.
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“Our most heavily weighted and frequent determining risk factor was air quality, though that doesn’t mean it’s the most predictive factor,” Jvion Chief Product Officer John Showalter told Grist. “There’s definitely a biologic rationale that environmental health hazards that lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular conditions would then lead people with those conditions to do poorly during a COVID-19 outbreak.”
Grist adds that “a side-by-side comparison of Jvion’s vulnerability map with the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen (EJScreen) suggests a stark correlation between a community’s proximity to industrial facilities and its projected risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.”
There is a further clear correlation between ethnicity and income, with Jvion’s map revealing, for example, that Philadelphia’s “predominantly black and low-income neighbourhoods of Point Breeze and Grays Ferry are considered to have an ‘extremely high’ vulnerability risk for COVID-19 due to environmental hazards, elevated unemployment rates, and low incomes.”
Chronic health problems rooted in poverty and racism are likewise leaving the more than five million people who identify as American Indian and Alaskan Native particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, reports the Washington Post.
“When you look at the health disparities in Indian Country—high rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma, and then you combine that with the overcrowded housing situation where you have a lot of people in homes with an elder population who may be exposed or carriers—this could be like a wildfire on a reservation and get out of control in a heartbeat,” National Congress of American Indians CEO Kevin Allis told the Post.
“We could get wiped out.”
Already, “American Indians are 600 times more likely to die of tuberculosis and nearly 200 times more likely to die of diabetes than other groups,” the Post notes. Further complicating the situation in U.S. reservations, where about 50% of Native Americans live, is that “more than a quarter under age 65 lack health insurance,” and many homes are crowded, poorly built, and lacking both electricity and running water—the last being absolutely essential to achieve the 20 seconds of soapy water handwashing that public health experts the world over are urging as the first line of defence against COVID-19.
The absence of adequate handwashing facilities likewise haunts Indigenous communities in Canada, with the Council of Canadians reporting that there are “still over 100 First Nations communities without access to safe, clean water.” Compounding their vulnerability to COVID-19 is that such communities “also lack adequate health care facilities, housing, or food reserves, as well as the necessary staff to implement any emergency response.”
Another community under particular threat from coronavirus in the U.S. are farmworkers, often migrant labourers, many of whom are just now starting their harvest in California’s strawberry fields. “A lack of worker safety protections, combined with a lack of access to health care and crowded living conditions, could lead to a major COVID-19 outbreak in farmworker communities across California,” writes Grist. “For a working population particularly vulnerable due to economic insecurity, exposure to pesticides, higher incidence rates of respiratory illnesses such as asthma, and chronic conditions such as diabetes, COVID-19 could be devastating.”
For Carmelita, a field worker and single mother who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal from her employer, the demand that she work through the pandemic conflicts starkly with the lack of protections she and her fellow workers are offered.
“You’re trying not to get exposed, but unfortunately we don’t have the ability to stop working,” she told Grist. “The state calls us essential workers, but they’re not demonstrating our value. We’re putting ourselves at risk to feed the country.”
The Jvion report revealed this same type kind of callousness at play along America’s “cancer alley”—a region that includes “the predominantly black and low-income communities living near the back-to-back petrochemical refineries” of Louisiana, writes Grist. Long having suffered the health consequences of living in the shadow of the refineries that line the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, these communities have had no escape from lung-destroying carcinogens like chloroprene—and now they’re in the crosshairs of COVID-19.
The state’s petrochemical giants have been declared “essential” in the COVID-19 fight, their products now critically needed for the production of everything from personal protective equipment to ventilators. In a tragic irony for the beleaguered communities surrounding these plants, Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has issued a temporary but open-ended policy: such companies will now be allowed “to make their own determinations as to whether or not they are complying with requirements to monitor pollution levels,” writes Grist.