Throughout its ebbs and flows, I’ve witnessed how the pandemic has raced through Latino communities — our colleagues, families and friends. And the data agrees with this observation: COVID-19 sickens more Latinos than any other demographic and has left more of the Latino community hospitalized and dead than other groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This situation is made even worse when you consider that Latinos are less likely to have access to health care, and that immigrants and the disabled were less likely to receive the stimulus and disaster aid offered by the federal government.
This is not just an isolated situation caused by a uniquely bad public health crisis. It is in fact a pattern of environmental injustice that we see in many other aspects of life in Latino communities. For example, Latino children are reportedly twice as likely as white children to die of asthma. And Latinos have the highest rate of adults who are not physically active, which affects Latino immune systems, stress levels and our ability to respond to health threats.
A common thread behind this is environmental racism — a history of forced dispossession, redlining and economic discrimination toward people of color, that has led to cities and towns that remain deeply segregated to this day. In neighborhoods of color today, we find two things: 1) polluted air, from being sited so close to polluting industries, warehousing, highways and oil and gas extraction, as well as 2) what is called the nature gap — the lack of green, open space where families and groups can gather outdoors.
Every 30 seconds, a football fields’ worth of nature is paved over in this country to build infrastructure, housing sprawl, and oil and gas extraction. This destruction of our natural areas is overwhelmingly happening in Latino, Black, Asian and Indigenous communities. And the parks that our communities do have access to, are generally smaller and serve much higher numbers of people, than parks that mainly serve white communities. They may also be polluted, staffed by people who don’t look like or speak the languages of the community they serve, wearing uniforms that look more threatening than protective, without the maintenance and facilities needed to have a thriving outdoor space for families to enjoy.
A recent study found that a lack of community green space is correlated with higher COVID-19 rates in communities of color. These results show that nearby nature and accessible parks are not only fonts for biodiversity and natural climate solutions, but they are equally necessary for public health and ending the pandemic.
It’s also no exaggeration to say that reducing air pollution is a matter of life and death for communities of color, including when it comes to COVID-19. Studies have found that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads more quickly in areas with more air pollution, where our Latino neighborhoods and other communities of color are more likely to live. What’s more, studies have established a direct link between exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality.
The impact of COVID-19 is also connected to climate change and energy. One of the reasons why the nature gap is so prevalent in our communities is because of oil and gas development — which also pollutes the air and emits the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. Climate change, in turn, fuels the wildfires, storms, droughts and extreme heat that are more likely to harm Latino homes, jobs and health. The climate crisis, the nature gap, and the pandemic are all intertwined — from oil and gas drilling causing air pollution and destruction of nature that speed the spread and severity of disease, to oil and gas fueling the climate disasters that may force people from their homes and into unsafe situations.
That said, hope remains on all fronts. The good news is that the same policies that preserve and restore nature and clean air in our communities, are the same policies that would help address the results of this pandemic and alleviate the next one. What’s more, these are the same policies that address the climate crisis. It’s clear that our communities need more nearby nature and a just transition to clean energy, not more sources of pollution. That can be done through a variety of tools: ensuring monitoring and accountability for sources of pollution like methane and soot, the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative, and new investments in clean energy and nature restoration from new laws: the inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Addressing the climate crisis, this health crisis and environmental injustices are all part of the same struggle. If we take care, and center equity and the experiences of communities of color in environmental policy, they can all be a part of the same solution.