Inequality, race and COVID-19

April 10, 2020 12:01 am

A homeless man on Broad Street in Richmond, Va., March 18, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

By Kendyl Crawford and the Rev. Dr. Faith Harris

Does COVID-19 have the potential to change everything for our world?

It is hard to tell at this stage of the pandemic. What has changed for most of us is Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 55 (Temporary Stay at Home Order Due to Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)). We have more time to sit with our thoughts, reflect and even brood over the global and local situations.

For those of us working towards a healthy climate and environmental justice, the high vulnerability of people of color, especially for the African American, Native American, and Latino communities, to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is just one of the inevitable outcomes we anticipated. Those who have spent any time learning about racial inequalities know that crises, whether the climate crisis or the COVID crisis, amplify inequality and have the potential to deepen the cracks and fractures among us.

Think about which communities depend on the public transportation system and often work service jobs coming into contact with large numbers of people. Think about which communities have high health disparities — dealing with high rates of hypertension, asthma, obesity and diabetes.

Communities denied access to environmental benefits like clean air, access to fresh foods, trees and parks are the very same ones overburdened by poverty, institutional racism, lack of medical care and health insurance and disproportionately burdened by toxic air pollution, crowded housing, high energy burden and dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure. They are on the frontlines bearing repeated exposure to COVID-19 and disproportionately dying from complications from the disease.

Since we have more time than anticipated for reflection this Earth Month, it seems sensible to consider the 2020 General Assembly session. Virginia Interfaith Power & Light along with the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative advocated for low-income Virginians and communities of color during this year’s session.

The leadership of Dels. Mark Keam and Charniele Herring and Sens. Ghazala Hashmi and Sen. Mamie Locke stood out on the issue of environmental justice and now, for the very first time, once Gov. Northam adds his signature, there will be a commitment from our state to “promote environmental justice and ensure that it is carried out throughout the commonwealth.”

We know, however, that this is not enough. Through this crisis it has become apparent that we need to take an approach in our policymaking that prioritizes caring for our neighbors and caring for Creation — like the Green New Deal that would expand health care coverage while also addressing worker rights and safety. Wisdom suggests we take a second look at the Green New Deal.

When this pandemic wanes and we return to some state of normalcy, what will we bring with us from our stay at home period? For those of us privileged enough to be able to stay at home, we suggest that we should be wiser. Wisdom is not a word used much in our contemporary times but wisdom is the virtue we need most in our advocacy for justice. Science often has not inspired the changes necessary to move our governments and corporations to take the drastic measures we all know are needed to protect one another and indeed all of Creation.

Science provides the facts we need to know to make a choice, but wisdom provides the passion and will to make good compassionate decisions. Wisdom is acquired when we learn from life’s events. We do not gain wisdom from reading books, taking classes, or even memorizing facts but we gain wisdom from trial and error – good and bad experiences and responding well to both. This pandemic should be a wisdom-making moment for all of us.

And if we are to be wise, we would know that in actuality it would be a mistake to return to normal – business as usual, which has created and maintained the systems of inequality that we see today exacerbating suffering with COVID-19 killing disproportionate number of people of color in our society.

We urgently call for more racial data to be collected on the coronavirus pandemic in Virginia. For half of Virginia’s 75 deaths thus far, there was no racial data collected. For rural communities with out-of-state pipeline workers still arriving, for undocumented families, and for those incarcerated, let’s encourage Virginia’s decision makers to not forget the higher call to wisdom creating a more healthy, just and sustainable world for us all.

Kendyl Crawford is director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light. Faith Harris is chair of the organization, which is part of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

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Guest Column

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