COVID-19: Inequities are more visible — the climate justice movement has solutions

COVID-19: Inequities are more visible — the climate justice movement has solutions
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This moment feels eerily familiar to those of us living on the frontlines of economic, social and climate crises.

Just ask black families and communities in Louisiana, who make up only 32 percent of the state’s population yet account for 71 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths. This public health injustice isn’t surprising when black people and people of color in Louisiana are more likely to face economic injustice, live in polluted communities and weather the direct impacts or displacement caused by climate change.

Just ask communities like Little Village, Chicago, where the recent botched demolition of a coal stack covered the entire neighborhood with contaminants and dust. This at a time when we’re told that we’re safest sheltering at home. The images look like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.

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For those living paycheck to paycheck, social distancing measures and the shrinking of the job market expose just how the most precariously employed already live much of their everyday lives on the brink. 

For too many, the coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the intersections of injustice that people in frontline communities face everyday. It took years of fighting for Little Village residents to get that coal plant shut down in the first place,  over seven years ago, and its negative impact on the neighborhood persists.

Just as it is crucial to understand climate change through an environmental justice framework to come to the most sustainable and healthy solutions for humanity and for the Earth, it’s useful to examine the coronavirus pandemic through a racial and economic justice lens to ensure our actions now guarantee a better future society for all.

If we really want to address this crisis, we must address the interlocking systems of inequity that have come before it and support and pass community-based solutions that center people — not corporations — at every level of government. 

Since day one, the Trump administration’s response has not just lagged behind other countries, or disproportionately ignored vulnerable, low-income communities in favor of wealthy elites, the White House has also pushed forward policies intended to protect polluting industries at the further expense of frontline communities.

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Within the last few weeks, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is caused by a disease that affects the respiratory system, the EPA has relaxed its enforcement of air and water pollution standards, rolled back fuel-efficiency standards and loosened its rule on emissions of toxic pollutants (including mercury) by oil- and coal-fired power plants. These are in addition to the 95 environmental rules and regulations already reversed or with roll backs in progress since the Trump administration took office.

During this crisis, the White House has also ramped up ICE operations targeting undocumented populations and continues to house thousands in cages with no social distancing measures to prevent mass infections, which are reportedly on the rise.

The White House has even used this moment to seize lands from tribal nations.

Frontline communities and local, state and tribal governments have had to take matters into their own hands, given the lack of coherent and practical federal policy to combat the crisis comprehensively. 

From Michigan to New York, from Washington to Puerto Rico, we are witnessing frontline workers and communities, once deemed expendable, now labeled as “essential workers.” Yet their lives will still be treated as expendable unless we craft policies to respect them as essential people, first and foremost, like some localities have done. 

As social distancing changes the way communities organize, grassroots groups remain essential in assuring that people get bailed out before corporations. New York state has halted collection of student loans and medical debt. New Jersey joined New York in a moratorium on utility shutoffs and on rent payment, and more states have followed. In 100 cities, public transportation is now free. Some states have instituted mortgage suspensions, and a few prisons have begun to release those incarcerated.

These local policy shifts demonstrate what many of us in the climate justice movement have been calling for is not only possible but possible to implement right now. True systemic change that begins to address the root causes of our communities’ continuing crises, can actually be implemented quickly when political will matches the peoples’ will. 

That’s why frontline communities continue local organizing even though traditional face-to-face interactions may no longer be possible. Farmers grounded in communities of color such as Urban Tilth in Oakland, Calif., are feeding their community by instituting new ways of operating in order to provide safe food for the most vulnerable while ensuring those most essential to the food supply chain have protective gear and safe working conditions. 

In Detroit, Water Warriors and community-based organizations such as the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and Soulardarity are organizing so that no one sheltering at home loses access to water for failure to pay, and for people who have had their water shut off, that it gets turned back on immediately. 

Other community organizations are giving out free compost, translating city materials and resources into languages of their populations, giving out school lunches or free meals to essential workers, convening weekly wellness calls, as well as setting up or distributing funds to community members in need.

But local organizing by itself isn’t enough to tackle national and global crises like the coronavirus and climate change. It’s time to return resources to the root. Our communities have been drained to line the pockets of extractive industries that have irresponsibly left our workers and neighborhoods at high-risk for COVID-19 without accountability.

The federal government must stop acquiescing to demands for corporate welfare and instead invest in a People’s Bailout that protects our communities, repairs previous harms, prioritizes community health and builds a more equitable and just society. On May 1, let’s make sure that message is heard loud and clear, as community and environmental justice struggles join together and transform the way we organize for a regenerative economy, with pots and pans, homemade banners hanging from windows, social distancing car caravans, virtual rallies and twitter storms. 

The vaccine for COVID-19 may take some time to develop, but organizing in communities remains critical.

Angela Mahecha Adrar is the executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), a member-led coalition of 70 urban and rural frontline communities, organizations and supporting networks in the climate justice movement. You can find her on twitter @CJAOurPower and @AngelaAdrar