COVID-19 Pandemic Opens Possibilities for Positive Change: Turning Pain into Progress

When COVID-19 had Americans scrambling to stores and searching online for hard to find facial masks, I simply went to my bedroom where I already had half a box. I have the masks because I live in Detroit 48217, the most polluted ZIP code in Michigan. Oftentimes, I must cover my face in the middle of the night to block horrific odors and chemicals emitted by nearby industrial facilities that seep into my home. It is an unfathomable way to live.

As people living away from factories experience the COVID pandemic, they are getting a glimpse of what it feels like to be trapped in one’s home with a harmful, unseen element that can damage your health or take your life. The coronavirus pandemic mirrors the impact pollution overwhelmingly has on Black people trapped in urban communities across America.

Photo of polluted house by Emma Lockridge

My community is within a four-mile radius of more than 29 mega polluting facilities that are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and our state environmental department. Nearly 49,000 tons of criteria pollutants blanket our area yearly. The toxic soup of emissions are emitted by a multi-billion-dollar tar sands oil refinery, automobile factory, several steel mills, asphalt production companies, a public utility that provides power to millions of residents and the business sector and our municipal water department that incinerates human feces or bakes it to produce fertilizer. That massive collection of polluters ringing our community is the reason we are called an environmental Sacrifice Zone. Our health, lives, wealth and comfort are sacrificed so that our society can function in what was once described as normal.

Detroit is an epicenter for COVID-19 infections and death. Though African Americans make up nearly 14 percent of the population in Michigan, we accounted for around 40 percent of the state’s 1,076 coronavirus deaths as of April 9. COVID-19 feels more endemic than pandemic for Black people. Our alarming COVID-19 infection rate in Detroit has been echoed in Black communities around the country in places like Baton Rouge, Chicago and Las Vegas.

Harvard researchers have determined there is a large overlap between causes of deaths of COVID-19 patients and the diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to fine particulate matter. Yes, in many cases we have socio-economic impacts that increase our COVID-19 outcomes, but the exposure to pollution, which already damages our lungs and overall health, cannot be ruled out. Detroit is among the top cities for juvenile asthma, for instance. Our community is overwhelmed by respiratory and autoimmune diseases, cancer and kidney failure. I have undergone a kidney transplant and have been diagnosed with cancer. My health, sadly, is not unique. Many people in my community are ill with diseases that attack their organs.

In the age of COVID-19, when I open my Facebook newsfeed, it feels like a scrolling obituary. My former neighbor succumbed to coronavirus at the age of 50. She was a professional woman and the news of her death stunned many people. My state representative, also based in my community, recently recovered from COVID-19. I telephoned an environmental justice organizer to ask for assistance on a project and learned she was recently released from ICU. She is now on dialysis and in rehab to regain function of her body due to COVID-19. Finally, I was in touch with someone to recruit a civic leader to assist with our environmental organizing and she had succumbed to COVID-19 45 minutes before we could contact her. Many of us are struggling with the ongoing coronavirus deaths and our inability to properly mourn our losses.

In a recent news report, “Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard’s Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment, said it’s likely that air pollution reductions in China — associated with the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic — saved as many lives in China as COVID-19 has taken there. That’s a rough calculation, based on estimates from Marshall Burke, an assistant professor of Earth system science at Stanford University.” The Harvard study reminds us just how unconscionable it is for the Trump Administration to suspend EPA enforcement rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the opposite should have occurred. The EPA should have heightened reporting from facilities to ensure that vulnerable communities gain added protection during this crisis.

We are seeing protest rallies and civil disobedience from Americans who are agitating to end social distancing and return to work. They want to get back to normal. For Black people and our planet, normal was not working. I do not want to return to what was. It is time for America and countries around the world to embrace positive environmental changes.

It is uplifting news to learn that people in China can see the Himalayas now that the smog has been reduced. Californians are able to see for miles with the absence of vehicles clogging their highways. Locally, I visited the river and was pleasantly surprised to smell the aquatic life because so many of our factories are furloughed near the water.

We need a new norm that provides affordable healthcare for everyone and ensures a living wage to all employees. More people should be allowed to work from home, which would cut back on fossil fuel usage and polluting emissions. Air travel should be reduced now that we are effectively using computers for business meetings and forums. As I look around my community, I see fewer smokestacks emitting toxins. Hyper consumerism has been arrested. Luxury brand stores are suffering financially while businesses that provide essential goods and services are thriving. People are cooking more home prepared meals and spending time with family members. Imagine that.

COVID-19 forced us to stop in our tracks. We were living in a world that was overwhelmed by pollution and lacked hope for too many people. We must develop a path forward that preserves life, provides opportunity for everyone and does not destroy our planet.

Detroiter Emma Lockridge uses her camera as an instrument to document and fix a societal wrong: the dire impact of pollution on Black people in America. Her probing lens documents environmental racism in her Detroit southwest side community, which is ranked the most polluted in Michigan.

A Climate and Environmental Justice Organizer at Michigan United, Emma enjoyed a career in journalism. She is a graduate of New York University and Wayne State University. Her current environmental campaign is to secure a homeowner buyout program for herself and neighbors impacted by a nearby refinery’s emissions.

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