[COVID-19] Every breath you take: COVID-19, Racism and the Climate Crisis

by Portia Roelofs

Last year, I wrote an article arguing that air travel was *the* issue that showcased the deadly intersection of race, climate change and inequality. Indeed, as COVID-19 struck, I thought I’d been proven right.

We were able to see who the British government was willing to endanger or protect in a pandemic by looking at who it was willing to put on a plane. When lockdown was declared on 23rd March, the Government was still planning to deport people to Jamaica but refusing to repatriate hundreds of British citizens stuck in Pakistan. Along with all the usual inequalities embodied by air travel – visa refusals, subsidies to tax-evaders etc – planes are political.

Due to COVID-19, 50-70% of flights are grounded. Emissions from planes have been cut by a third. Even as we all stay home BAME folk are at greater risk of dying from the disease. And the climate crisis is part of the story, even without the planes.

First of all, the list of lockdown housing inequalities shaped by race and class is well known: we see it in who has access to a garden, who lives in overcrowded accommodation, who is pushed by low pay into poor quality rental housing. But, faced with a deadly respiratory virus, its especially cruel that structural racial inequality shapes the quality of the air that we breathe.

We’ve known for over a decade that people of colour – termed ‘BAME’ black, Asian and minority ethnic – in the UK are exposed to on average 17% more air pollution than white folks. This rises to 28% for people who identify as Black British African. A 2009 study found that:

‘in both urban and rural areas White-British are consistently exposed to lower concentrations of PM10 as compared with all other ethnic groups.’

Only last year Lewisham Council gave planning permission to a housing development in an air pollution hotspot that was so deadly, future residents were advised not to open their windows. In 2013, also in Lewisham, a 9-year old girl died after 3 years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for asthma attacks.

Her name was Ella Kissi-Debrah.

She lived with her family 25 metres from the South Circular Road. Guess what the number one piece of advice is for asthmatics to avoid air pollution? The South Circular has illegally high levels of air pollution, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

NO2 is most dangerous for “unborn babies, newborns and young children.” Exposure to high levels of NO2 as a child can lead to lung problems for life. The risk of lung inflammation persists even when pollution levels temporarily drop, as they have in recent weeks.

In both the UK and the US, people of colour face a heightened exposure to air pollution and its long-term health effects. As the New Scientist put it: ethnic minorities produce less pollution but are exposed to more.

Racism intersects with poverty and a market forces. In 2016 a King’s College London study concluded: “poor families end up living in cheaper housing which is often in close proximity to busy roads”.

This is all to say that, we already know that air pollution kills. We already know that, as Black Lives Matter UK puts it, the climate crisis is a racist crisis. On top of all this, new research suggests that COVID-19 turbo-charges these inequalities.

Remember nitrogen dioxide? A study by German scientists published on 20th April suggests that:

“long-term exposure to this pollutant may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the COVID-19 virus’.

Obviously there are multiple mechanisms by which racism translates into the shocking rate of BAME deaths from COVID-19. More research is needed to confirm or deny the exact causal claims about NO2 and COVID-19. All I’m saying is that the tragedy currently unfolding should be no surprise given that we live in a country where people of colour on low incomes are forced to raise their children breathing air that will make them sicker for the rest of their lives.

Since the 1970s, successive Westminster governments have built an economic system where the most basic aspects of human life are allocated by market forces. You want clean air, a decent place to live, green space? Better not be poor. Better not be black.

Air pollution and housing is just one example. Kate Bayliss and Giulio Mattioli show how privatisation of water, energy and local buses in England has ‘promoted the needs of investors, and the ‘market’, over the population.’

I started out believing that the link between climate crisis, racism and inequality was best seen in jet-trails in the skies above us. But COVID-19 reminds us that it is there in our private moments: in our homes where we now shelter, when we open a window to let in the breeze.

Dr Portia Roelofs is a Junior Research Fellow in Politics and Political Thought at the University of Oxford. She has published in the Journal of Modern African StudiesGovernance and Journal of African Cultural Studies. Currently, she is working on a book titled, What Nigeria can teach us about good governance.


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