Early last month, I had my first coronavirus scare. I attended an event along with a pastor I had known for years. Less than a week later, he was in the hospital hooked up to a respirator fighting for his life. And all I could do was pray for his speedy recovery.
It did not take long for my own symptoms to develop. First, I came down with a sore throat, then a fever that just would not break. Fearing the worst, I called my doctor and scheduled a telehealth appointment — eventually going in for testing. I was deeply worried for everyone I had been in contact with, especially my mother who is diabetic. I knew from the onset that my family and community were vulnerable. In the three days that I waited for the results I was on a rollercoaster of anxiety thinking about all of this. Thankfully, testing revealed I did not have COVID-19 — but that I had instead contracted another strain of the coronavirus responsible for my symptoms. I was relieved. And moreover, I was lucky to have caught it early. But I was still deeply worried knowing that many in the Latinx community have not been as fortunate.
Latinx communities in Colorado have seen how we are being impacted at a greater rate, and nationwide the trend is the same. Last month, the coronavirus killed thousands of New Yorkers. Out of those more than 6,000 deaths, 34% came from the Latinx community. As more data comes in, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we are not fighting the same fight as everyone else. In New York and elsewhere, Latinx communities are 50% more likely to live along sources of air pollution while, at the same time, higher levels of air pollution are associated with higher death rates from coronavirus.
Here in Colorado, millions of Latinx people have disproportionately high levels of asthma and suffer from other airborne diseases. Compared to their white peers, Latinx people are twice as likely to have to visit an emergency room for asthma attacks. During a public health crisis that threatens respiratory function, this creates an even greater risk – Latinx families in Colorado are more than twice as likely to lack health insurance compared to non-Hispanic whites, which translates to less care and much higher hospital bills. My community, which is 60% Latinx and 30% Black, is downwind from an oil refinery. We have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and asthma — all of which are high risk conditions for the worst effects of COVID-19.
In a time like this, it has never been so important to enforce protections that keep us healthy and safe and to follow the science. Despite that, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler has made a series of decisions that will only result in more pollution and less sound policymaking.
Last month, Administrator Wheeler made the decision to stop enforcing environmental laws altogether — relegating the agency in charge of protecting human and environmental health to sit on the sidelines while we fight one of the largest public health crises of our lives. Wheeler has also moved forward with a rollback of pollution standards for cars and trucks, which the EPA’s own estimates indicate would increase premature deaths from air pollution. His EPA has refused to tighten safeguards on lung-damaging industrial soot and toxic particle pollution from smokestacks. He rolled back protections on dangerous acid gas released into our air by coal-refuse burning plants. And he just finalized a weakening of protections from mercury, soot and arsenic pollution from power plants. At a time when science matters more than ever, he’s also proposed to censor science and eliminate public health data in the EPA’s rule making process – preventing data from COVID-19 from being considered in developing future health protections. Wheeler’s decision to walk off the field and light it on fire has personal implications for everyone in my community.
So here we all are: fighting a pandemic that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Americans all because the Trump administration refused to follow the science, strikingly similar to how it has abdicated its responsibility to address the climate crisis. One thing has never been more apparent: we cannot fight one public health emergency by welcoming another. This is how environmental racism works on our communities. Our nation’s laws are in place for a reason. It is time for Administrator Wheeler to do his job and enforce them, and for Colorado leaders like Sen. Cory Gardner to stand up for Coloradans’ health and hold this administration accountable.
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