Environmental racism through a Covid-19 lens

2021-08-04

 |  Environmental Racism

With the world thrown into disarray due to COVID-19, there have been numerous reports about increasing environmental racism and injustice towards BIPOC communities around the world. The unequal discriminatory impact of the global coronavirus pandemic has raised a very important question – what can be done to stop this continual environmental injustice towards people of color, black people, and indigenous communities?  

Source: Tori Everson; BIPOC communities are subject to environmental racism during the pandemic — educating oneself about the issue through peer-reviewed articles and research is important to address the matter.

Before the pandemic:

Environmental Racism in Canada is a form of systemic racism that has been occurring amongst marginalized communities, particularly indigenous peoples, who are subject to harmful living conditions that expose them to toxic environmental hazards. This is a result of decades-long institutional laws and regulations in place, rather than individual morals and practice. Racial injustice towards the First Nations has existed in Canada since the 1970s. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics published a report on continuing discrimination experienced by Indigenous and Black communities across Canada and some examples include the Maximum Penalty for dumping waste in “Indian Reserves”, The Mercury pollution crisis in the Grassy Narrows, and the pollution from petrochemical plants in Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Source: David Suzuki; First Nations experience high levels of drinking water crisis due to environmental pollution of freshwater reserves.

How did the onset of COVID-19 aggravate the issue? 

According to research, several lower-income marginalized communities are far more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and risk of community spread. This happens due to detrimental living conditions and polluted environmental surroundings. Generally, urbanized and overcrowded communities are impacted by the transmission of the virus through public transport, and lack of social distancing due to the reduced amount of space available. Air pollution is a huge cause of respiratory diseases  — COVID-19, being an air-borne virus that affects the respiratory organs, makes the situation worse and ultimately leads to premature deaths and painful experiences. Additionally, poverty also affects many vulnerable communities as they are equipped with low-quality housing conditions where self-isolation is not feasible.  

Source: Amanda Short; Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are analyzing tweets to assess Anti-Asian racism that has increased during the pandemic.

How did COVID-19 impact these communities?

People of color and Black people were severely affected by the coronavirus in Toronto, making up almost 74% of Toronto’s coronavirus cases in the total population. In Manitoba, people of color had higher rates of infection during the third wave. People of color, in particular Southeast Asians, Filipino communities, African communities, and the South Asian population, are generally involved in essential food services or as front-line workers, who are more prone to infection. However, higher rates of immunization amongst the white population in Manitoba further widens the gap between people of color and white populations.

Source: Jeremiah Rodriguez; BIPOC communities are subject to medical bias, unlawful practices, and cultural stereotypes in the Canadian Healthcare System. 

Meanwhile, Indigenous populations, who are already subject to several environmental hazards from different polluting industries surrounding their homes, have been subject to pandemic outbreaks. In BC, the construction of a natural gas pipeline was the center of outbreaks that affected the Wet’suwet’en population. Although this was opposed by the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, the constructions continued during the pandemic. The workers, who are often unmasked and follow no safety precautions, spread the infection and affect the already vulnerable Wet’suwet’en people’s livelihoods, health, and cultural sites. Additionally, the pandemic has also increased stigmatization and discrimination against Indigenous women, thus, leading to limited healthcare facilities and amenities.  

What is Canada doing to address these issues? 

Bill C-230 was introduced by MP Lenore Zann of Nova Scotia to tackle environmental racism against racialized groups and indigenous communities. The Bill was inspired by Ingrid Waldron’s book on environmental racism faced by Black Canadian and First Nations communities in Nova Scotia, called ‘There’s Something in the Water’. Actor Elliot Page adapted the book into a documentary of the same name to a widespread audience (available on Netflix). This Bill intends to identify how environmental hazards affect the health, socio-economic livelihood, and accessibility to resources of marginalized communities, as well as establishing a link between environmental hazards and race. If the Bill is passed, Canada will be able to address environmental racism towards vulnerable communities and take necessary action towards environmental justice! 

In addition, collecting race-based data on COVID-19 infections across all provinces of Canada is essential to ensure equitable resource distribution and appropriate help towards affected communities. Furthermore, acknowledgement of BIPOC communities’ disappointment with the healthcare system and vaccine distribution is necessary to help them manage their own health decisions. Marginalized communities are in vital need of priority vaccinations and as of such, provinces in Canada are prioritizing vaccinations for First Nations communities. Manitoba has also consulted with First Nations organizations to generate an effective and targeted response to determine the most at-risk and in need for vaccination. 

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 resources and acknowledgement of the long-persisting systemic environmental issue will ensure protection, effective recovery, and better livelihoods for BIPOC communities.