Communities that live next door to the same polluting infrastructure damaging our planet are most at risk of dying from the coronavirus. Still, authorities are failing to give them the protection the vaccine provides. The Frontline explores what it’ll take for communities of color to receive—and accept—the vaccine.
WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
All across the globe, the coronavirus has killed more than 2 million people. In the U.S., that number is steadily approaching 464,000 (at the time of publishing). Black, Native American, and Latinx people are dying at twice the rate of their white peers. That doesn’t mean they’ve been first in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, though.
And that’s a problem.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re still extremely stressed about the pandemic. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I continue to see people on my social feeds gathering in groups without masks and taking trips abroad where they’re putting even more vulnerable communities at risk. For lack of better words: It’s wild. Experts warn that the highly contagious virus may get worse before it gets better, especially as new more transmittable strains take over. The people most at risk are those forced to breathe dirty air every day—be it due to an oil refinery, their proximity to a highway, or some other evil polluter.
Rachel Pearson grew up in the shadows of the refinery complexes that dot the Texan landscape where she trained to become a physician. She remains in Texas today as an assistant professor of pediatrics and medical humanities at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The failed rollout of the vaccine is an injustice she finds “intolerable,” she wrote in an email. This failure ultimately stems from the same systemic racism that puts Black, Latinx, Indigeous, and low-income communities at increased risk of air pollution, she says.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is a uniquely powerful way of demonstrating our society’s commitment to the value of every person’s life,” Pearson says. “If we don’t bake equity into the vaccine rollout, then the injustice that usually prioritizes the lives of white people and people of means will continue to assert itself. We need to get the vaccine into the arms of people living in polluted areas. Their lives matter. They deserve the same protection, safety, and health that every person hopes for.”
Despite the research showing how air pollution can lead to higher death rates from COVID-19, regional vaccine distribution plans have largely failed to target the communities with the worst air quality. In Chicago, the city’s worst coronavirus hotspot—Little Village—has received 20 percent fewer vaccinations than their wealthier neighbors elsewhere, according to Grist. The neighborhood’s immigrant community is especially struggling as a distrust in government deters them from seeking the vaccine. And who can blame them?
“We have a huge issue around trust, especially being an immigrant community, we have to organize around a lot of different things—ICE, water access, poverty,” Jeremiah Muhammad, a local organizer with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, told Adam Mahoney for Grist. “You have these prejudices and racism coming in from government entities, which plays a part in why Little Village and other surrounding communities are treated so badly compared to other communities in the city.”
So, you have two issues: access and trust. In New York City, for instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday a mass vaccination center for the Bronx, which is currently suffering the highest positivity rate in the city. This is a great first step, especially when you consider the borough’s high asthma rates. Being entrapped by three major highways can do that to a community. By Friday, however, thousands of vaccine appointments remained, according to a tweet from city councilmember Mark Levine. These residents finally have the access; what they’re missing is that trust.
We’re seeing a similar pattern in Texas, too, where Pearson works and lives. In fact, a study published last week from the University of Houston found that a third of Texans are likely to refuse the vaccine outright. Misinformation is, in part, to blame for that—but so is trust.
“A successful public immunization effort requires public trust,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, who worked on the research. “More than half of people who say they are certain or likely to refuse the shots said they don’t trust the government or the pharmaceutical companies to make sure the vaccine is safe.”
As for those who are ready to get vaccinated—like, yesterday—finding a vaccine isn’t always easy. An investigation by NPR published Friday found that most vaccine sites are currently in white neighborhoods, complicating efforts from Black and brown eligible residents to receive protection from the virus that’s been targeting them. There’s a lot leaders are getting wrong right now, but so much stems from a medical system that has always discriminated against the most vulnerable. History has given communities of color little reason to trust the medical community, and that damage won’t be undone overnight.
Without access, though, no one stands a chance. That’s step one. From there, medical and health professionals need to listen. That’s the only way to build trust and ensure this doesn’t happen the next time disaster rolls around.
Correction, February 8, 2020, 9:30 am ET: This story has been updated to have the most recent number for coronavirus deaths. The initial number mentioned—456,000—was from Friday and outdated by Monday morning. We regret this error.