Those Most Vulnerable to Coronavirus Are Also Most Vulnerable to Climate Crisis

BY: Nina Joung

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been greater attention brought to our country’s most vulnerable communities. From the elderly, to those with pre-existing health conditions, to the many low-wage workers that have quickly been deemed essential during this time, COVID-19 has put a bigger spotlight on the health risks that surround these communities.

For those who have been studying the climate crisis and are watching this pandemic unfold, there is a notable overlap between the communities vulnerable to COVID-19 and those that are most impacted by climate change. From increased respiratory issues caused by  air pollution to the increased risk of infectious disease due to increased temperatures, the climate crisis comes with its own slew of critical health concerns. And these health risks often hit low-income, Black and Brown, and elderly communities first — just to name a few. 

We’ve linked a few articles below to show  how different communities currently vulnerable to COVID-19 have been and will continue to be impacted by the threat of climate change. 

1. Those with pre-existing health conditions can feel the heat of climate change more intensely

People who have pre-existing health conditions, particularly respiratory issues, are now fighting two battles: Coronavirus and climate change.

Oil and gas sites in Texas have made local residents and workers vulnerable to a combination of upper respiratory issues such as asthma and shortness of breath.

— Watch: Fossil Fuels and Your Health | Freedom to Breathe Ep. 3

Those with respiratory issues and compromised immune systems are more at risk of being harmed by worsening air quality caused by longer and stronger pollen seasons, hotter temperatures and changing weather patterns, and more frequent droughts which can induce wildfires.

— Read More: How Climate Affects Community Health: Air Quality | CDC 

Lupus is a chronic, disabling and potentially life-threatening autoimmune disease. Lupus patients — often women and people of color — can expect to have exacerbated symptoms due to the atmospheric changes caused by climate change.

— Read More: Why Rising Temperatures Could Make Life Harder for Lupus Patients

2. Black and Brown communities are more at risk for life-threatening climate impacts.

In addition to exposing themselves to COVID-19 for work more often than their White counterparts and their increased vulnerability to health issues like asthma and heart disease, Black and Brown communities are more at risk of contracting COVID-19. But inequitable exposure to hazardous environments and life-threatening health conditions are issues these communities encounter on the climate front, as well.

As sea level rise threatens Miami’s waterfront properties, wealthy residents are moving inland. This has triggered climbing real estate prices in the city’s historically Black and Brown inland neighborhoods, forcing some residents out. Follow Marlene Bastien from the Family Action Network Movement who is fighting climate gentrification in Miami’s Haitian and African American communities.

— Watch: Climate Gentrification Is Changing the Country | Freedom to Breathe Ep. 2

“Heat is not an equal opportunity killer.” Read how the lack of access to things like air conditioning, cooling centers, and bus service put redlined, majority non-white neighborhoods more at risk of deadly heatwaves.

— Read more: How redlining makes communities of color more at risk of deadly heatwaves

For the majority-Black residents of Port Arthur, Texas, living next to the country’s largest oil refinery has led to an increased risk of cancer and other health issues. Hear from a local environmental activist from Port Arthur fighting for his community’s health:

— Watch: Social Justice is Climate Justice | Freedom to Breathe Ep. 1

3. Frontline coronavirus workers are also facing the threats of climate change.

The same frontline workers that are risking their health to continue providing us with food during the COVID-19 epidemic are also putting themselves in harm’s way as temperatures rise due to climate change.

Riverfront businesses are one example of small businesses that are impacted by frequent flooding caused by rising sea levels.

— Watch: How do riverfront businesses handle extreme flooding in Iowa?

Farm workers and other outdoor workers are on the frontlines dealing with the extreme heat and rising temperatures that come with climate change. We spoke to Jeannie Economos, the environmental health coordinator at the Farmworkers Association of Florida to hear more.

— Watch: Food, Farming, & Climate Change | Freedom to Breathe Ep. 4

Even large-scale conservative farmers are seeing the impacts of climate change and extreme weather and looking for environmentally-conscious farming methods.

— Read more: Why Are Conservative Large-Scale Farmers Joining the Climate Conversation?

4. Older communities are more vulnerable to the impacts and consequences of climate change.

While the risk of COVID-19 to older people has been made clear, they are often left out of the climate conversation as a vulnerable community.

Credit: Adobe

Older people are more likely to experience sometimes fatal illness due to extreme heat. Those who live on their own are especially vulnerable if they can’t get assistance.

— Read more: About Extreme Heat | CDC

During natural disasters, mortality is higher among elderly individuals who can’t get out of harm’s way fast enough. Nearly half of the individuals who died during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were 75 or older. Similarly in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, almost half of those who died were over 65.

–Read more: The forgotten generation: The elderly are most at risk of suffering from climate change | The Independent

5. Climate change makes living on the streets more dangerous and threatens to put more people out of their homes

As we’ve seen with the economic realities around COVID-19, many people are just one financial disaster away from losing their homes, and trying to quarantine without a home is ”horror on top of horror.” Climate change also challenges those with insecure housing and those who are already living on the streets.

As temperatures rise and heatwaves become more frequent, those who are experiencing homelessness during extreme heat don’t have access to the cooling centers, shelter, and water.

— Read more: When You Can’t Find Shelter From the Heat | Slate

The homeless community is also less able to escape the worsening air quality in areas with high air pollution and the increased range of infectious diseases from Lyme disease to West Nile virus.

— Read more: Homelessness And The Climate Crisis | The Climate Reality Project

Climate change can also be the cause of homelessness for those who have lost their homes to natural disasters. After Hurricane Harvey in 2018, eighteen percent of the unsheltered homeless said they were out on the streets because of the storm.

— Read more: Homeless after Harvey: For some, the historic flooding in Houston washed away shelter and security | Houston Chronicle