After the March 13 closure of Tulane University’s campus, we instructors spent a week moving classes online, while students returned home and settled. The question for me and my 28 far-flung students was what to do with a locally-focused environmental journalism class? We quickly turned our final writing project towards the historic crisis at hand. We renamed the project “Living through a Pandemic.” Students were prompted to think about the causes and effects of Coronavirus through a social, historic and environmental lens
New readings added for context included the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans, the 2003 SARS outbreak in Beijing, and essays speculating on social changes that might emerge after we flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases. Looking back through previous disease outbreaks, what common themes seem to emerge? How might emergency measures to respond to coronavirus impact already-vulnerable communities? And how does the pandemic expose social disparities in income and fracture along race?
While an easy temptation by pundits has been to blame Mardi Gras on Louisiana’s heightened coronavirus impact, we should also acknowledge the legacy of austerity in public health investments in a state that perennially trails in major public indexes tracked by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Despite being called great equalizers, pandemics – like all major disasters – hit vulnerable populations the hardest.
“Lower-income individuals are more likely to be living in crowded households where there are more people than rooms, making quarantining sick family members more difficult,” according to the New Orleans Data Center. Lower-income people are also more likely to work in service “front line” positions, including at-home health aides for seniors, grocery store clerks, and nannies – who may not be able to stay home.
We recently learned that the virus is killing a higher percentage of African Americans, who account for 70 percent of fatalities in Louisiana. COVID-19 on April 1 claimed New Orleans’ cultural statesman, Ellis Marsalis, just months after his retirement from his regular gig at Snug Harbor. He joins a growing list of community leaders, from beloved high school football coaches and teachers to a former king of Zulu. It appears the cultural elders of New Orleans are an endangered class in this pandemic.
In Louisiana, the top underlying factor associated with COVID-19 is hypertension, followed by diabetes, obesity and chronic kidney disease. Other risk factors include pulmonary issues, congestive heart failure, cancer, and asthma. These are markers not of individual character, but social outcomes from low investments in public health, education, family planning, as well as structural racism and poverty.
A column on March 25 by Amy Lesen, an associate professor and researcher in the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center at Dillard University, predicted these outcomes. “As we face the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lesen wrote, “we must be clear-eyed about health inequities in Louisiana and across the country, the institutionalized practices and policies that have caused them, and the very real ways they are playing out in who gets the sickest and who dies.”
Across Louisiana, African Americans are also more likely to live in communities with higher pollution rates and near heavy industry. These environmental risk factors were illuminated last week with a study out of Harvard connecting air pollution to higher incidences of the COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by the virus. “The majority of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution,” the study’s authors wrote.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency moved to relax regulatory enforcement of plant emissions after requests by the energy lobby – further burdening poor, largely African-American fence line communities next to them
In 2015, the EPA found that the area near the Denka plant in St. John the Baptist Parish had the highest risk of cancer caused by air pollution in the country, nearly 50 times the national average. That’s one among more than 150 plants and refineries along the 85-mile industrial stretch of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, dubiously labeled Cancer Alley. More plants are planned, such as the massive plastics production facility by Formosa Inc. in St. James Parish. Many residents there have been fighting Formosa for years.
“If Formosa is built, it would increase mortality from COVID-19 by 50 percent,” Scott Eustis, the community science director with Healthy Gulf, said by email. The folks at Healthy Gulf pushed to get racial statistics added to the Louisiana Department of Health COVID-19 tracker. They are also petitioning Gov. John Bel Edwards to order a reduction in emissions of Fine Particulate Matter (FPM) during the crisis. The River Parishes of St. James, St. John, and St. Charles – along with the extended industrial corridor of Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes – round out the top six death rates for COVID-19 in Louisiana – which ranks third highest per capita nationally, according to a New York Times database.
So let us not be surprised when regulatory rollbacks of Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor result in more respiratory complications for COVID-19 along fenceline communities and throughout the metropolitan region. Let us hope that the collapse of national leadership does not devolve into state-run federalism and “shot-gun quarantines” reminiscent of the 19th-century outbreaks of yellow fever that conflate disease vectors with entire groups of people who were believed to be more susceptible to infection.
My students were charged as follows: As you go back to your corners of the country and live through your own, unique but eerily similar experiences, start documenting what you see. How do these larger conversations in the news and on your media feeds play out in your households or friend groups? How does history repeat itself, and how might you intervene?
I realize these students are largely not those on the front lines of environmental injustice or on the losing end of healthcare disparities. But perhaps their sense of humanity and shared love of New Orleans will inform their choices when they return. Perhaps they have coffee table conversations with their peers. Perhaps they will create more listeners to injustice. And perhaps, within their dispatches, there might emerge some glimmer that history may swerve towards the bent of justice after all.
Ned Randolph is a 2020-21 visiting assistant professor of communication at Tulane University.
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