Written by Rachel Karman
As of April 2nd, 2021, COVID-19 has taken more than 2.83 million lives world-wide. The pandemic had a reproductive rate (Re) of 2.2-3.0, essentially meaning that if you got the virus, you would likely spread it to 2-3 other people. A reproductive rate above 1 means that the disease will grow. After observing different countries like Singapore, scientists found that based on location, the Re could increase up to 7 people1.
As if the pandemic was not severe enough without any external factors, researchers have evidence to believe that environmental conditions worsened the observed outcome. A serious concern in today’s world is climate change and air pollution; these happen to be correlated. As climate increases, particulate matter (PM) in the air also increases. PM is essentially the cause of air pollution and research points to significant association between exposure to PM and health risks, as severe as premature death. A research group analyzed a nation-wide study and found that “a higher historical PM2.5 exposures are positively associated with higher county-level COVID-19 mortality rates after accounting for many area-level confounders”.2
The correlation to minority groups is glaring when considering the difference in cases and mortalities compared the White population. The CDC provides data revealing that per percent of population, Hispanics and Blacks in the United States were approximately three times more likely to become infected with Sars-CoV-2 and two times more likely to die from it compared to Whites. When adjusted for age, Blacks have 3.8% higher risk of dying than Whites and Hispanics have 2.5% increased risk of dying. The same reports were concluded when analyzing the American Indian population; they made up for 2% of the deaths in July 2020 but only 1% of the population.1
A new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health confirms that people with chronic health conditions, lower-income, and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by both COVID-19 and climate change, and pollution is at the heart of both problems3. African American communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution contributing to the number and outcome of cases.
We know that the environment you are exposed to, directly depends on your location. A more social perspective points to residential segregation, which is the result of many systemic factors in the United States, undisputedly influencing the severity of diseases. Doctors and other healthcare professionals are able to improve health outcomes if we work together to reduce the sources of pollution that drive a large burden of disease both in the United States and around the world. Air pollution is caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Limiting the cause helps keep our lungs healthy and protects us from respiratory infections like coronavirus.3
What may not be as obvious, is that preparation for pandemics is about keeping people healthy at baseline. Compared to other high-income countries, the United States has a higher prevalence of heart disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, and obesity to name a few4. If you analyze the discrepancy as to why people in the U.S. are not healthy at baseline, it has to do with our diets, pollution, and climate change. As previously mentioned, minority groups are most suspectable to these disadvantages when it comes to battling COVID-19. The pandemic has taught researchers, scientists, and hopefully many citizens that prevention is by far the best approach to protecting health.
We have to stop separating the earth and the creatures that inhabit. Human health depends heavily on the climate and the animals we share it with. We have to continue to fight for racial equality as its evident that our long-standing systematic racism kills. We need to confront a pandemic with solidarity for all of the people on this Earth.
1 Christakis, Nicholas. (2020) Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. New York, Little Brown Spark.
2 Wu, X., Nethery, R. C., Sabath, M. B., Braun, D. and Dominici, F., 2020. Air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: Strengths and limitations of an ecological regression analysis. Science advances, 6(45), p.eabd4049.