By Dr. Shelley Francis, EVHybridNoire
COVID-19 is a new phenomenon, but the reason it has targeted some of America’s most under-resourced populations is, sadly, generations old.
Finding a solution will take much more than just a vaccine to eradicate the virus, which will do little to eliminate the economic and social disparities that have made Black, Latinx and tribal communities, impacted worst and first by air pollution, so vulnerable.
With each passing week, medical science learns more about how the novel coronavirus ravages the human body. At least two things, however, are clear: The virus causes significant respiratory problems, and it is disproportionately hitting minorities.
In Florida, 17% of the population identifies as African American/Black yet 58% of COVID-19 deaths are among African Americans/Blacks.
It may be tempting to look at COVID-19 as just a public health issue, but it is also very much an environmental one. That’s because air quality and air pollution have a significant bearing on how individuals are affected by respiratory illness. Black, Latinx, tribal communities and low-income families, referred to as Frontline communities, often bear the biggest burdens when it comes to environmental concerns.
These Frontline communities have been disadvantaged long before COVID-19 by many forms of discrimination, including racial, economic, and environmental. While there is much to be done to address these inequities, we can begin to address the last of these by eliminating some of the major sources of pollutants.
One good way is to fast track adoption of clean transportation including electric vehicles, electric buses, scooters, and more. Fossil fuels are a major source of climate change. But wider adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) can dramatically affect the air quality in this area, making a significant improvement for the region’s under-resourced communities that are often over-exposed to air pollution.
I firmly believe that people’s zip code or race should not determine their life expectancy and health. The connection between disparity-related mortality rates and exposure to air pollution and poor air quality led me to work at the intersection of transportation and environmental health equity. COVID-19 is forcing us to pull back the curtain on health disparities, and it’s not a pretty sight.
Those of us who work in public health are all too familiar with health disparities between one group and another. As a former medical school professor who studies health disparities in Black and Latinx communities, I have seen this play out over the course of my career.
Organizations like EVHybridNoire (EVHN), the nation’s largest multicultural network of diverse EV owners and enthusiasts, works to educate affected communities about these very issues.
EVHN advocates for climate justice, education and outreach to increase awareness and adoption of electrified transportation, workforce and economic development opportunities in e-mobility and electrified transportation and for policies to reduce the impact of transportation emissions on these communities.
However, EVHN is just one organization, and we need an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to dismantle the systems that help fuel these disparities.
Florida is making progress. Thanks to groups like Drive Electric Florida, the state has an ever-growing network of EV charging stations, and the state is moving forward with a program, funded by a settlement with Volkswagen, to swap out dozens of old, dirty diesel school buses with clean electric ones.
These steps are a good start, but there is so much more to be done. We need more clean-air regulations and focused education to teach communities about the connections between air pollution, transportation, and the public health impacts.
COVID-19 is a perfect example of why it is important to have strong policies in place to protect the public’s health, particularly those in minority communities. And even in the midst of the pandemic, the time to start is now.
Dr. Shelley Francis is cofounder of EVHybridNoire and is a nationally recognized e-mobility and public health professional focused on equity initiatives with electric, connected, autonomous & shared vehicles.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.