FUEL ON THE FIRE: Parallels between vulnerability to heat waves and COVID-19 reveal systemic injustices
We are in the peak of summer, with the COVID-19 outbreak raging on, and much of the U.S. is enveloped in heat waves. This summer is on track to be one of the hottest in history, and places like Arizona, Texas, southern California, and Florida are experiencing extreme heat on top of some of the highest rates of coronavirus infection. This is a lethal combination, particularly for Black, Hispanic, and Native American populations, grounded in long-standing systemic inequities.
The COVID-19 “riskscape” reveals significant disparities, with Black and Hispanic people three times more likely to be infected and two times more likely to die than Whites. Maine is among the states with the greatest disparities. According to the Maine CDC, “Blacks or African-Americans” account for 23% of coronavirus cases but just 1.4% of the state’s population, while Whites make up 94% of the population but account for just 60% of cases. Structural inequalities may be largely to blame. Minorities are more likely to live in crowded housing that makes social distancing impossible, and they are overrepresented in essential jobs. Inequities in healthcare access leave them with lower health status and in some cases higher rates of pre-existing conditions that make COVID-19 more lethal. Educational disparities and language gaps may reduce awareness about mitigating risks.
Pile on a heat wave, and things go from bad to worse. Exposure to extreme heat is life- threatening, far more dangerous than most of us realize, and can result in heat stroke when the body overheats and no longer cools itself. Extreme heat hazards are projected to increase as climate change worsens, potentially affecting three-quarters of the world’s population by the end of the century.
The same populations vulnerable to COVID-19 bear a greater risk of extreme heat stress, and the reasons are much the same. Historic redlining in our cities pushed people of color into smaller, denser housing in less desirable neighborhoods. Use of cement, asphalt, and other heat-absorbing materials in buildings creates heat traps, made worse by a lack of green space. In 37 U.S. cities, formerly redlined neighborhoods have half as many trees as predominantly White neighborhoods in the same cities. Baltimore’s poorest neighborhood, home to predominantly people of color, is six degrees hotter than its coolest neighborhood. Vulnerable people tend to have fewer resources and less adaptive capacity to cope with high temperatures.
Outdoor laborers, many of whom are considered “essential,” are at risk of developing exertional heatstroke in hot conditions. Between 1992 and 2016, nearly 70,000 U.S. farmworkers were seriously injured from heat; 783 of them died. Fear of deportation may discourage migrant farmworkers from reporting adverse conditions or seeking medical attention. This may be one reason why Hispanic immigrants have a risk of heat-related deaths 3.6 times that of Whites. Non-U.S. citizens who are 18-24 years old face 20 times the risk.
Minority populations suffer disproportionately from chronic conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease that are exacerbated by extreme heat exposure. Hispanics, American Indians and Alaska Natives are nearly three times more likely to be uninsured compared to Whites, and Blacks almost twice as likely. Blacks are more likely than Whites to report not being able to see a doctor in the past year because of cost. Linguistically isolated and less educated individuals may not comprehend heat-related health messaging or be familiar with the local climate.
Coronavirus and extreme heat play off one another in lethal ways. Stay-at-home orders and the recent economic downturn have challenged well-established solutions to combat extreme heat, like community cooling centers and energy efficiency programs, and exposure to heat may increase vulnerability to COVID-19. As both crises intensify, we need to address the common underlying systemic injustices, including poor living circumstances, lack of economic opportunities, occupational hazards, and inequalities in healthcare. For coronavirus, we hold out hope that rigorous protective measures and a vaccine will ease our burden in the not-too-distant future, but no such remedy exists for the increasing heat stress climate change brings. We must address the disparities that COVID-19 has made so clear and recognize that these are the same gaps brought to light by climate change. These lessons apply in Maine, and as the Maine Climate Council makes recommendations for state action on climate change, it is necessary we acknowledge and remedy systemic inequities in order to protect those most vulnerable.
Megan Andersen is a junior Environmental Science major at Colby College, originally from Santa Rosa, California. She is spending the summer researching the health impacts of climate change on a project funded by Colby’s Buck Lab for Climate and Environment. This piece subsequently ran as an op-ed in Santa Rosa, California’s Press Democrat on Sunday, Aug 9, 2020.