Health disparities are warning about future

The COVID-19 pandemic has lain bare the often ignored fact that racial and ethnic minorities suffer from a greater burden of many diseases. While multiple factors contribute to these disparities, excess exposure to environmental pollution is a clear contributor and COVID-19 has underscored this fact. Higher levels of toxic air pollution in minority communities coupled with evidence that air pollution increases coronavirus susceptibility may partially explain the greater rates of COVID-19-related deaths among African Americans.

The health disparities amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic are a warning about future health threats. Climate change is bringing a crescendo of health threats, including heat-related illness, infectious diseases and many others. Communities exposed to higher levels of pollution are exquisitely sensitive to the health threats posed by climate change. As such, we must take lessons from the current pandemic to address the threat of environmental pollution on vulnerable communities.

Not often acknowledged, many affluent Chicago suburbs are "environmental oppressor communities" that disproportionately generate greenhouse gases and amplify regional vulnerability to climate change. These suburbs have ownership stakes in coal-fired power plants, essentially directly linking their financial interests to environmental harm. The most egregious examples are those communities served by the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency (IMEA), including Naperville, St. Charles and Winnetka who receive nearly 90% of their electricity from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel that promotes disease by poisoning our air and water while also driving global temperature rise. Chicago's suburbs must do better for ourselves and our neighbors.

Indeed, the unjust burden of the coronavirus on vulnerable communities and the immense costs paid to fight the virus mandate that we emerge from this pandemic into a new world that prioritizes health equity and prevents the next wave of global scourges brought on by climate change by abandoning fossil fuels.

Robert M. Sargis


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