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60+ Environmental Justice Advocates and Groups Issue Coronavirus Call to Action Demanding End to 'Sacrifice Zones'

"Underserved and environmentally overburdened communities are now... experiencing disproportionate Covid-19 infections and deaths."

Citizens wearing protective masks form lines to receive free food from a food pantry run by the Council of Peoples Organization on May 8, 2020 in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Citizens wearing protective masks form lines to receive free food from a food pantry run by the Council of Peoples Organization on May 8, 2020 in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Over 60 U.S.-based advocates and organizations on Tuesday released an open letter calling for "an immediate and sustained response to inequities causing Covid-19 to infect and kill a disproportionate number of people subjected to systemic racism and the denial of self-determination throughout the United States."

"The pandemic has painfully and fatally exacerbated long-standing injustice for Black, Brown, and immigrant communities, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, people who are incarcerated or detained, and low wage workers across many sectors."
—open letter
The joint call to action on environmental justice and the coronavirus pandemic demands an end to "sacrifice zones" and pushes for "proactive" national policies to serve the historically marginalized communities that are struggling with the intertwined health and economic crises.

"The pandemic has painfully and fatally exacerbated long-standing injustice for Black, Brown, and immigrant communities, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, people who are incarcerated or detained, and low-wage workers across many sectors," the letter says.

"Each is confronting the cumulative impacts of public health and economic crises on top of environmental and climate risks and a perpetual state of sanctioned violence," the letter continues. "We must expose and dismantle the structures that permit and perpetuate this nation's sacrifice zones, and pursue environmental and climate justice and self-determination for all peoples."

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 2.96 million Covid-19 cases and over 130,800 deaths from the disease in the United States, which has more infections and deaths than any other country, according to the Johns Hopkins University's global tracker.

The letter details the historical conditions in U.S. communities facing high rates of infections and deaths:

Housing discrimination and segregation have plagued environmental justice communities for generations, leading to systemic disinvestment in health infrastructure and resources, chronic poverty, and environmental racism—including drastic disproportionality in exposure to air and water pollution—and inequalities in job opportunities. Incarceration, detention, and institutionalization by their nature deny self-determination to those confined.

Underserved and environmentally overburdened communities are now also experiencing disproportionate Covid-19 infections and deaths. Those sacrificed to Covid-19 include disproportionate numbers of Indigenous peoples and communities of color, frontline and healthcare workers, workers in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, farmworkers, nursing home residents and employees, people with disabilities in institutional settings, and those who work or are incarcerated in prisons, jails, and detention centers.

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The letter adds that "disinvestment in environmental justice communities has contributed to polluted air and water, fewer hospitals and healthy food options, jobs without paid sick leave, and crowded living conditions that make social distancing difficult. These factors—the lack of access to clean air and water, healthcare or paid leave, or safe and healthy food, transportation, housing, and workplaces, among others—cause the disproportionate impacts we witness."

The pandemic is as an opportunity to address these historic injustices, the letter argues—specifically demanding equal protection before the law, an end to discriminatory segregation, fulfillment of federal treaty obligations to Native American nations, equitable access to crucial infrastructure, environmental and labor protections, criminal justice reform, and healthcare for all.

"Deconstruction of historic and ongoing injustices of this magnitude requires a paradigm shift in how we approach land use, pollution, health, and housing," the letter says. "It will require not only the cessation of the disproportionate allocation of burdens that perpetuate inequities, but indeed also the reverse; it will require the intentional re-allocation of benefits to underserved communities, and the intentional distribution of burdens on a fairer basis to communities that currently shoulder fewer burdens."

Lead signatories to the letter include Amy Laura Cahn and Johannes Epke of the Conservation Law Foundation; Marianne Engelman Lado of the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law School; Vernice Miller-Travis of Metropolitan Group; Eric Jantz, Gail Evans, and Doug Meiklejohn of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center; and Christine Appah and Melissa Iachan of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

"How many times have we heard those advocating for environmental justice and equal protection demand a 'paradigm shift' over the past forty years?" Miller-Travis asked in a statement. "How many times have we heard these same communities and advocates ask U.S. EPA and other agencies to investigate the cumulative effects of multiple sources of pollution bombarding the places where they live, work, attend school, worship, and play?"

"Today, the syndemic of environmental and racial injustice, and the novel coronavirus have brought into dramatic relief that exposure to fine particle air pollutants is making these same communities the epicenter of illness and disproportionate rates of death from Covid-19."
—Vernice Miller-Travis, Metropolitan Group

"We've said over and over that we 'could not breathe,' and too many were dying from proximity and exposure to nearby sources of pollution," she continued. "For the most part our cries and demands for reduction of pollution went unheeded."

"Today, the syndemic of environmental and racial injustice, and the novel coronavirus have brought into dramatic relief that exposure to fine particle air pollutants is making these same communities the epicenter of illness and disproportionate rates of death from Covid-19," Miller-Travis added. "Maybe now, when so many in these communities are dying needlessly, we can finally get them the help they so desperately need and deserve."

Other individuals and groups supporting the call to action include Mustafa Santiago Ali of the National Wildlife Federation and Revitalization Strategies, Adrienne Hollis of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Leslie G. Fields of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Earthjustice, National Black Environmental Justice Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, Rio Grande Indivisible, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

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