We may all be in this pandemic together, but our protection from its wrath is not evenly distributed. In fact, COVID-19 is taking an extreme toll in Iowa on those least able to protect themselves, exposing and exacerbating inequities here that have gone unchecked for too long.
I see this blight especially in Iowa counties with meatpacking plants and large warehouses, where there are spikes in coronavirus cases in the wake of President Trump’s order declaring them essential businesses that must remain open during the pandemic. The same workers who feed our families — many of whom are Latinos — are working in woefully unsafe conditions.
According to state demographic data, Black and Latino Iowans are being disproportionately hit by the virus. Latinos and other people of color reliant on jobs in these meat plants are also on the frontlines of health-harming industrial pollution. George Floyd’s unforgettable plea, “I Can't Breathe,” shocks the conscience — and also resonates with pollution fighters and environmental justice advocates. Why? Environmental justice and racial justice are inseparable; we cannot advance one without the other.
Times like these require courageous and committed leadership to set things right. A recent action by Muscatine Mayor Broderson ordering facemasks in public should have been the standard from our nation’s highest office earlier this year. Sadly, we didn’t see that in our president, who instead made this simple and lifesaving tactic a political wedge and whose Environmental Protection Agency is working overtime on a cynical campaign to loosen regulations for industrial polluters. This egregious rollback during COVID-19 increases the already disproportionate burden of harm on Black, Latino, and Indigenous people. We also need more leadership from our Senators in calling out these unprecedented assaults to vital clean air protections, all 100 of them. For example, with a lifetime score of just 3%, Senator Ernst’s voting record on the environment puts her among the worst in the Senate. At 18% Senator Grassley is a bit better, particularly with his support of renewable energy, but there is much room for improvement for both senators.
In a recent letter to Vice President Pence, Ernst pleaded for help to buoy the pork processing industry while hardly mentioning the plight of workers. “Now more than ever, we must protect the integrity of our food supply from farmer to grocery shelf using an all-hands-on-deck approach,” she wrote. To us, integrity for all would mean addressing environmental racism in our communities. We expect our senators to protect us, not polluters, lest we become a country of sacrifice zones — places where communities of color experience health disparities because of air, water, and chemical pollution.
Here in Iowa, sacrifice zones look a lot like Muscatine and Louisa counties. Both are heavily industrial areas with consistently poor air quality and unsurprisingly have some of the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations in the state — including among people of color who cannot afford to live far away from polluting factories and coal plants. These two counties have also suffered some of the highest coronavirus-related death rates in the state.
As an Iowan, I abhor this status quo. That is why I and many others have been fighting the damaging rollbacks from Trump’s EPA, and especially the hyper-charged speed with which they’re coming out now under cover of COVID-19. These rollbacks have suspended or weakened clean-air protections, which we need more than ever while a deadly respiratory disease is ravaging our country.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown into stark relief the grim inequities that so many have already been living. The question is, what are our leaders now going to do about it? I invite our Senators to take a stand for environmental justice and transform our economy into one that works for all constituents. If they believe, as I do, that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, they will.
Karin Stein is the field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force in Iowa and co-leads the organization’s Ecomadres program which educates and empowers Latino parents to advocate for climate action on behalf of their children.