Blog Global Health Center COVID-19

Something is in the air: The confluence of climate change, environmental racism, & Covid-19

Written by Kaelan Smyser, undergraduate student and member of the Global Health Center Student Advisory Committee at the Institute for Public Health

Students, faculty and staff gathered at the 2021 Global Health Week at Washington University in St. Louis, to attend an interdisciplinary panel on the intersection of climate change, environmental racism and Covid-19. The event was organized by the Global Health Student Advisory Committee. The panel featured Washington University experts Joseph Steensma, EdD, MPH, Professor of Practice at the Brown School; Fernando Serrano, PhD, adjunct professor of Environmental Health; Jay Turner, DSc, Vice Dean for Education, Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering at McKelvey School of Engineering; and, Theresa Gildner, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, Arts and Sciences. Each panelist brought a unique perspective stemming from their research, life experiences, and roles as educators.

The panelists emphasized the interconnectedness of global health and environmental degradation. The planet is at the precipice of climate change and is beginning to advance towards globally diffusing environmental changes. The faculty panelists highlighted the need for improved interdisciplinary communication in order to successfully protect historically marginalized communities from the harmful effects of climate change. These communities may experience limited access to information on the environmental dangers their community faces due to shortcomings such as a lack of funding at national and global scales for environmental research in the community accompanied by an inadequate dissemination of existing scientific knowledge. This knowledge gap leaves already vulnerable populations, such as those living in poverty, who are often disproportionately minority, at a greater risk than their affluent and/or white counterparts. The panelists each seek to minimize these gaps through their work.

Dr. Turner highlighted a study in which he is partnering with a local community to assess the environmental health hazards faced in order to provide resources to the community in order to minimize hazardous effects. Community-centered, grass-roots projects like the one, are the front-line in the battle against the environmental consequences of climate change and the first step towards achieving environmental justice throughout the globe.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has underscored racialized and wealth-based disparities within our communities and brought them to the forefront of research, the media, and every-day conversation. Dr. Steensma predicted that communities with higher levels of air pollution will be more likely to suffer from long-Covid-19. The lasting affects of long-Covid, such as disabilities, economic losses, and need for expensive medications will continue to widen the disparities between affluent and impoverished communities. Inequality is entrenched in our global society, but through research collaboration and education initiatives, such as Global Health Week, we seek to minimize the affects of climate change, environmental racism, and the long-term affects of Covid-19.