Covid-19 and Climate Change Are Killing Black Women

Climate change impacts how the disease spreads, and racism affects how Black women are treated

An elderly Black woman as a patient at the hospital.
Photo: ER Productions Limited/Getty Images

Ask me about my last visit to the emergency room as a Black woman, and I can tell you the story of how I left the hospital more traumatized and in worse shape than when I arrived seeking help. Similar stories could be told by countless women of color around the world.

As the coronavirus pandemic throws seemingly countless inequities into light, much of the world is witnessing the overlap in the fight for health, climate, gender, and racial justice. More women are visiting the hospital due to the coronavirus — and more cases of explicit gender and racial bias in health care are surfacing.

Nearly half of the medical care in the United States happens in emergency rooms, with minorities and women accounting for the majority of visits. While over 70% of Covid-19 pregnancies are Latina and Black women in Illinois alone, the Covid-19 crisis is putting pregnant women at a higher risk of being hospitalized and admitted to the ICU to be placed on a ventilator.

Race and ethnicity could be deciding factors in who lives or dies under Covid-19.

Racial discrimination could disproportionately increase their risk of death. The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) described the disparities in the mistreatment of Black patients as an “uncomfortable reality” when its 2005 study found that Black people tend to be sicker and more likely to die because they are treated less effectively than White people. Even when the circumstances are similar, race and ethnicity could be a deciding factor in who lives or dies under the care of health care professionals during this pandemic.

This is not to say that only women of color experience unfair health care treatment. In fact, the University of Pennsylvania found that if a man and woman visit the emergency room, the woman waits 16 minutes longer on average. Women are often more likely to be sedated for behaving “irrationally” while in pain. In general, the pain experienced by women is taken less seriously and treated less comprehensively, with no regard to race or ethnicity. While the numbers are higher for women of color, one in six women have experienced maternal mistreatment, according to the journal Reproductive Health.

But Black women bear the brunt of gender and racial stereotypes — a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science revealed that half of White medical trainees still believed race-based myths, with 40% believing that Black people have thicker skin and don’t feel pain the same way as White people.

With more than 5 million cases of Covid-19 and more than 177,000 deaths in the United States, defining the work of health care professionals as “heroic” continues to feel like an understatement. They are taking enormous risks and taking on extreme stress to keep us safe and alive. Yet, we cannot ignore the historical mistreatment and current bias that runs rampant in health care systems, because being heard and supported can mean the difference between life and death for countless patients.

The coronavirus pandemic is part of the climate crisis.

What does any of this have to do with climate change? Gender and racial disparities are affecting what treatment people of color receive, and the matter of who gets the coronavirus and other deadly diseases is largely shaped by environmental and economic inequities. So, the pandemic is, in fact, part of the climate crisis.

As explained by the World Health Organization, climate change can be cited as a major contributor to the transmission of infectious diseases (and naturally, as disease spreads, this increases the need for good medical care that women of color just aren’t receiving). According to the CDC, increased air and water pollution can lead to more instances of asthma and Ebola, respectively. Exposure to West Nile virus and malaria also increases thanks to climate change in regions largely populated by people of color. These diseases spread more rapidly as typically colder regions heat up, because mosquitoes have more favorable conditions to travel farther distances — infecting and killing up to 1 million people annually.

Women of color are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change: 70% of poor people throughout the world are women, and climate change often threatens or disrupts their access to adequate food sources. When direct dependence on natural resources and self-sufficiency is a matter of life and death, disruptive weather events can quickly destroy the lives of women and families. As almost 60 million women in rural Latin America rely on agriculture, they are battling climate impacts along with the unequally shared political power that prevents proper mitigation. For Black women, the compounded effects of air pollution and climate change have increased the likelihood of pregnancy complications, including premature and stillborn births.

Women’s voices are strong enough and wise enough to curtail the climate crisis, but women must be healthy to do so.

Even though women of color bear the heaviest burdens of climate disasters—health complications being the most recognizable—they are grossly underrepresented in the climate movement. Through the lived experiences of Black and Brown women, there are local and national solutions waiting to be revealed. But when will the voices that need to be heard the most stop being overshadowed and cast aside due to bias and appropriation?

Climate change and Covid-19 are killing the very people we need to solve global problems. If we would elevate the voices of women of color—beyond the surface actions of sharing inspiring quotes and slick images on Instagram—we may have more comprehensive climate solutions on a global scale.

In turn, mitigating the climate crisis would slow the rate of pandemic spreads like Covid-19 by building the physical resilience needed to ensure better health outcomes for everyone. Women’s voices are strong enough and wise enough to curtail the climate crisis in a way that promotes equity and resilience across the gender and racial spectrum — but women must be healthy to do so.

Heart of an artist. Soul of an activist. Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store