COVID-19 is showing us what climate apartheid will look like


Nature doesn’t discriminate. There is nothing intrinsically racist or classist about a flood, a drought or a pandemic.  Photo by    Tom Fisk    from

Nature doesn’t discriminate. There is nothing intrinsically racist or classist about a flood, a drought or a pandemic. Photo by Tom Fisk from

Nature doesn’t discriminate. There is nothing intrinsically racist or classist about a flood, a drought or a pandemic. 

But if those natural disasters make landfall on an unequal society, their destruction will be distributed unequally. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this clear. 

As professor and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor laid out in a brilliant article last week, “ … the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality … Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing and given inferior health care because of their race.”

This inequality, in turn, leads to vulnerability. Black and brown Americans are dying to COVID-19 at a rapid pace — not because the virus is racist, but as a result of centuries of discrimination. This discrimination is intentional, enforced at every level of government and designed to economically and socially disenfranchise. For decades, federal bureaucrats, urban planners and real estate capitalists have forced poor black and brown Americans into segregated neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are often industrially polluted, riddled with food deserts and lacking healthcare infrastructure, leading to long-lasting health issues. The war on drugs has ravaged black communities and resulted in the imprisonment of a wildly disproportionate number of young black men, who are now among the most susceptible to the spread of the virus.

Years of austerity have left indigenous populations particularly vulnerable. A lack of basic infrastructure and dramatically underfunded health systems have resulted in severe outbreaks on reservations like the Navajo Nation

Across the board, poor communities are much more vulnerable to COVID-19 than wealthy ones.

This section of the article could fill several books, but by now you probably get the jist.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor also notes in her article, the response to COVID-19 has been no better. Fewer tests have been administered in poor black neighborhoods than wealthier white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, hospitals in these same neighborhoods have cut services, while jails and prisons have refused to release portions of their predominantly black populations.

American history is pockmarked with examples of racist disaster response, from Hurricanes Katrina and Maria to the Flint water crisis. COVID-19 is just the latest chapter in this American tradition of institutionalized violence against black, brown and indigenous communities. 

It won’t be the last. 

The pandemic is a horrifying tragedy, but it pales in comparison to the coming climate apocalypse. Climate change will prey on the same race and wealth inequalities as COVID-19, but on an unprecedented scale. It will ravage poor countries in the global south and devastate vulnerable communities within the global north.

The significance of learning from this pandemic can’t be understated: We are seeing, with our own eyes, exactly how the “climate apartheid” will play out. We are also gaining further clarity about what must be done to fight it. 

First, explicitly anti-racist social protections are inseparable from any calls for climate justice, as are reparations for the scars left by centuries of American racism and colonialism. We must secure housing, healthcare, food, water, education, workplace protections and the freedom to move (within cities and between countries) as inalienable rights for all people. Without equal provision of these services, the effects of climate change will be decidedly unequal.

Second, the climate justice program must be radical, focused intently on recognizing capitalism as the source of inequality. Until we move past the commodification of social goods like housing and healthcare, market-enforced and state-sanctioned shortages will continue to deprive billions of the chance to lead a safe and happy life. Democratic control of the economy is a necessary precondition to decommodifying these basic social goods. It’s also important to note that capitalism’s insistence on perpetual growth and the predictable consequences for our natural environment has led us to this point. In order to beat climate change, we have to escape its destructive logic.

Third, the climate justice program must be international and anti-imperialist, committed to not only creating an egalitarian and just America, but a just world. The same nationalist and colonial tendencies that have been unmasked during this pandemic — which anecdotally include Trump offering to pay a German company to produce vaccines for Americans only, the parking of an infected U.S. Naval ship in the heavily militarized territory of Guam and leading French doctors suggesting a vaccine should be tested in Africa — will continue as the climate crisis worsens. Climate justice must be a call for global solidarity, not insular nationalism.

These lessons, of course, have been apparent for years to many activists and frontline communities. But COVID-19 is the starkest demonstration yet of what climate change will look like if we don’t change course.

It’s a warning that we can’t ignore.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

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Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

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