As a former medical professor specializing in health disparities, I’ve paid close attention to the impacts of COVID-19 as it ravages through our country. Two trends tell a very disturbing story about COVID-19 mortality, air pollution and those who suffer the worst impacts of both.
First, if you are African American and come down with COVID-19, you are far more likely to die than your fellow Americans. In Maryland, where race and ethnicity data for patients are tracked, African Americans comprise 31% of the population but 41% of COVID deaths. These disparities are evident in Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and other areas of Maryland.
Second, If you live in an area with high air pollution, you are far more likely to die from the virus than if you live in a community with cleaner air. A recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that tiny, dangerous particles known as particulate matter are associated with higher death rates from COVID-19. The study results indicate that small increases in long-term exposure to air pollution increases one’s chances of experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.
Of course, these two trends are closely linked.
Due to racism and decades of inequities, people of color are far more likely to live in areas with high air pollution than white Americans, and they suffer health disparities as a result.
The pandemic has also produced a result that captures our attention and suggests a solution that would help reverse both these shameful trends.
We’ve always known that cars and trucks fueled by gasoline and diesel are one of the largest sources of air pollution in the country. For so long, that air pollution has seemed inevitable. Like so many things that seemed immutable before COVID-19, we now know that is not the case. And with the clear link between COVID-19 mortality and air pollution, we can’t go back to the way things were.
Once our economy revs back into action, people will get back in their cars and trucks and pollution levels will go back up. But what if more and more of us switch to electric cars, trucks and buses? What if, in rebuilding our economy, we focus on supporting the shovel-ready jobs needed to build out electric vehicle (EV) charging stations throughout our country? What if big companies transitioned their vehicle fleets entirely to electric-powered trucks and delivery vans — a move Amazon is already starting to do?
Hastening the transition to electric vehicles can be a natural part of how we rebuild our economy. Building out charging infrastructure to enable more electric vehicle adoption will provide jobs in communities across America, putting people back to work at a time when so many need a paycheck. Electric vehicles are also less expensive to maintain and cheaper to power — even with historically low gas prices.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recently took a positive step by committing to join with 14 other states and Washington, D.C., to increasing the number of electric trucks, buses and other large vehicles on our streets and highways, with a goal that all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sold are zero-emission models by 2050. This move will decrease exposure to air pollution for front line communities exposed the most to pollution from vehicle emissions and transportation corridors.
In addition to supporting electric vehicles at the state level, we need to think regionally. That’s why the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a budding collaboration between Maryland and other northeast and mid-Atlantic states to ramp up efforts to stop climate change is so important.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put our nation to the test like nothing in my memory. I have been heartened by the generosity and compassion shown by neighbors for one another, by the steadfast commitment to service demonstrated by our medical providers, and by the steady leadership shown by mayors, governors and local leaders throughout the country.
Now it’s time to apply that generosity of spirit, leadership and can-do attitude and get serious about cleaning up the air we breathe by transitioning from gas cars and trucks to electric. I know we are all eager for things to go back to normal in America, but some changes — like dramatically cleaner air — are worth keeping around.
Shelley Francis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former medical professor, former director with the Georgia Department of Public Health and co-founder of Atlanta-based EVHybridNoire, which works at the intersection of health equity and clean transportation.