Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, it’s become clear that this pandemic, like climate change, disproportionately impacts communities of colour.
Data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly one-third of COVID-19 patients are black, even though they make up just 13% of the U.S. population. Numbers are similar for COVID-19 death rates. This pattern is true across nearly all jurisdictions that collect data.
In Canada, we don’t collect race-based data, but the information we have indicates a similar trend. People in North Montreal, the lowest-income neighbourhood in the Montreal Metropolitan Area, are falling ill and dying in greater per-capita numbers than in other neighbourhoods. Stats from Toronto Public Health show higher infection rates in areas with greater proportions of low-income people or newcomers.
Like climate change, COVID-19 is a threat-multiplier. Both crises compound and highlight existing inequities. As early as 2009, Scientific American pointed out that climate change will impact the poor most. Those who’ve had the smallest role in creating carbon emissions will pay the greatest price.
These days, there’s much talk about stimulus and recovery investments that could help us build back better, putting us in a stronger position to weather future shocks and crises. These are crucial discussions, but they must address equity.
Recent Anstice polling shows that we’re more compassionate and caring right now. People generally want others to be safe, have food, be able to pay their rent and have a chance to thrive in the future.
Even before the pandemic, an Abacus Data survey showed that Canadians are more supportive of climate and energy transition policies if policymakers demonstrate that they’ve thought about equity and included measures to ensure people who have been more marginalized aren’t negatively impacted by these policies.
And in a recent Ipsos public opinion poll, 61% of Canadians expressed that in the economic recovery from COVID-19, it’s important that government actions prioritize climate change.
Taken together, these polls suggest a path forward. If values have shifted toward care and compassion and away from consumerism, and if people in Canada are more supportive of energy transition policies and investments, then now is the time to advance policy and investments that address equity and reduce climate risk while creating more just, inclusive communities.
There are reasons to be hopeful.
The Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners have a new tool that explores energy poverty. It shows that in my community, Vancouver, visible minority households are twice as likely to experience energy poverty. Often inequities are hidden, but if we can see them, we can begin to address them. And this will likely resonate with people, especially right now. Tools like this could help governments make decisions that address greenhouse gas reductions, job creation, health and equity.
For example, instead of incentives for single-family housing retrofits, there may be more co-benefits to addressing retrofits for low-income, multi-family housing or social housing. There may also be more public support for these initiatives.
In online meeting rooms across the country, elected officials and government staff at all levels are debating how to advance climate policies that also improve health and resilience as we emerge from the pandemic. Some are putting active transportation infrastructure in place to help with physical distancing and provide healthy mobility options that get people outdoors. Others are considering building retrofit projects that create jobs.
I hope they also consider the polling that shows people’s values are coalescing around empathy and caring, and that even before the pandemic, there was higher support for policies that address equity.
We now have the opportunity to work together to build a future that’s headed toward net-zero carbon, that’s more resilient, healthier, equitable and inclusive. We’ll need to rely on our values, clarity of purpose and courage to try new things, and to learn and adapt so that we can truly build back better.
Sherry Yano is the community renewable energy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation