The Crusader Newspaper Group

What Does Clean Air, COVID-19 and Earth Day Mean to Me? 

By Barbara Bolling-Williams

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all Hoosiers— from the way we work to how we interact with each other to what’s considered essential.

But it hasn’t affected every Indiana community the same way.

According to the state Department of Health earlier this month, nearly one out of five COVID-19 deaths in Indiana have been African-American patients. That’s almost double the percentage of African-Americans who call Indiana home.

This mirrors a trend we’ve seen in other states where the virus has exacted a much higher toll among communities of color.

The news is devastating, but it doesn’t come as a surprise. Whether it’s natural disasters or pandemics, people of color and low-income communities bear the brunt of public health crises—and then receive the fewest resources for recovery.

Many communities of color already suffer disproportionately from the health effects of air pollution, placing them at greater risk for ailments that attack the lungs like COVID-19.

Worse, many fossil fuel operations have been deemed essential and continue to operate as local residents have been ordered to shelter in place. This means families living near these facilities, which tend to be located in lower-income areas and communities of color, face additional risks. These communities also are the least able to endure rising energy costs.

We have to change this narrative as we recover from this crisis.

As we continue the conversation about Indiana’s energy future with the state’s energy task force and next year at the Indiana General Assembly, we must make sure that we’re not using words like “reliability” and “sustainability” without also including “equity.”

We repeatedly have called on Indiana’s utility companies to accelerate the retirement of dirty, polluting coal plants. We will continue our plea with more passion than ever before. We also will vigilantly oppose efforts to raise rates on those who can least afford to pay more for energy.

Clean energy sources not only will reduce the health burden, but they will help our economic recovery. We are actively working right now to train solar installers who can get to work helping Hoosiers attain more energy freedom.

This pandemic has shined a bright light on the public health toll aging coal facilities can take on entire communities. If Indiana were fully invested in clean energy now, these communities would not be as vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, making them less susceptible to COVID-19. And if all of our mass transit and vehicles were electric, then bus drivers, students and folks living near highways would be less vulnerable, too.

Bottom line: Our state must do better for all Hoosiers and especially for Hoosiers of color, and that includes making a commitment to cleaner air and healthier communities.

Barbara Bolling-Williams is the Indiana State Conference president of the NAACP.

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