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Like so much else in 2020, the wildfires engulfing the western half of the United States are without precedent.
They have advanced with astonishing speed, leaping 25 miles overnight and sending a towering pillar of smoke into the stratosphere. At this writing, the blazes have claimed at least three dozen lives, burned more than 5 million acres and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
The fires have also sparked a public health crisis. Much of the western U.S. and Canada is wreathed in acrid smoke, resulting in some of the world’s worst air quality. Wildfire smoke exacerbates asthma and other respiratory problems and is linked to increases in heart attacks and strokes. Smoke inhalation can also alter immune function, increasing susceptibility to infections such as COVID-19.
Wildfire smoke affects everyone in its path, but not all people suffer equally.
Wildfires have a disproportionate impact on the health of low-income families and people of color. These groups are more likely to be segregated into areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution — putting them at greater risk of sickness and death from both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke.
The current crises may be unprecedented, but health disparities have long been with us. Across the U.S., there are large and growing gaps in health and life expectancy based on race, class and where people live. Lower-income people in struggling rural towns and pollution-choked urban areas die, on average, more than a decade earlier than their wealthy counterparts.
A large share of health disparities owe to societal conditions such as low-paying jobs and high housing costs, which combine to create chronic stress, and environmental issues that expose low income families to toxins and unhealthy conditions. The wildfires now raging across the West could worsen existing inequities, widening the gaps between rich and poor, healthy and sick.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Some cities — including Louisville, Kentucky, San Francisco and Seattle — are working to improve health outcomes by incorporating racial equity into the way they respond to disasters.
For example, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Francisco Department of Public Health stepped up outreach and testing in Black and Latinx communities, partnering with community-based organizations and faith groups to reach across cultural barriers.
These three cities have also appointed “equity officers,” who determine which groups are most in harm’s way and deploy resources accordingly. Equity officers think about what each community needs to be safe, including special strategies to ensure that frontline workers are protected from smoke and exposure to COVID-19.
Increasingly, the unprecedented is our daily reality. And as new threats compound old injustices, too many Americans are consigned to poverty and poor health. To prevent that, we must recognize the disproportionate impact of disasters on already-struggling communities, and make sure disaster response addresses their needs.
More broadly, we need to make sure all Americans have access to healthy neighborhoods, good jobs, and quality education — the building blocks of a long and healthy life.
Melissa Jones is the executive director of the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.