Last month, unusually heavy rain breached two aging dams in Midland, Michigan, forcing thousands to flee their homes. As the waters rose, displaced residents had to choose between risking exposure to COVID-19 in a shelter and sleeping in their cars. Further south in Detroit, where my mother lives, heavy rains and failing infrastructure caused sewage backups — yet another public health threat in an African-American neighborhood ravaged by the coronavirus.
Michigan is not unique. Across the U.S., climate change and COVID-19 are playing out in tandem. The warming planet drives increasingly extreme weather, compounding the pandemic’s impacts and complicating disaster response. At the same time, these dual threats have exposed the profound inequities that divide and weaken us.
In the midst of these crises, Americans have been lauded for their resilience. But the praise rings hollow as we are asked to recover from tragedies that could have been prevented, and when the most vulnerable are asked to shoulder the heaviest burden. It’s time to rethink resilience for the era of COVID-19 and climate change.
Resilience is typically defined as the capacity to bounce back after a crisis. A better definition comes from an organization called Dignity & Power Now in their Healing Justice Toolkit: “The purpose of resilience is not to build the capacity to endure more harm,” they write. “We build resilience to be more skillful in confronting the systems that have harmed us.”
That means reckoning with racism and other inequities that put some people at greater risk. We know that low-income communities and people of color are hit first and worst by both climate change and the coronavirus. Across the U.S., African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people.
Much has been written about the health disparities that have cost black and brown lives in the pandemic. Those include unequal access to care, exposure to pollution, and the devastating physical and mental health impacts of racism. During the pandemic, I have personally seen friends and family turned away from COVID testing, treated with disrespect when admitted to the hospital, and — in some cases — coerced to sign Do Not Resuscitate agreements.
I have also seen the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color. Longstanding discrimination means that black and brown communities are often situated in less-desirable, flood-prone areas. And neighborhoods that were subject to redlining have more concrete than green space – making them more vulnerable to extreme heat, the deadliest impact of climate change.
While low-income communities and people of color are on the frontlines of COVID and climate change, they are also taking the lead on rethinking resilience. For example, Groundwork USA’s Climate-Safe Neighborhood program is connecting the dots between redlining and climate change impacts. Through science, advocacy and community voice, they are working to make cities more sustainable and equitable.
Rethinking resilience means prioritizing resources for known areas of vulnerability, lowering barriers to prevention and treatment, and calling out racism within our systems and institutions. It means centering black, brown and low-income communities in crisis response. And it means seizing opportunities to make changes in our systems that will reduce vulnerability.
Information is power, and vulnerable communities need access to timely, accurate information to protect themselves. But that access has been lacking in both the climate and COVID crises. We need to democratize data, by collecting granular information on climate and health risks, fully disaggregated by race and gender. That data must be shared with affected populations, in multiple languages, to guide prevention and preparedness.
Finally, rapid response is key, because vulnerable communities do not have the luxury or privilege of time. In the pandemic and in climate crises, time can literally mean the difference between life and death; between a small disruption and a total disaster. Institutions and systems must step up by being adaptable and flexible, removing barriers that prevent resources — federal agency responses, deployment of stimulus dollars, water infrastructure — from getting where they are needed most.
Low-income communities and people of color are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the long-term impacts of a changing climate. In this context, resilience must mean more than enduring the unendurable, or bouncing back to “normal.” Real resilience demands that we recognize structural racism and rectify the injustices that rob black and brown people, and poor people, of agency and power. It demands that we rethink our responses to climate change and COVID-19, by remaking the systems that have harmed us.
Editor’s note: The Kresge Foundation, where the author of this op-ed works, supports Next City’s For Whom, By Whom series through a separate program.
Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is a senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation, a national private foundation headquartered in Detroit, Michigan.