Two Sides of the Same Coin

By: John A. Lanier

Whether we are talking about pandemic justice or environmental justice, the situation is largely the same. The poor among us are suffering.

One of the big surprises of parenthood is how much it has taken me back to basics. Our children are too young to understand the nuances of our complex world, so my wife and I have to simplify what we teach. “Share with your brother because he likes having a turn as much as you do.” And, “Don’t pull your sister’s hair because it hurts her, and we don’t hurt people.” Our constant, daily message to them is to always be and do good. It’s kind of refreshing to frame things so simply again.

As we raise them in the Christian faith, we’ve also seen a similar need to simplify the messages of the Bible. There’s a lot of complexity in that particular book, like the nuances of salvation theology and the historical context of many of Christ’s parables. My kids aren’t ready for that, so we focus on the basics. “Jesus loves you so much, even when you do something wrong.” And, “Jesus loves everyone just as much as He loves you.”

When I am forced to consider Christianity in this simplified way, some of the most important lessons of my faith become crystal clear. For example, scripture is full of stories and commandments about the poor and disadvantaged. Leviticus 25:35-36 commands that we care for those reduced to poverty. Psalm 140:12 places God on the side of the afflicted and the poor. Proverbs 29:7 says that just and righteous people care for the cause of the poor, while wicked people lack that concern. Matthew 25:40 reminds us that whatever we do for the hungry, sick, naked and imprisoned, we also do for God. We are called to creation care.

If I may be so bold, I would say that care for the disadvantaged is a bedrock principle of the Christian faith (and of many other faith traditions). That’s why I believe we should be aware of and concerned by how disproportionately the COVID-19 virus is impacting minorities and low-income communities.

New York City is showing the most obvious way that this pandemic is exacerbating inequities – more cases of the disease are coming from poorer zip codes. A likely reason for this is that poorer communities tend to have more urban density, making social distancing harder. Similarly, low-income jobs are less likely to translate to remote work, meaning those who still have jobs face a higher likelihood of contracting the disease just by going to work.

Death rates are higher for disadvantaged communities too. Here, the reason is tied to the fact that COVID-19 is a riskier disease for people with poorer health. We know that poor health goes hand-in-hand with fewer economic opportunities, inferior educational opportunities, less access to healthy food, and inferior access to quality healthcare.

Those are just the human health implications of COVID-19 for the poorest among us. Add on top of it the disproportionate economic implications of COVID-19 and you begin to realize how unbalanced the impacts of this pandemic really are.

In the environmental space, we’ve seen the flipside of this coin - it’s called environmental justice. For a long time now, we’ve seen that negative environmental impacts harm disadvantaged communities disproportionately. Poorer air quality in those communities contributes to higher rates of asthma. When a polluting source like an incinerator or coal ash pond is sited, it’s usually in a low-income area for economic reasons, meaning those residents are at greater risk of exposure to contaminants. Low-income jobs can come with greater exposure to toxic chemicals used in the industry, such as farmworker exposure to pesticides. The list goes on, and it’s tragic.

Whether we are talking about pandemic justice or environmental justice, the situation is largely the same. The poor among us are suffering. It’s that simple, and I think even my young children would know what we need to do. We need to care for them, and do everything we can to prevent these harms in the first place. 

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