August 5th, 2020

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has exacerbated racial injustices, Governor Whitmer signed Executive Directive 2020-9 declaring racism as a public health crisis. We now know that economic, environmental, and health inequities contribute to the fact that black Michiganders have a four times greater risk of dying from the coronavirus than do white residents. The mortality rate for black residents is 1,624 per 1 million, compared to 399 per 1 million as is the mortality rate with white residents. According to a recent Harvard School of Public Health study, increased exposure to poor air quality, specifically exposure to high levels of particulate matter, drastically increases your risk of mortality after contracting COVID-19. In addition to higher mortality rates, the exposure rates in black communities is much higher than those in white communities, with reported COVID-19 cases at 14,703 per 1 million in black residents compared to just 4,160 per 1 million in white residents.

As alarming as these statistics are, it is important to remember that Michigan’s public health inequities and environmental justice problems did not begin during this pandemic. People of color in our state have been facing disproportionate environmental effects for years. For example, they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with little to no access to healthy food choices and are frequently forced to live in older homes that come with a variety of health risks, including increased lead, mold, and asbestos exposure. Too often communities with a large percentage of persons of color are located adjacent to power plants and heavy industrial areas with high levels of pollution that reduce life expectancy, increase rates of infant and maternal mortality, and lead to higher rates of asthma than white communities in Michigan.

The governor’s executive directive does not just stop at declaring racism a public health crisis, it also directs state agencies to examine data, develop policies, and begin advocating for communities of color to solve these problems. We thank Governor Whitmer for continuing to elevate this important conversation surrounding environmental justice and racial inequities and for taking meaningful action within state departments to start correcting these systematic flaws.