Environmental Equity and Health Empowerment Zones

In February 2018, the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Specifically, the study found that people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty.1 The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the deep-rooted system of structural racism in this country as preliminary numbers have revealed that people of color are facing higher risks. People of color are more likely to live in redlined neighborhoods that lack healthy food options, green spaces, recreational facilities, lighting and safety. They are also more likely to live in densely populated areas and are one-quarter of all public transit users. Healthcare facilities, including hospitals and pharmacies, are typically further away. They are more likely to be exposed to pollutants and toxins. And they are more likely to fill low-paying but now considered “essential” jobs, resulting in more face-to-face interactions with the public. Combined with high rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes and hypertension; these conditions and countless others have contributed to a disproportionate health impact on black and brown people due to the novel coronavirus.2 As testing and triage centers are established, they need to be located where people of color live so they can receive treatment quicker.

Traditionally, black churches are the focal point of black communities and have the ability to play a prominent role. Congress build upon the concepts of the Health Empowerment Zone Act which requires federal officials to designate a community that experiences disproportionate disparities in health status and health care as a health empowerment zone and give them priority in awarding competitive grants. Black churches can bridge federal, state and local resources with community resources and overcome long-standing trust issues related to healthcare.3