Inequality In The Air

12:07 minutes

Hazy View of Downtown Los Angeles Skyline
Hazy air in Los Angeles. Credit: Shutterstock

Air quality is a known public health threat, attributed to seven million deaths around the world every year. Minorities, especially African-Americans, often live in areas of high air pollution. Now, scientists say pollution is linked to high rates of COVID-19 deaths, which may help explain why people of color are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. 

Vox reporter Umair Irfan speaks with Ira about the pandemic’s inequitable impacts for some communities, as well as other coronavirus and climate change news from the past week. 

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The daily references and reminders about COVID 19 can be so mind consuming that other threats to our well-being may have fallen off our daily radar screen. One in particular I’m talking about is our climate crisis. It’s still here. It’s still growing and it needs our attention.

So we open up the next chapter of our series, Degrees of Change. And this hour we’ll be talking about the psychological toll of the climate crisis. We won’t be taking your calls in this recorded hour, but more info on how you can get involved in our coverage and sign up for our climate newsletter is at ScienceFriday.com/degreesofchange.

First up, joining us to talk about the latest coronavirus and climate change news is Umair Irfan, reporter at Vox in Washington, DC. Welcome back to Science Friday, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into some of the top stories and start with a dramatic political move that happened this week, President Trump announcing that the US will pull funding from the World Health Organization. Tell us about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. President Trump has long been critical of the World Health Organization and its response to the coronavirus crisis. And in particular, he’s blaming them for inadequately reporting the true extent and the risk from this, as well as taking the Chinese government’s party line on the extent and the scope of the outbreak and not being skeptical enough of that information. And so this week, he announced that essentially the US would no longer be funding the World Health Organization going forward. And that’s a huge deal because the US is the single largest funder of the World Health Organization.

IRA FLATOW: And the WHO sort of acts as an intermediary between all countries, does it not?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, it pools a lot of information, a lot of public health research and data and that’s really critical in a virus like this that’s brand new, and people are still finding things out about it. But it also helps marshal resources to countries that might need it, particularly developing countries that may not have testing infrastructure or some of the critical equipment. And so it helps pool resources and get them to places where they’re needed.

IRA FLATOW: There are critics who point out that maybe Trump’s action is a political way to deflect blame for US reaction to the pandemic away from him.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, and I mean one of the big concerns that he’s been laying out is that essentially that a lot of people didn’t really know the true extent of this. But reports going back to January showed that the World Health Organization was warning that there was a potential risk for a pandemic, that there were human to human transmission that was likely from this virus. So there have been mixed messages. And there is some room for criticism here of the World Health Organization and the public health response. But kind of going forward, it is something that is going to be necessary for controlling the pandemic as it continues to rage throughout the world.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move to a topic that seems to be on everybody’s mind and everybody is talking about it. And that is the need for large scale testing for coronavirus. Where do we stand on that now?

UMAIR IRFAN: In the United States where testing between 100,000 to 150,000 people per day. And that is well short of what we need for clinical purposes, basically just testing the people who are coming to hospitals with symptoms. But to truly control the pandemic, a lot of public health researchers say we need to go beyond that and start actively looking for cases, in particular, people who are spreading the virus without showing any symptoms.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s one of the issues that with ending social distancing is that some people who have the coronavirus don’t show their symptoms yet, right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. And we don’t really even know how many of those people are out there. And because of that, because there’s so many unknowns, we can’t answer basic questions about the virus, like how deadly it is, how dangerous it is. And so a group of researchers from different institutions, from like, the Center of American Progress, from the American Enterprise Institute, and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer, they’ve all put out various proposals in recent weeks about how we can restart the economy.

And almost all of them talk about the need for vastly scaling up testing. One of the lower end estimates is about 750,000 tests per week minimum. And Romer’s estimate is at least 22 million tests per day and going up from there.

IRA FLATOW: We’re not even close to that, are we?

UMAIR IRFAN: Not remotely. But his point was that by scaling up testing, we can actually seek out and find these cases. And we can find the asymptomatic spreaders and tell them to isolate. And that way, we can actually get people out of their homes and back to work and we can move towards more targeted responses rather than these blanket stay at home orders that are being so devastating to the economy. And this could be sort of a way to start returning to something approaching normal. But again, it would require a huge lift and a massive ramp up in scale from where we are now.

IRA FLATOW: When coronavirus first hit the US, many people thought California, the biggest state would be the hardest hit state. But that hasn’t been the case. Can you tell us what the numbers look like there versus New York, which seems to be the hardest hit state?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. As you note that California was poised to be one of the hotspots for the outbreak here in the United States. There were 600 direct flights between China and California in January and more than 150,000 people deplaned from those flights. That’s more than double the number of passengers in New York. And so the read was that California was much more likely to be facing much more imported cases that would eventually pick up.

But so far what we’ve seen is that New York has now ended up with roughly eight times the number of confirmed cases as California and roughly 14 times the number of deaths as California.

IRA FLATOW: And the difference it is related to because California had a lockdown earlier?

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s one of the factors. I mean it’s a little bit early to say what definitively played a role, but that was critical to what California did in terms of controlling the pandemic. They had one of the first reported cases of community transmission, that is the virus being spread locally rather than being imported. And on March 16, San Francisco issued the first stay at home order in the country. And then the first statewide order went into effect about three days later.

And acting quickly is a big deal for a virus like this. Because in the early stages, it grows at an exponential rate. So controlling it when you still have a small number of cases, even if the case number of cases changes by a small amount day to day, over the long term has a huge impact on the total number of cases a few weeks in a couple months down the line. And that’s kind of what we’re seeing here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, because I remember there were people who were pushing back against California, saying that they were overreacting. But it appears now they were not.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. And some public health officials will put it this way, that you know anything you do ahead of a pandemic seems like an overreaction. And then everything you do in hindsight seems like it was inadequate. So that’s kind of the crux here in terms of mounting both the political and the public health response to a crisis like this.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of hotspots, there is an interesting case that is finally getting attention this week and that is about South Dakota, one state that has resisted stay at home orders. And now it has become one of the nation’s coronavirus hotspots in the pork factory there.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. The governor of South Dakota said that she would actually not want to implement any kind of stay at home order or any kind of lockdown order across the state. And what we’ve seen now is that this pork processing plant has more than 300 employees diagnosed with this COVID 19.

Which is kind of surprising because you know you kind of think of South Dakota as being a place that sparsely populated, with people spread out. But this kind of shows that whenever you have people gathering together in a place, whether that’s a workplace or a concert or a religious service, that increases the risk of transmission. And it only needs one or two people to start transmitting before a large number have it.

IRA FLATOW: Because there are thousands of people that work in that plant and they work in very, very close conditions processing the meat.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. There’s about 3,700 workers at that one plant. And so, the fact that several hundred have been infected so quickly, I mean just shows how quickly the risks can increase.

IRA FLATOW: And even though the outbreaks are still popping up all over the country, Trump still wants to reopen the economy next month, right? And he’s not getting a lot of agreement on this, is he?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. I mean, he initially said that he had the absolute authority to issue these kinds of reopening orders. And then later walked it back. This decision is actually going to be in the hands of cities and states. And a lot of cities and states are saying that they’re going to be led by the science. They’re going to follow their own public health data and their own internal recommendations rather than any guidance from the federal government.

So as much as Trump wants to reopen the economy, I mean, I think we’re likely not going to see that happen anytime soon. And if it does, it’s going to be happening sort of piecemeal in different spots throughout the country.

IRA FLATOW: I want to move on to another interesting topic, and that is how coronavirus is impacting people differently. It seems there’s a tie between the death from COVID 19 and bad air quality. Is that right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. It seems to show that there is a link between air pollution and the worsening outcomes of this virus. And intuitively, that makes a lot of sense. Because you know this is a respiratory virus, and air pollution damages the lungs and the airways. And so it stands to reason that this virus can be more infectious that way.

And it can also be an explanation for some of the disparities we’ve seen along racial lines. We’ve seen a huge increase among black and Latino deaths in cities like Chicago and New Orleans. And differences in exposure to air pollution in those communities is one of the explanations, along with other kinds of structural problems like access to health care.

IRA FLATOW: Didn’t the EPA though, recently say it was suspending some of its rules around air pollution?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. The EPA said that it would temporarily suspend some of its enforcement activities around certain environmental monitoring and enforcement. But they insisted that it was a temporary effect because you know of the COVID 19 outbreak that they wanted to protect their workers and they didn’t have the resources to go out and enforce this. But a lot of environmental activists say this is exactly the time where we need to be enforcing environmental rules, because we see such a strong environmental component to this disease.

IRA FLATOW: And that brings me to a question about China. Because it’s notorious for the smog in some of the cities, but the US has passed China, coronavirus deaths there’s the connection again?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, I mean, China has been notorious for poor air quality. But we also got a natural experiment with some of the lockdowns that they imposed, with air quality improving drastically in some cities. And so one researcher did estimate that the lockdowns saved about 20 times as many lives as were lost to the COVID 19 virus because of the improvements in air quality. That keeping people home and breathing cleaner air did a huge benefit to public health in the country.

IRA FLATOW: Your last story is about natural disasters. I mean, we’re heading into this summer. We can expect hurricanes and wildfires and things like that. How are officials preparing for the wildfires and the hurricanes in this age of social distancing?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, they’re kind of at a loss as to how to prepare because this is sort of an unprecedented scenario. But it is something that they are starting to recognize is a risk. You know, officials in South Carolina recently noticed that, you know, they this is a really important question of how you maintain social distancing when you have people sheltering or you have to evacuate people from the coast.

Similarly in California, they’ve had to deal with wildfires last year and they’re likely to see more this year. And in addition to that, like the measures they used to control fires, things like shutting down power to areas where ignition is likely, that can hamper, you know the public health response. If you shut down power to people to hospitals, for instance like you know that’s can be very detrimental when you’re trying to treat this disease.

So right now they’re working on coming up with plans that can deal with both problems at the same time, but it’s a tall order. And it’s kind of an uncharted territory right now. And they’re learning right now exactly what they can and cannot do. And we’ll get a real world test once these disasters start picking up this year.

IRA FLATOW: If you have to evacuate people from flooding or a hurricane and those places they would go to is already filled with people who are sheltering, you have a big problem.

UMAIR IRFAN: m and like many of the people that you’re evacuating are probably going to have underlying health conditions or they’re going to have access to inadequate care. They’re not necessarily going to be able to get treatment right away. And of course, if you pool people together in big groups, I mean, that increases risk of transmission of this virus.

IRA FLATOW: Some great stuff, Umair. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan is a reporter at Vox in Washington, DC.

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