As America continues its battle against the coronavirus, it would be all too easy to assert that its effects have been arbitrarily felt by everyone. While there is no evidence of underlying genetic factors that predispose individuals to be affected by COVID-19, there is plenty of evidence showing how a community’s environment can create health risks that act as predispositions to more severe symptoms of COVID-19 . This rings especially true in East St. Louis, a predominately African American city where generational economic distress results in nationally high levels of poverty and poor healthcare infrastructure.
East St. Louis’ current condition can be traced back to post-war industrial abandonment, which led to a significant population reduction and loss of blue-collar jobs, such as manufacturing and construction. By consequence of annually decreasing tax revenues, East St. Louis lost a variety of local government services that would be assumed in other communities, which has played a vital role in the current scramble for jobs, reduced-price lunch in schools for children, and housing stock .
The history of East St. Louis is relevant to the community’s current healthcare predicament, where people now suffer with illnesses at higher rates compared to national averages. For example, East St. Louis suffers disproportionately from childhood lead poisoning, and a known contributing factor is the fact that most homes in East St. Louis were built before 1980 and therefore likely contain lead, considering that lead paint was not banned until 1978. The antiquated construction of East St. Louis has also been an explanation as to why the community has continually violated the federal health-based air standard for ozone since 1979 . Because of building demolitions and old power plants, East St. Louisans find themselves exposed to air pollution on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, asthma-related emergency room visit rates were significantly higher in 2015 for residents of East St. Louis compared to those in St. Louis County, St. Charles County and the greater state of Missouri .
Putting together the economic downturn of East St. Louis and the current lack of adequate healthcare infrastructure, the disparate rates of COVID-19 prevalence in East St. Louis is no longer a matter of curiosity; however, these conditions also bleed into racial disparities. In St. Clair County, located in East St. Louis, Black people make up half of COVID-19 cases while only making up 30% of the total population . Furthermore, Black children in East St. Louis made 10 times more emergency room visits for asthma than white children did in 2015. The lack of proper funding and negligence by the local government led to the neglect of a largely African American population lacking basic healthcare amenities and infrastructure .
In response to these glaring problems, the East St. Louis community seeks to take actionable steps to make meaningful change. Empire 13, an organization founded by Belleville resident JD Dixon, is a prime example. Between Sunday cleanups and petitions demanding federal assistance, Empire 13 raises attention to environmental racism in East St. Louis. Empire 13’s most recent petition includes 10 sections that directly outline addresses providing more resources to Black communities to ensure their living communities are clean from major pollutants and waste . In addition to Empire 13, the East St. Louis Resident Lead Paint Outreach Collaborative recently established a coordinated effort with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop programs targeted at the alarmingly high rates of lead in blood samples of East St. Louis residents. One of the developing programs include lead paint sampling assistance using an x-ray fluorescent sampling device on houses in the East St. Louis community . Although these programs and organizations are by no means a silver bullet to the long-standing infrastructural issues in East St. Louis, grassroots movements led by the community can be vital towards making iterative but meaningful change.
Edited by: Jillian Martin