A heat wave is here (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Heat kills. It is the deadliest form of weather. And it kills Black and brown people at a higher rate than whites.
This should no longer be news. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically exposed the many brutal inequities in our society, which have been overlooked and outright ignored by decision-makers for far too long. In the United States, generations of Black and brown people have had to endure systematic and institutional racism that has resulted in disproportionately high incidences of COVID-19 cases and mortality rates.
And with the intense summer heat having arrived, we are even more concerned because the hardships that increase COVID-19 susceptibility are the same hardships that increase heat-illness susceptibility — and in the same communities. More people are staying home, have compromised immune systems, and need safe spaces to get cool.
Annually, there are around 100 heat-related deaths, and over 400 hospitalizations and emergency room visits from extreme heat exposure in New York City. This rate will increase as summers become hotter due to the climate crisis. And, the impact is not equal. The New York City Department of Health found that neighborhoods such as East and Central Harlem, which are predominantly Black and Latino, have higher vulnerability to heat-related illness or death.
The disproportionate impacts of extreme heat are not new, nor are the solutions – such as decreasing fossil fuel emissions, designing our cities to adapt to extreme heat, and providing people with adequate cooling. However, due to the pandemic, the health threats of extreme heat are raising additional challenges that must be addressed to avoid an even deadlier summer.
Action must be taken immediately.
First, we must consider the increased importance of having adequate cooling in our homes. This summer, more people will be spending more time at home. Low-income families and families of color are more likely to be unable to access and/or afford adequate cooling in their homes, and are more likely to experience health impacts such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and exacerbated existing chronic conditions.
Over 85 percent of heat-stroke deaths occurred in homes without a working air conditioner, or with an air conditioner that was not used. Considering that New Yorkers typically pay 20 to 30 percent more for utilities during the summer, and within that black renters typically pay more for energy than white renters, it is especially important that low-income households have access to free air conditioners and receive significant utility bill subsidies. Mayor de Blasio’s new and ongoing program to install thousands of free air conditioners in the homes of low-income seniors is welcome, and should be quickly expanded to other households.
Second, New York City and New York State policymakers and public health workers must consider how health-care utilization will be impacted due to heat. People that may normally seek care for heat exposure may avoid health-care spaces this year for fear of contracting COVID-19. Clear, multilingual health communications in the most at-risk neighborhoods is vital for ensuring people access emergency care for heat illnesses.
Third, New York City and New York State must consider the sociocultural and psychological impacts of extreme heat in a COVID-19 summer. Culturally, many communities of color rely on one another for support. On a hot day if you don’t have air conditioning in your home, you may go to your aunt’s or your brother’s house to find a cool room. This summer, households that would have relied on one another are left with either risking their health to find social, emotional, and material support, or not have that support at all.
It isn’t enough to offer spaces to cool down that happen to be in hardest hit neighborhoods, we must partner with communities to find safe and healthy spaces for gathering that are culturally significant and will therefore be more utilized.
Finally, decision-makers must consider how anti-Blackness and white supremacy compounds extreme heat issues. As the city began to re-open, there were reports of increased policing in Black communities, disguised as COVID-19 safety measures. For example, the disproportionate levels of policing at green spaces in Black and brown communities has left many of these community members fearful of visiting parks, or simply going outside while wearing masks. Utilizing outdoor space is a key piece of keeping safe from extreme heat. If their home lacks adequate cooling, and going outdoors is unsafe, where do our community members go for respite from the heat? When needing to increase COVID-19 safety enforcement, it is important to keep the NYPD far from the job and instead increase the number of Social Distancing Ambassadors trained by the city, who can feel more like peers than violent enforcers.
We have had some wins to protect people this summer, but much more needs to be done. Due to advocacy work, the New York State Public Service Commission voted this month to approve electricity bill rebates for low-income households. And the New York City Mayor’s Office implemented the aforementioned GetCool NYC, with free air conditioners to thousands of qualified vulnerable seniors across the city (though not all who need them are getting them in time for this summer’s heat). We have worked tirelessly for this progress, but there is much more to be done to protect overburdened communities now and in the long-term.
The solution to extreme heat impacts lies in a comprehensive response informed by the communities most impacted by COVID-19 and historical racism. Extreme heat must be treated as a public health problem, not just a climate change problem.
As a precursor to what we are calling the “Heat, Health, and Equity Initiative” to be launched in 2021, WE ACT for Environmental Justice has put forth a set of tangible policy solutions on the state and city levels that will address some of the issues that have contributed to the disparate impact of extreme heat exposure and heat illness on communities of color.
Expanding LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, to fund retrofitting buildings, supporting bills to ensure data collection and publication related to heat is timely, setting minimum temperature for office buildings, installing shade covering on pedestrian streets, upgrading cooling center HVAC systems, and expanding community solar are among some of the many policy recommendations WE ACT has set forth to achieve both short- and long-term solutions for extreme heat.
As we take the time to safely reopen our city, this is an opportunity to find solutions that will not only protect our most impacted communities now, but that can also address environmental racism and help us prepare for future pandemics and disasters.
Sonal Jessel, MPH, is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, where she specializes in addressing the health impacts of extreme heat in low-income communities and communities of color. On Twitter @weact4ej.