Diana Fernandez is a high school student in Hialeah, Florida, who’s been fighting for environmental justice since she was 13. But it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that she learned about the other issues affecting her family — issues like access to health care.

Fernandez comes from a family of essential workers living in a low-income, working-class Latino neighborhood. Early in the summer, when she got sick, Fernandez tried to get tested for COVID-19, but hit road blocks at every turn.

Finally, she went to the hospital, where her family was forced to pay $200 for a test. It was negative, and only later did an antibody test reveal that she had had the virus. “It was painful to me that I could have played a role in spreading it,” she said during a Wednesday Annual Meeting session on “Toxic Environments, Trauma and Intersectional Violence during COVID-19.”

The State of the Environment in Black and Brown AmericaThe session was an extension of last month’s livestreamed National Townhall on Environmental Justice & Frontline Communities, hosted by the National Wildlife Federation, NAACP, APHA and other partners. Like the town hall, and the series of roundtables that preceded it, the Annual Meeting session addressed the connection between environmental and racial injustice and COVID-19.

“There is a public health cost, mental health cost and a pocketbook cost to the challenges we face today,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, referring to Fernandez’s experience. “The average household in America makes $1,002 per week. For Black families, that’s $840 per week and for Latino families, that’s $820 per week. And that was before the pandemic.”

Speaking on the impacts of climate and pollution on community health, Rev. Leo Woodberry, an environmental justice activist in Florence, South Carolina, explored expansion of the wood pellet industry throughout the U.S. South.

“They’re clear-cutting the trees in low-income areas and wetlands,” Woodberry told session attendees. “Trees are nature’s first line of defense against flooding.”

As climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather, Woodberry said local well water contamination becomes a problem, along with mold, “which causes respiratory problems in the middle of the pandemic.” In addition, the transport of wood pellets produces particulate pollution, which exacerbates respiratory problems.

Woodberry said the wood pellets are used as fuel at foreign power stations and “don’t even prosper the community, only harm it.” But he noted that there are community-based solutions and though it will take the “iron will of the people,” now is the time to implement them.

Hilton Kelley is founder and director of Community In-Power and Development Association Inc., a nonprofit in Port Arthur, Texas, that works to empower residents in low-income communities to take action against the area’s many chemical manufacturers, refineries and incinerator facilities.

“One in five families here includes someone who has to use a nebulizer because of a degraded respiratory system from the air we have to breathe,” Kelley said. He sees air and water pollution, climate change-fueled natural disasters and racial violence harming people of color and low-income communities, which are also experiencing a disproportionate burden from COVID-19.

“Stress levels are up when our kids leave the house,” he told attendees. “Parents wonder, will they be shot down in the street? And the isolation and stress of the pandemic is causing depression. Suicide and substance abuse is up. We need to do more to protect our youth. We say this or that community is affected. Why can’t we all live in the same community? Let’s work together, wear our masks and vote!”

Psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, founder and CEO of Lucky Planet Foods, echoed the importance of working together and supporting each other. She spoke more about how co-occurring crises affect our mental health and wellness and what we can do about it. She recommended taking advantage of resources offered via the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and encouraged connection and time in nature.

“Maybe the one thing, in the midst of all this trauma and loss, is that we can now focus at a deeper level on what needs to change,” she said. For Fernandez, that begins with research.

“If there’s something that’s affecting you during this pandemic, educate yourself and form your own opinion. Don’t just listen to what other people tell you,” she said. “And be at peace with the idea that you’re not going to be able to change everyone’s mind. That’s OK. We can still engage in civil discourse. And we can vote.”