Bright line of denial connects health crises

March 31, 2020

By Kevin Hall

If you recently found yourself searching in vain for N95 masks, you’ve been ignoring health science. Not by looking for a mask, but by not having one already.

Valley residents know air pollution is a decades-old crisis in our valley that regularly reaches dangerous peaks. 

Whether it’s our cold, winter air choked with fireplace soot, diesel exhaust, and dairy ammonia or a summertime blanket of wildfire smoke filling our lungs, the warnings to wear these masks are by now familiar. Hardware stores normally have them in stock, as should every home, alongside smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. 

But many ignore the warnings or discount science-driven responses as too costly and downplay the risks to themselves and others. 

Sound familiar? It should. President Trump delayed for eight weeks before reacting to the pandemic. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is approaching 30 years of having failed to clean our air. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in mid-March to not issue a shelter-in-place directive, as did the City of Clovis.

Raging along this continuum of denial and delay — in order of life-threatening immediacy — are the novel coronavirus pandemic, air and water pollution, and climate change. Stacked like crushing weights on the chest of an asthma victim, air pollution alone ensures early deaths for thousands of valley residents in a “normal” year.

From the senseless tragedy of COVID-19 patients being rationed care in New York, to smog-induced heart attacks in Fresno, the pain of death is excruciating to bear or witness. Now in my early 60s, I’ve been losing family and friends in my generation prematurely to cancer, ALS, and other unnatural causes for nearly a decade.

It hurts deeply. And when a loved one dies unnecessarily, it infuriates. 

Attribute the coming wave of avoidable suffering to a politically dominant culture of science denialism. Its practitioners must be held responsible as the fruits of their labor play out in the worst possible ways. 

But we’re all practitioners if we continue to ignore that heavier stack of weights crushing down on people: our stratified economy. At its base here in the valley are food production and farm workers but it could just as well be Silicon Valley, data collection, and service employees.

The people at the bottom are the same and the weights grow heavier daily, as do the number of flattened lives. People who are renting, un-housed or undocumented now find themselves almost completely disregarded by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the president.

In the San Joaquin Valley, food is king. From farm-gate receipts earned in the countryside to the processing plants in every downtown along the Santa Fe and Burlington lines, farming generates cash. Every valley resident’s prosperity rests on it.

But with kings come poverty.

For decades hard science has shown the risks of farm workers’ exposure to pesticides and industrial workers’ to toxic chemicals. We know that rural communities and segregated urban neighborhoods are soaked in these air pollutants, that their water for drinking, cooking, and bathing is laden with toxins. 

More recent science shows that the unceasing tension of poverty taxes people’s immune systems to dangerously low levels, and the low wage-driven displacement of healthy diets with cheaply made foods laden with sweeteners is causing record levels of diabetes and other degenerative diseases disproportionately within lower income families.

We know all this, yet we fail to act to save lives. Again and again.

The pandemic has laid bare the amoral, neoliberal values of a political and business elite who place profit before people, a Wall Street economy above basic humanity.

Perhaps it boils down to Upton Sinclair’s observation from a century ago, that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But amidst the wreckage of one of the greatest failures of leadership in our country’s history, perhaps the inverse of Sinclair’s insight can hold true. 

When one’s salary is gone, might a new understanding of economic fairness emerge, or will desperation narrow our thinking? When our loved ones die before their time, can we identify the people and philosophies responsible, or will grief block our sight?

The Covid19 pandemic, air and water pollution, climate change, these were all preventable tragedies that we must now combat as health and economic emergencies alike — for the rest of our lives and those of everyone still living. 


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