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What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions. Scroll to the bottom for links to the full series.

Most of the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march went through rural Lowndes County, Ala. The area was once steeped with racial terror because of the desire to control Black labour – that had once been free to plantation owners owing to slavery – and stymie their right to vote. Because of the violence used on Black and white citizens, it earned the name “Bloody Lowndes.” Today, it is the epicentre of the wastewater crisis and a poster child for policies fostering inequality in rural communities. The county residents have not received adequate funding for wastewater infrastructure, and the infrastructure in place is failing or has failed. It is also where poverty, environmental justice and climate change intersects with the lack health care access.

The population of Lowndes County is 72 per cent African-American. It has a per capita income of US$19,491, where more than a fourth of the residents live below the poverty line. Many of the residents are essential workers, employed in plants or in other jobs that have high workplace COVID-19 infection rates. It is also a food desert in a place where many people are victimized by high blood pressure, diabetes and respiratory issues. There is only one doctor to provide medical services within the entire county. It also has the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the state of Alabama and one of the highest death rates per capita as well, in a county of approximately 10,000 residents.

Policies supporting infrastructure funding and development – whether on the state or federal level – have long excluded places such as Lowndes County. The wealthiest populations can qualify for loans or grants, while the poor are penalized through the denial of access to funding for sanitation infrastructure. With climate change becoming even more evident through higher temperatures for longer periods of time, higher water tables and wastewater treatment failures, the pandemic has made the population of Lowndes County and many others in the United States vulnerable for illness and death. This is compounded by the discovery that COVID-19 is shed in feces.

Researchers around the world are determining the prevalence of COVID-19 infections in a community through surveillance of sewage. It is still unknown how people living with sewage coming back into their homes are affected, however it is clear that communities such as Navajo Nation and Lowndes County are facing higher infection and death rates than many places with adequate water and wastewater infrastructure. These issues around justice and access need to be addressed by whomever is elected president.

A lot is at stake during this election. Among the issues that are at the forefront is climate justice, increased poverty, access to health care, and an uninformed response to the pandemic. One candidate has proposed policies to address climate justice, wastewater justice and access to health care. The other denies that climate change is a problem, ignores policies protecting environmental justice communities, will not disavow white supremacy, and wants to take away insurance protection from people with pre-existing illnesses. These policies have real consequences in communities like Lowndes County, which will suffer more poverty, more illness and more death as a result of ignoring the problems we face as a nation.

Recently, for instance, a community organizer in Lowndes died because of COVID-19. The official cause of death may have been the coronavirus. However, the underlying causes of her suffering were poverty, environmental injustice, climate change, systemic racism and health disparities. With the coronavirus out of control and no national co-ordinated efforts to contain it, the U.S. will have to decide whether or not we will have a humane recovery, making hard choices that will not allow marginalized people to die in Lowndes County, Navajo Nation and throughout this country for an economy that benefits a few. We must decide if everyone will have access to clean air and uncontaminated water. Will we lead the way by transitioning to renewable energy and green wastewater infrastructure? Or will we make money at all cost, and embrace sacrificing lives of the old, the ill and the young that will inherit an unlivable planet? This is what is at stake.

Catherine Coleman Flowers is the author of the forthcoming book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. She is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, a member of the board of directors for the Climate Reality Project and serves as a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

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