Black Louisiana community impacted by COVID-19, air pollution deaths

The area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge called St. James Parrish is now called 'Death Valley' because of its environmental challenges

Over the last few years, St. James Parish earned the nickname, Cancer Alley, but since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it has also been called, Death Alley.

The parish, which is 85 miles long, is located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The area is home to 21,000 people, most of whom are African American. It is also home to over 200 chemical plants and refineries.

READ MORE: Louisiana’s COVID-19 deaths were 70 percent Black residents

According to an NBC News report, the area is experiencing intense air pollution. One resident, Sharon Lavigne, told the network that when she is outside the air often burns her lungs. Her family has owned their land in the area for four generations.

“I have to go outside and breathe this air. It hurts. I’m telling you, it hurts so bad,” Lavigne told NBC News for the Into America podcast. “I pray every day, every night.”

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 300 people have been diagnosed with the deadly virus, and nearly 10% have died. According to experts, the poor air quality in the area makes for a pre-existing condition which can make a person more susceptible to contracting the virus, and make it harder for them to fight it.

A nurse administers a coronavirus test. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

A new study from Harvard University identified air pollution as a factor in higher coronavirus deaths. The paper studied over 3,000 countries, but its findings were particularly significant to the United States.

“For example,” the study read, “if Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram per cubic meter, over the past 20 years, the borough would most likely have seen 248 fewer COVID-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.”

READ MORE: Poll: Black Americans most likely to know a COVID-19 victim

Expert contends that the deaths occurring in St. James Parish point directly to the way systemic racism impacted coronavirus deaths. “When we talk about who’s most likely to be the most vulnerable, you can actually predict where the deaths are going to be,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, a researcher at Texas Southern University.

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A painting by the graffiti artist Bandit titled “Our Nurses, Our Saints” is seen on a wall in the lower ninth ward on April 03, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“It’s not random. It’s not isolated. It’s not coincidental,” Bullard said, “Air pollution and pollution, in general, is segregated, and so is America.”

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