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Make the post-coronavirus world better

This tragedy is showcasing how unprepared we are for the future

Shoppers wait to enter at a Target store in Glenview on Wednesday. Grocery store chains and other retailers began offering special shopping hours for seniors and other groups considered the most vulnerable to the new coronavirus.
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

As the COVID-19 virus spreads, we are worried and anxious. Many of us are angry at leaders stumbling to protect us during the crisis. It’s healthy and important to convert emotion into action right now.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, his staff, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and legislative leaders have done a phenomenal job of leading us through this crisis in the vacuum of leadership at the federal executive branch. They’ve been right to prioritize our health and safety. As an individual, you can make a difference by staying home, washing your hands and not flushing wet wipes, which clog pipes — the last thing we need right now is clogged sewer systems. Call your friends, family and neighbors to make sure they are doing OK.

It is right to focus on these immediate steps. We must also be vigilant as decision-makers look to dedicate trillions of public dollars to relief packages. Environmental advocates must shift our priorities to make sure these plans are focused on helping the most vulnerable. We can do that by emailing our lawmakers — avoid calling to keep office lines free for emergencies — and expressing the following:

Communities and people should be the center of relief efforts. Union contracts, rights and benefits for low-wage workers, paid sick leave and improved working conditions have always been environmental issues. COVID-19 is not just a public health crisis; it is an environmental and economic justice crisis disproportionately impacting workers and disadvantaged communities already burdened by racism, pollution and compromised immune systems. Tell your lawmakers to support policies that improve worker conditions such as paid sick leave and support low income people — for example, ending utility shutoffs or offering rent support.

Our safety net is under attack and must be rebuilt. The Trump administration has systematically weakened our institutions of government, jeopardizing the safety net for all of us and making us more vulnerable to crises of all kinds. Let’s make sure elected officials know that we must rebuild the agencies that have been decimated by defunding and neglect.

Climate change is exacerbating this crisis. High levels of pollution have put vulnerable communities at greater risk of serious health impacts from COVID-19. Air pollution damages lungs and can cause chronic diseases like asthma, COPD and lung cancer. Scientists expect catastrophic events and pandemics to increase as the climate changes, and this tragedy is showcasing how unprepared we are for that future. Stimulus packages must not subsidize businesses that are contributing to climate change and harming public health. Long-term policy must continue to fight climate change emissions.

Environmental advocacy in this time of crisis needs to address the glaring structural weaknesses in our economic and political system laid bare by the pandemic. We should only consider our economy to be thriving if workers, the environment and communities are protected and healthy.

Once securing your own health and safety, I urge you to contact your elected officials to make sure the world we create after this crisis is more resilient and compassionate than ever before.

Jen Walling is the executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.