During the Cold War, a concept was developed by the USSR to describe the fallout of a possible nuclear war in a particular region or zone. In the 1970s the US administration adapted it to describe the long-term effects of strip-mining coal in the American Mid-West.
The term deployed in both instances was “sacrifice zone” and it was used to designate a zone or geographic area permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment. Sacrifice zones were, more often than not, located in under-valued spaces and populated by low-income and minority-status communities.
The concept has since evolved with the publication in 2011 of Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States by Steve Lerner. After 30 years working in the field of environmental justice, Lerner observed that people who live in sacrifice zones were treated as “fenceline communities” who inhabited “hot spots” of chemical pollution, often with very poor health and socio-economic outcomes.
In Ireland we have our own national sacrifice zones of Covid-19. Either through structural design or historic mismanagement – so-called “system failure” – residents of our nursing homes and long-term care facilities became our “fenceline communities”, with those residential spaces becoming the “hot spots“ of Covid-19 infection.
Our elderly grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers, along with members of our new Irish communities in the carceral spaces of direct provision, remained largely hidden from view when it came to national governance and clinical oversight.
Despite the ongoing attempts by Nursing Homes Ireland throughout the early stages of the crisis to get appropriate guidance and support, they were either neglected or overlooked depending on whether your view is from inside or outside the Covid-19 sacrifice zone.
While the first phase of the immediate sacrifice zone crisis has abated somewhat, where are the other blindspots to which we need to pay attention? What other “zones” across our Covid-19 landscape have we forgotten about, or not planned carefully enough for, to help make us all more secure in the coming months?
Strategic and structural gaps need to be identified. We need to build in risk management and maintain constant vigilance to ensure a properly functioning post-Covid economy.
Sacrifice zones emerge either through decisions that are made consciously or, by default, through the law of unintended consequences. We have real-time information being fed into committees, government departments and other state bodies, and that information needs to be listened and responded to carefully and with due consideration to the rise and impact of Covid-19 within particular contexts and settings.
Who thought, for instance, that it was a good idea to discharge patients with Covid-19 symptoms into nursing homes without appropriate care for them or infection control policy for the other residents? In those same weeks we were simultaneously teaching our children to wash their hands thoroughly by singing happy birthday twice for 20 seconds as we knew the coronavirus was an exceptionally infectious? How were those dots not connected?
One success story of the crisis involves a potential sacrifice zone that didn’t actually become one. From the outset, the Irish Prison Service quickly realised that it needed to adopt “a whole of prison approach to infection control”, building on previous experience of dealing with outbreaks of tuberculosis. Remarkably, not one detainee of the 3,705 prisoner community has been diagnosed with Covid-19, with the service issuing a report to the World Health Organisation outlining best practice in this area.
Sacrifice zones are not just temporary sites of health inequality or social injustice. In the US, links have already been made between health outcomes for populations living in these areas and Covid-19 mortality rates. A recent Harvard study showed that environmental factors exacerbated the severity of Covid-19 in areas where populations were exposed to high levels of air pollution.
Forbes magazine has indicated one future scenario where the world is divided into zones that are Covid-19-free regions or countries. So-called “air bridges” are already operating across certain countries, allowing those considered to be from low-risk areas to travel but preventing others.
France and India have already indicated green, orange and red Covid-19 zones within their national boundaries, a scenario that may apply to Ireland if a more nuanced approach to regionally-based lockdowns is needed to manage future surges.
Last week, Lise Kindo, the UN’s sustainable business chief, issued a warning that this global pandemic is “a fire drill“ for the climate emergency. So, in more ways than one, we’re all in the planetary sacrifice zone now.
All nations need to work towards post-Covid-19 goals of healthy and green recoveries, as argued by an increasing volume of academics, politicians and international organisations in recent weeks. Otherwise, by 2030, no amount of government policies or fiscal spending will change the existential dangers of the world we will inhabit. By then we will have to live with the decisions we made today, and with our children asking us why didn’t we do more in the summer of 2020 to secure their future when we had the chance.
Dr Nessa Cronin is a lecturer in Irish Studies at the Centre for Irish Studies in NUI Galway. She is associate director of the Moore Institute, a humanities research body, at the university.