Flying Dirty: Why Airlines Emissions Rise Even When They Try to Cut

  • Major airlines are using new aerodynamic devices like winglets, and experimenting with cleaner fuels to reduce their emissions.
  • Still, their total carbon footprint is increasing. The grounding of flights due to the pandemic will provide only a temporary respite.

When the Wright brothers first took flight back in 1903, it’s unlikely they considered that the industry would become notorious for pollution. Today, aviation is responsible for 12 percent of all carbon emissions in the transport sector, and 2 percent of overall global emissions.

The industry itself has emphasized in recent years its efforts at becoming carbon neutral. And indeed, several airlines have turned to more efficient engines and streamlined aircrafts while also experimenting with alternative (and less polluting) fuels. That’s helping them reduce their carbon emissions per passenger, for each mile they fly.

But airlines — before the coronavirus pandemic temporarily stopped most air travel — were adding passengers and looking to take on more routes. As an industry, that pattern is expected to resume once the crisis passes, even though it might take a few years and several carriers might not survive. For those that grow once again, adding more passengers could wipe out any gains from their climate change initiatives, suggests recent research led by Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University in Melbourne, and a member of the sustainability advisory panel at Air New Zealand.

Every single one of the world’s 58 largest airlines increased its total carbon emissions between 2017 and 2018.

Collectively, these airlines increased their carbon footprint by 5.2 percent — with passengers flying 4.5 billion times during that time frame. It’s a stunning pointer to just how far the industry is from realizing its own emission targets.

In 2009, the International Air Transport Association, the global trade association for cargo and passenger air carriers, set the goal for airlines to turn carbon neutral (no increase in emissions) by 2020, and a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.

Getting there though, will be a challenge, acknowledges Jacqueline Drumheller, a now-retired sustainability manager who spent 20 years with Alaska Airlines. In 2017-18, the company cut its per passenger emissions by 20 percent but still increased its total carbon footprint by 3 percent. “They’ve pretty much exhausted most of the efficiencies that they can do,” says Drumheller.

Spanish flag carrier Iberia reduced emissions per seat by 6 percent but increased absolute emissions by 8 percent. China’s Hainan Airlines reduced its emissions by 24 percent but increased absolute emissions by 45 percent, Becken’s research shows.  

If any airline shows a reduction in total emissions this year, that’ll only be because globally, more than 16,000 planes are grounded because of travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. The impact of the lockdowns on the environment is already clear — and not just because of the aviation industry. “In California we’ve seen drops in pollutants in every county across the board,” says Caroline Parworth, sensor technologist at environmental intelligence firm Aclima.

airplane on runway ready for take off

Aviation emissions aren’t going down.

Source Getty

For sure, emissions per passenger mile flown have dropped by about 50 percent since 1990. But the number of passengers who’ve flown has grown 150 percent in an even shorter period — since 2004.

Some of the efficiencies planes have adopted include winglets — devices mounted on wingtips used to improve the aerodynamic efficiency of the carrier by up to 15 percent — and new aircraft and wing designs to cut noise and emissions. Many airliners have also begun to experiment with fuels that emit less CO2 while we wait for a bold, long-term plan some scientists are hatching to convert carbon emissions back into fuel. “You’re going to need a transitional plan,” says Noah Malmstadt, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Southern California.

So, what’s the solution? For starters, Becken argues in her research, airline companies need to become more transparent. She found that half of the world’s major airlines are engaging in carbon offsetting practices — where companies compensate for their emissions through programs designed to make reductions in emissions from other parts of the economy. Air New Zealand, for instance, is helping restore native forests in the country. But only 13 airlines provide information on the measurable impact of these initiatives, making it harder to hold them accountable to their promises, she says.

She also found that while 18 of the 58 top carriers were investing in alternative fuels, the scale of their commitment remains miniscule. In 2018, Air Canada declared a 160 ton carbon saving by blending 230,000 liters of biojet fuel — which is made from vegetable oils and animal fats, and is cleaner than traditional aviation fuel — into its fuel mix for 22 domestic flights. But on its own, that’s not enough fuel to fill the tank of a single A380 plane. Increasing research and development investments will be key, Becken argues.

Airlines know that the pressure to act is mounting. Delta announced in mid-February that it would invest $1 billion over the next 10 years to become the world’s first carbon-neutral airline (including by using carbon offsets). Meanwhile, engineers at MIT are flying the first-ever plane without moving parts, powered by an ionic wind instead of propellers or turbines, designed to improve fuel efficiency and cut emissions.

Yes, the Wright brothers have indirectly led us here, but it would be in their spirit to find a way out too.

(An earlier version of this article cited the International Civil Aviation Organization’s projections — detailed in its documents and on its website — showing that unless airlines do more, the industry’s carbon emissions could triple by 2050. However, the ICAO has said it does not stand by those figures.)

A Case Against Coronavirus Tunes

This is an opinion piece in the form of an immodest proposal. Please let us know what you think of the idea in the comments below.

Sometimes we laugh because it’s all we can do. The giggle, the smile, the flippant disposition can arrive unannounced, almost as if humor is our soul’s natural remedy to combating pain. No one questions how we grieve because it’s our grief to be had. But laughing at yourself is different from the mockery of others.

This is why COVID-19 parody songs are absolutely unacceptable, even as they take over the internet. Take Detroit rapper Gmac Cash. His song “Coronavirus” has amassed more than 3 million views on YouTube since its release on March 15. Among the highlights: “I ain’t shakin’ no hands, I don’t want a hug / Make sure you wash your hands with a lot of love / So if you got that CV, they gon’ find you / If you coughin’, I ain’t tryin’ be around you.” 

If rap isn’t your thing, one family piled up in their living room to make a self-isolation adaptation of “One Day More” from Les Misérables. The choir of mom, dad and four kids made the BBC with lyrics such as “Our grandparents are miles away / They can’t work Skype! We’re brokenhearted.” 

But if these efforts are so noble, why would any come with a disclaimer? Songwriter Dana Jay Bein and vocalist Adrian Grimes released a parody of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” refashioned as “Coronavirus Rhapsody,” with Grimes using the description to defuse those who declare it insensitive by talking about how his wife works in health care and “I know where these [critics] are coming from.” Sorry, but songs such as his are still tone-deaf, performed from the pedestal of good health.

Yet there can be benefits. Dr. Daniel Block, a psychiatrist in West Grove, Pennsylvania, says laughing is a way to defuse darker emotions. “Humor is one of the highest forms humans can use to deal with stress and trauma,” he says. 

It’s true that humans have often found music in tragedy. Many believe that the song “Ring Around the Rosie” references the bubonic plague. According to some scholars, the “ring” refers to a circular rash from the disease, “posies” was a nod to the tradition of carrying flowers and herbs in hopes of a cure and falling down was, well, death. Likewise, spirituals and many African-American church hymns are byproducts of slavery. Songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s hit “The Rising” were inspired by 9/11.

What you will find, though, is that none of these songs are intended to be funny. They encourage, inform, inspire or vent. In fact, right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many radio stations stopped playing songs they deemed insensitive. So what makes the coronavirus so different?

Block says that unlike past tragedies such as 9/11 or the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, there’s ongoing confusion — and, amid political debates over lockdowns and the virus’ origin, we’re not all on the same side. “We’re using humor to deal with uncertainty and stress,” Block says.

If that’s how you deal, go ahead and zone out to YouTuber Sharon Luxenburg and vocalist Miri Zhavi’s corona version of “Little Town” from Beauty and the Beast, dance along with Brent McCollough’s Bee Gees parody “Stayin’ Inside” or croon along with Chris Mann and his coronavirus Adele mashup.

But while there is still no vaccine, and families, essential workers and communities are clinging to what faith they have left, I won’t be yukking it up. Instead, I’m standing with the godfather of music parodies, “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Daring the Odds: Why the Most Vulnerable Are Still Visible

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot came down hard on her city’s residents the first weekend of May as 70-degree weather drew them outdoors despite stay-at-home orders remaining in effect. Her disapproval was focused on the young, after city authorities had to disrupt several parties.

“Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t get it,” Lightfoot said. “If you want to hang out with your friends, call them. If you want to have a dance party, [use] TikTok or some other form of video.”

Lightfoot’s message was on point — except that the youth who violated quarantine in Chicago that weekend aren’t representative of what’s happening across the United States, and the world.

It isn’t seniors — who are most at risk from the coronavirus — but young adults under the age of 35 who are following social distancing norms most strictly. In an April survey by polling firm Ipsos, conducted among 29,000 adults in 15 countries:

82 percent of adults under 35 said they were self-isolating, compared with 76 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 74.

Among those in the 35–44 age group, 75 percent said they were self-isolating. The survey was conducted in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Russia, India, China, Japan, Vietnam and Australia.

The survey results underscore a dramatic mismatch between those who need to maintain self-isolation protocols the most and their relative willingness to ignore them. The World Health Organization has said that more than 95 percent of people in Europe who died from COVID-19 in April were older than 60.

With American states and European countries beginning to relax lockdowns and reopen schools and businesses, the risks of the virus spreading to the elderly could increase if they’re not consciously practicing social distancing.

So why are the elderly more willing than younger people to carry on with life as usual? Dr. Carmel Bitondo Dyer, one of the country’s top geriatricians and executive director of the Consortium on Aging at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, says one reason could be experience.


Older people are less likely than younger ones to have a living spouse or partner with whom to share outdoor tasks such as grocery shopping. (Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

“When you think about the older generation, many were born through post-Depression periods, or they lived through World War II,” Dyer says. “I’m old enough to remember when AIDS first became known — there was a lot of fear around that. I just feel they have more of a sense that this too will pass.”

Many older people also have no choice but to leave their homes. Even with ever-increasing life spans, older people are less likely than younger ones to have a living spouse or partner with whom to share outdoor tasks such as grocery shopping. Sixty-nine-year-old Rizwana Khan lives alone in Jackson Heights, New York, and says she has no option but to make weekly visits to the neighborhood supermarket. Her son lives in Houston. “It’s also nice to see friendly faces at the supermarket who know me,” Khan says.

Some elderly people who live alone need to leave the house for medical tests. And with many seniors, Dyer is beginning to see prolonged lockdowns exacerbate loneliness. One patient, she tells me, burst into tears and said, “I just want to see my grandchildren.” 

Data shows seniors aren’t the only ones dropping the ball, though. Men, who also have higher death rates — scientists suspect it may be due to their disproportionate smoking intake — have not been practicing social distancing as well as women.

On average across the 15 countries surveyed in the poll, 80 percent of women said they are in quarantine or practice self-isolation, compared with 75 percent of men. One extreme case is Japan, where 70 percent of people who have died from COVID-19 are men, yet only 13 percent of male respondents said they are in quarantine or self-isolation. That’s not entirely surprising, say experts: Masculinity norms have long been social drivers of risk-taking behavior among men, and it appears that the pandemic has not changed that. In many societies, the burden of taking care of children stuck at home also falls disproportionately on women. 

It’s also possible that, medical reasons aside, the higher death rates among the elderly and men may in part be due to the fact that they’re not observing social distancing norms as strictly as younger people and women.

The Ipsos survey has limitations, points out Dyer: It failed to break the data down along narrower age groups. By clumping everyone between the ages of 45 and 74 in one group, “it doesn’t really break seniors out,” she says.

Still, one thing is clear: Contrary to popular perception, and despite Lightfoot’s harangue, kids for the most part are the ones getting it right. Maybe it’s time for adults to follow their lead.

Welcome on Board, for the Best In-Flight Disinfectant Experience

Cocktails. Bistro-style dining. Custom dinnerware. Chocolates. As Delta launched a new, international, economy-class cabin service last fall, it unveiled a cheery advertisement listing all that passengers could expect.

Six months later, it has released a new commercial. There are no testimonials from happy passengers, and no smiling staff. Instead, Bill Lentsch, the company’s chief customer experience officer, walks viewers through aircraft cleaning procedures, while a worker with a fogging machine sprays powerful disinfectant throughout the cabin.

It’s an unlikely promotional step in an industry that sells experiences and dreams as much as the basic needs of those who have to get from one place to another. But at a time when the aviation industry is in free fall because of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 270,000 people globally — including 78,000 in the United States alone — airlines are marketing cleanliness as their draw. They’re trying to lure customers through fogging, cleaning, swiping and other measures even before stay-at-home orders have been fully lifted. 

Southwest, which uses an Environmental Protection Agency–approved, hospital-grade disinfectant in lavatories, has extended its cleaning procedures throughout the aircraft, including on the flight deck and in the main cabin. JetBlue says it has “enhanced aircraft cleansing” and is “applying disinfectant that is effective against the coronavirus across aircraft interiors, including the places customers touch most — the tray tables, seat covers, armrests and seat belts.”

Emirates, which has just restarted some flights, is putting all of its aircraft through additional disinfecting. A team of 18 trained cleaners work on a Boeing 777 (a team of 36 handles an A380) to turn it around quickly. Cathay Pacific is doing something similar while also offering in-flight passengers regular health updates, hand sanitizer and cleaner lounges, with buffets being replaced by fresh-cooked meals on individual orders. 

Delta is using fog machines to turn disinfectants into aerosols that are sprayed throughout its planes and that coat all surfaces. It claims the EPA-grade disinfectant has been shown to kill coronaviruses, and that following the fogging procedure, a crew cleans cabin surfaces, including tray tables, seatback screens and lavatories. Airline staff carry out spot-checks to ensure the cleanliness of the aircraft. Delta even has a marketing term for its efforts: Delta Clean.

Passengers will be concerned about cleanliness when traveling.

Jennifer “Jaki” Johnson, flight attendant and founder, Jetsetter Chic

As of last week, American, United, Delta, Southwest, Alaska, Frontier and JetBlue require all crew and passengers to wear face masks — the airlines will provide them to passengers who don’t have them. Air Canada is introducing mandatory preflight temperature checks for passengers. And on Thursday, the Transportation Security Administration announced that its officers would wear masks while screening passengers at security checkpoints.

Will customers bite? According to Jennifer “Jaki” Johnson — a flight attendant for a major airline and founder of Jetsetter Chic, a subscription box startup for women who travel frequently — passengers will certainly be checking which airlines are taking their safety concerns most seriously.

“Passengers will be concerned about cleanliness when traveling and would want to see what other steps airlines and airports are doing to safeguard passengers from germs moving forward,” Johnson says.

For the airline industry, the road ahead is steep. The aviation sector is expected to see losses of more than $300 billion in 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association. The Center for Aviation, an aviation consultancy, estimates that many airlines will bankrupt by the end of May. “The industry first and foremost needs government support to get through this crisis,” independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie writes in an email. “Many airlines will also need to raise capital in the private markets and have already begun this process.”

However, even with a $58 billion bailout for the sector, the U.S. Travel Association estimates a loss of 5.9 million travel industry jobs by the end of April.

Delta is reducing its flight capacity by 40 percent, the biggest reduction in operations in the airline’s history, including the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. United is cutting corporate officers’ salaries by half and has reduced flight capacity by about 50 percent in April and May, with deep capacity cuts also expected later into the summer. American Airlines has canceled 75 percent of its international flights and has grounded nearly all its wide body jets.

“All airlines tend to have very high fixed-cost structure so a relatively small decline in volume has a big impact on earnings and free cash flow,” says David Nolletti, director of Conway MacKenzie, part of Riveron, who’s also an airline restructuring expert and a commercial pilot. “I think it will take 12 to 18 months for demand to return to normal.”

Another factor working against airlines is the changed behavior not only of individuals but also that of businesses. Companies have now had the chance to see how effectively and conveniently meetings can be conducted online with apps such as Zoom. Johnson says business travel will have to prove its necessity in the market because business meetings have forever been changed due to this disruption.

But airlines are gambling that at some point, passengers will return, once the need to stay at home in hopes of flattening the curve goes away. “We’re ready for you, when you’re ready to fly,” Lentsch says in the new ad. Emirates doesn’t have a cool tagline like “Delta Clean” but advertises a “peace of mind” for travelers. The international carrier says it uses an approved chemical that is proven to kill viruses and germs, and leaves a “long-lasting protective coating” on surfaces against new contamination of viruses, bacteria and fungi. Oh, and the chemical is apparently eco-friendly.

As restrictions on movement lift, some might not have an option but to travel. Others might want to. When they do fly, bistro-style dining will be secondary — for the airlines and for many passengers. What they will get are cleaning standards perhaps we should have been getting even earlier.

New Music Streaming Drops During Lockdown

Leading into 2020, the music industry had been experiencing one of its most successful stints in recent memory. According to the Recording Industry Association of America annual year-end report, the recorded music business in the United States — which has the largest media and entertainment industry in the world — generated just over $11 billion in revenue in 2019, the fourth straight year of double-digit growth for the sector. 

That’s largely due to the fact that streaming revenue was on the rise — up to $8.8 billion last year from $7.4 billion in 2018, and accounting for 80 percent of all industry revenue. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has thrown everything into chaos, one might reasonably expect recorded music to thrive. After all, nearly a third of the world is in lockdown, unable to attend concerts or movies and desperate for some escapism. Why wouldn’t they be glued to music? But according to Alpha Data, the analytics firm that most major music publications turn to for data:

Top platforms Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and Amazon Music collectively saw nearly an 8 percent decline in streams the week starting March 13.

That drop — it’s the latest data available — amounted to a loss of nearly $17 billion. Spotify, specifically, saw U.S. streams of titles from its top 200 charts fall by 11 percent, and Pandora by 9 percent. Streaming in Italy of the 200 most popular songs actually dropped 23 percent on Spotify from early March to mid-March, after the nation went into lockdown.

These numbers suggest that music streaming isn’t quite working during the pandemic — neither with potential new recruits stuck at home during quarantine nor with regular streamers.

“The big takeaway is that it takes time to develop new habits,” says Aurélien Hérault, chief data and research officer at French streaming service Deezer. “When the lockdown first started in Italy, we saw a drop in streams. People were streaming less music but turning to news radio for updates.” 

The reasons are complex, and in part have to do with the new environments we find ourselves in. Many people listen to music at work, at the gym or while commuting. But we’re not following those routines these days, notes George Howard, music business professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “Those types of times where music has this very natural kind of place in your life is different than when you’re at home and you have different things competing for your attention,” he says. 

Being at home means more distractions than at the office — from children and TV to movies. Video streaming has become so popular during the pandemic that the European Union asked Netflix and YouTube in mid-March to stop showing content in HD — because their services might break the internet due to unprecedented usage. Similarly, Amazon-owned Twitch saw its viewership grow 31 percent, from 33 million to 43 million, between March 8 and March 22.

Then you have the music industry’s own apprehension. With the exception of Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake (March 6), Uzi’s Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2 (March 13) and The Weeknd’s After Hours (March 20) — albums that all charted on Spotify’s Global Top 200 — there were no major releases in the first half of March. In fact, with every major summer festival and concert canceled, artists — Willie Nelson, Sam Smith, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Haim and Kehlani among them — are pushing projects back.

“If you look at where the money comes from in the industry, it’s not the music, it’s touring,” says Jon Niermann, CEO of streaming company Loop Media. At the moment of their release, artists typically want exposure. “It takes away a lot of that grandiose time when you’re just doing an interview with Kimmel from your house. It doesn’t feel big enough to release an album,” Niermann adds.

To be sure, Spotify’s Top 200 chart only represents the most popular songs and doesn’t show all of the other tracks where the bulk of the streaming activity actually takes place.

But numbers from Alpha Data show that during mid-March, streaming of all new songs — those released within the past eight weeks — dropped just over 14 percent, so it isn’t just the chart-toppers that are suffering.

In that same time, however, modern hits such as “Perfect” and “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran (No. 162 and No. 136 respectively) and classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (No. 130) were all rising on Spotify’s global chart. The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” rose 135 percent — a powerful reminder of the need to maintain social distancing, perhaps?

Classical (up 1.5 percent), folk (bumped 3 percent) and children’s music (which saw the biggest increase of all, with 4 percent) increased as well. So, it’s not that people stopped listening to music; they’re just preferring familiar songs to new releases.

As we continue to shelter where we are, we’ll get to see which among music’s modern channels of expression will remain and grow. Whether through Twitch or Instagram Live, artists have not let social distancing stop them. We’ve seen free in-home concerts and DJs coining weekly sets — check out DJ D-Nice’s quarantine radio. The Verzuz competitive battle series between legendary hip-hop producers Swizz Beats and Timbaland got a staggering 400,000 views.

But the emergence of these mediums as the favorites for artists-in-lockdown and fans-in-quarantine means there’s even less appetite for fresh content on music streaming platforms. How Spotify, Pandora and their peers adapt might determine how they do the next time a crisis forces us to stay at home.

Virtual Events Are Booming. Will It Last?

It was less than two weeks before the wedding when everything changed. Justin Pando, 29, and his then-fiancée, Maryssa Medley, 28, had been together six years and were preparing to welcome more than 100 guests to their March 28 wedding when COVID-19 crashed the party.

So, with just 48 hours to go, they switched to Zoom. The couple, who both work for tech organizations, had their friends and family drop by digitally to celebrate their love. “I knew we were going to do something that was unorthodox and local,” Justin tells me. 

The now happily married couple is just one who’ve had to pivot to digital events. Videoconferencing platforms across the globe have been experiencing unprecedented traffic not just from work-from-home business meetings but from another essential component to the societal fabric: the need to party, quarantine or no quarantine.

Apps like Zoom and Houseparty have seen their stock prices and downloads skyrocket. And much of that may be events. In fact, according to statistics from invitation company Evite:

The number of virtual gatherings grew 1,130 percent from March 2019 to March 2020.

Evite started off 22 years ago as an event invitation company — a way to organize events offline and let people know where to go. Since the spread of the virus, however, they’ve made changes to accommodate the rapidly growing digital space, adding new designs specifically for virtual gatherings, such as “Happy Hour From Home.” In addition, invitations can now be turned into a virtual party with just one click thanks to their new fully integrated live video chat feature. “Frankly, receiving an Evite invitation is a bit more fun than just a plain Google calendar invite or Zoom link,” says the CEO of Evite, Victor Cho. Before the COVID-19 spike, virtual events represented 0.1 percent of all events in the Evite system. As of last month, 70 percent of events thrown via Evite are happening online.

Those events encompass every big life moment: birthdays, cocktail parties, weddings, funerals. People in quarantine have realized you can pretty much do the same things you wanted to do in person from home — and while it may not be the same as going to an actual wedding, it’s better than not having human contact at all. Evite’s business in years past has been dominated by birthdays, and that hasn’t changed — but Cho says the biggest shift recently has been the growth of casual get-togethers like happy hours, which represented 13 percent of all virtual events last month.

Zoom is another example. Although predominantly used for offices before the virus, the videoconference platform can also host events that aren’t business-related, like karaoke nights or trivia quizzes.

In Justin and Maryssa’s case, Zoom’s webinar feature was key for their online wedding. During the ceremony, the attendees could see them but not one another — similar to a live stream — but afterward, during the virtual reception, they switched modes to allow everyone to socialize independently, talk and make toasts. “All of our friends were able to use the chat feature and write us messages in real time during the ceremony and we recorded it all, so we have a document of all the chat. It’s almost like a live guest book,” Maryssa says. 

Of course, once quarantine eventually ends and people can gather IRL once more, such virtual events will likely see a drop-off. Even while the crisis continues, Cho says, it’s possible that virtual events will lose their luster as stressed people feel virtually overscheduled even if they never have to put on real pants. Even people starved for company need a break from screens occasionally. But Pando says the experience has taught him something new. “This has really opened my eyes in terms of what being connected means and what we need to do to in order to keep that feeling alive,” he says. Not only did their digital wedding cost very little, it also saw a higher turnout than they’d expected for the live event. So maybe virtual gatherings will get a permanent boost now that people realize their potential — and have all the apps downloaded and ready to go.

Next, virtual events spaces will need to figure out how to recreate a digital honeymoon.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Maryssa Medley’s name.

Black Women Face Extra Coronavirus Burden

Check out a special edition of OZY’s Black Women OWN the Conversation focused on the impact of COVID-19 on the African American community. These episodes bring together real women and a curated panel of experts, professionals and doctors with host Carlos Watson for a timely discussion on how we are living during the pandemic. The second special airs Tuesday, April 21, at 11 p.m. (10 p.m. CST) on OWN. Join the conversation at #BlackWomenOWN on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“This is deadly,” Richelle Williams says sternly. The 67-year-old New Jersey funeral home owner has been explaining to the virtual room of Black women from all over the country how fatal “our people’s” ignorance has been. Thus far, Williams has not been burying just one person in a family, but entire families, week after week.

“My folks — our folks — think that they are untouchable. But guess what? Now I am burying those who thought they were untouchable,” Williams reveals on the second special edition of OZY’s Black Women OWN the Conversation, airing on OWN on Tuesday at 11 p.m. EST.

The Black community has been disproportionately affected by the virus. A data analysis by Mother Jones found that in 20 of the 28 states that provided usable racial data, Black people make up a larger share of coronavirus infections than they do of the general population.

Behind the data are human stories, explored in depth by host and OZY CEO Carlos Watson, who was joined for this socially distanced episode — shown via Zoom rather than with a live audience — by Dr. Altha Stewart, chief of social and community psychiatry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis; Dr. Uché Blackstock, a Brooklyn-based physician and CEO of Advancing Health Equity; and Mikki Kendall, an activist and author of Hood Feminism.

We’ve taught our society that the oppression they can experience can kill them.

Mikki Kendall, activist

As experts and participants reveal in often emotional testimony, the numbers have a direct correlation to systemic hurdles that African Americans face every day. When Williams alludes to African Americans believing they are untouchable, Kendall explains why they may think so: because they have to. “We’ve taught our society that the oppression they can experience can kill them,” Kendall says. For playing in a park, for being asleep on a couch, for simply existing as a person of color, Black people in America are tasked with overcoming what seem like insurmountable odds every day simply to live. 

So, as Kendall breaks it down, when we tell Black people that COVID-19 can kill them and they should stay home, what they hear is “hunger can kill me, whatever dangers in my house can kill me, police can kill me.” This “risk” that is so new for most of us is simply just another risk on a long list that Black people face on a daily basis.

That risk-taking has a way of compounding family tensions that are spiking amid lockdown orders. Take Nicole Creshon. The 33-year-old New Orleans native has been forced to co-parent with the father of her child who is in and out of the house because they are no longer romantically involved. And now his comings and goings put both Creshon, who is asthmatic, and their special needs daughter at risk. While she acknowledges that she’s fortunate to have a civil relationship with her ex, he’s “like a third child,” she says, when it comes to the help she expects him to provide while he’s in her house.

For Debra Greenwood, 68, of Stone Mountain, Georgia, quarantine has pushed her 24-year relationship with her wife past the point of no return. “There’s a lot of separation where she is in the front of the house and I’m in the back of the house,” Greenwood tells the virtual gathering. However, she also reveals that she and her wife still get together to binge-watch Greenleaf, which is more than what many women who live alone have. 

That’s the case for Felicia Stokes, a 41-year-old single entrepreneur in New Jersey who says the BWOTC experience is the most normal she’s felt in weeks, since the stay-at-home orders began and her interaction with others has been limited to people at the grocery store. With the majority of her family in Dallas, Stokes has become closer with her neighbors — and has started thinking more about where her support network will come from now. “When you’re a single Black woman and you’re always handling things, people always think, ‘She’s got it; she’s good,’” Stokes says. “But I’ve always shown up for the weddings, the baby showers, the christenings, and it’s five or six of them and one of me. Who’s checking for me?”

It’s a question Stewart says is worth everyone asking. “As Black women, one of the things we’ve got to do now, which is more important than ever before, is learn to ask for what we need,” she says. The answers won’t be easy, but in a virtual room of supportive women sharing a moment amid a crisis, broaching the question goes a long way.

She’s Getting Cheerleaders Into STEM Careers

Darlene Cavalier interrupts our phone conversation with an important update: “I’m staring at a squirrel here in Philadelphia.” Her interest has been sparked by a program called Project Squirrel, in which users report their observations about the ubiquitous furry rodents. For Cavalier, a professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, it’s the perfect encapsulation of “citizen science.”

Cavalier, 50, has become a leading national booster for the idea that the general public can and should be a part of the scientific process by collecting data for researchers around the world. It’s a fitting role for the former college cheerleader who launched Science Cheerleaders, a nonprofit organization consisting of current and former NFL, NBA and college cheerleaders pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Aside from being a valuable social distancing activity when much scientific fieldwork is disrupted, enlisting more people to collect data and observations about our changing climate is more important than ever. Take the squirrels. “It’s awfully warm out here,” Cavalier says. “And the fact that I am watching squirrels on the park, in early March, is not normal.”

By showing that cheerleaders have STEM careers, it shows kids that anyone can do science and STEM.

Darlene Cavalier

Her scientific instincts did not arrive early. Cavalier studied communications at Temple University, where she cheered. The science bug bit while she worked at Discover magazine in 1991. She worked on the Discover Awards, stuffing envelopes with the magazines and the award application forms, and entering responses into the computer. Reading the entries, she was introduced to technological innovations in an easy-to-understand way, based on how the forms were structured.

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She kept thinking, “Holy cow, I can’t believe these amazing people were doing so many things around the world,” when she’d devoted her life largely to cheerleading and dance.

In 2004, Cavalier decamped to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where she specifically set out to see if there was a place in science for people who didn’t have science degrees. What she found was that she was not alone, meeting others who weren’t too caught up with their pedigree to make a difference or who was motivated because they were afflicted with health issues and had no choice. This is also where she’d develop the ideas that would change her life forever.


Cavalier’s nonprofit now involves more than 300 cheerleaders.

Source Jenna McGee/ Honeywell Aerospace

It started with a blog she ran between 2006 and 2011, called Science Cheerleader. She would publish interviews with members of Congress, science leaders and researchers about the unrealized role of “regular” people in advancing science. “Because of my background as a cheerleader and the title of the blog, I started hearing from pro cheerleaders who were pursuing science careers,” she says.

There are now more than 300 cheerleaders involved in Science Cheerleaders — helping the nonprofit that emerged from that blog buck the traditional image of these women. Of the San Francisco 49ers’ 40 cheerleaders, Cavalier says, 20 were pursuing STEM careers as of last season. “Every appearance that they do with the Science Cheerleaders, they engage people in local citizen science activities,” she says.

Two other organizations also emerged from the blog. SciStarter, a website, offers a range of citizen science projects (including Project Squirrel). The Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network brings together academic research, informal science education, citizen science programs, and non-partisan policy analysis to engage citizens. “The general idea is that Science Cheerleaders cast a wide net to inspire people in public spheres traditionally not connected to science, then move them to SciStarter, where the public can fully engage in citizen science, which, eventually may lead them to ECAST,” she tells me.

SciStarter went on to be adopted in part by Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society in 2014, making it possible for both dreams to have their own lane. The program now offers 3,000-plus projects, fuels new areas of research for multiple universities and is used by Verizon for its corporate volunteer engagement program as well as by Girl Scouts to earn citizen science badges. “Darlene has a really great ability to keep a pulse on what the broader community needs, and to figure out ways that she can collate those needs into something that’s usable,” says Shannon Dosemagen, executive director of Public Lab, a community that develops and applies open-source tools for environmental investigation.

A big part of the battle for Cavalier, a mother of four, is fighting the stigma that holds girls and people of color back from pursuing the sciences. Back when she was just a cheerleader at Temple and working at Discover, she’d often point out to publishers the mistakes she found and would notice how they, thinking she was a scientist, would talk to her differently than she was used to. That drew her in further.

Heather A. Fischer, a senior researcher at Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center, says when students shy away from science, it makes them more intimidated by it as adults. Not all of them get the opportunity Cavalier did to see science in a different way. That’s where citizen science programs can fill the gap. “Cheerleaders are not normally what come to mind with you think about scientists, but by showing that cheerleaders have STEM careers, it shows kids that anyone can do science and STEM,” she says.

Aside from Project Squirrel, Cavalier is a big fan of Globe at Night. In this project, you’re taught how to look for constellations in the sky. The stars you cannot see indicate the amount of light pollution — which can affect everything from human sleep patterns to species migration to lightning bug mating rituals. User-generated light data helps scientists study these effects further.

For Cavalier, it’s a responsibility, a kind of community service. Think of what the world could look like if millions of amateur scientists shut off the TV for a few minutes and walked outside in search of the light.

Black Women OWN The Conversation: Your COVID-19 Resource Guide

Check out a special edition of OZY’s Black Women OWN the Conversation focused on the impact of COVID-19 on the African American community. These episodes bring together real women and a curated panel of experts, professionals and thought leaders with host Carlos Watson for a timely discussion on how we are living during this pandemic. The specials air Saturday, April 18, at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. CT), and Tuesday, April 21, at 11 p.m. (10 p.m. CT) on OWN. Join the conversation at #BlackWomenOWN on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Just because you are an essential worker or deemed as high-risk does not mean you have to live your life in fear. While masks, gloves and hand washing are all great methods to help protect yourself, the most powerful defensive tool is information, which is why we have put together this handy resource guide. 

Below we have tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nonprofit resources inside and outside the Black community, and some suggestions on how best to live during this unprecedented time. 

Staying Safe

The first and most important thing to consider when going out, whether you’re going in to work or snagging some precious vitamin D, is not contracting or spreading the virus. Here are some quick facts on what the CDC has to say about COVID-19 that you should keep in mind. 

How COVID-19 Spreads

  • The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, especially when in close contact (within about 6 feet). 
  • This spread comes from respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.
  • The virus can be spread by people who are not showing symptoms.
  • The most common symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath

Keeping Clean

  • After coming in from outside or any public place, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Same goes for after coughing, sneezing and blowing your nose. 
  • Hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is also okay to use, but only if soap and water aren’t readily available.  
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed (or even gloved) hands at all costs. 
  • Social distance — if you can, stay home. A reminder: You can spread the virus without showing any symptoms. 

What to Wear

  • N-95 masks are best for containment, but a simple face cloth is better than nothing.
  • Still, cloth face coverings should not be placed on children younger than 2, or anyone who has trouble breathing or is unable to remove the mask without assistance.
  • Do NOT use a face mask meant for a health care worker.
  • Just because your face is covered doesn’t mean the 6-feet rule no longer applies.


Check out these nonprofits doing good work in the African American community and beyond.

Free Virtual Therapy 

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation was founded in 2018 in honor of actress Taraji P. Henson’s father, who suffered from mental health challenges after serving in the Vietnam War. It’s launched a campaign to help Black people affected by COVID-19 access free therapy during the outbreak.

People who have been impacted are eligible for up to five free sessions. Click here to get started. And if you need immediate help, call the National Suicide Helpline at 1-800-273-8255

Helping Health Workers 

Project Parachute provides free therapy sessions to frontline health workers — including physicians, nurses, custodial staff, management and others.

Founded by psychologist Stephanie Zerwas, the initiative grew from organizing local therapists to aid the University of North Carolina’s physician mental health program, to a large-scale national network. It now has more than 500 volunteer therapists in 37 states, all offering pro bono therapy sessions.

Test, Test, Test

The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium is addressing the biggest problem facing communities across the country — access to coronavirus tests. They’ve built a mobile testing unit to get tests to the most underserved parts of Philadelphia. Founder Dr. Ala Stanford, the first African American female pediatric surgeon to be educated entirely in the U.S., launched the initiative. You can catch Stanford on the first special COVID-19 episode of Black Women OWN the Conversation, airing tonight (see note above in italics).

Lifehacking COVID-19 

This pandemic is about more than health care. We’ve all got to figure out how to deal with disrupted, locked-down lives, as well as economic challenges. Here are some OZY guides to the coronavirus era: 

OZY’s New Hit TV Show: Black Women Go Deep on COVID-19

Check out a special edition of OZY’s Black Women OWN the Conversation focused on the impact of COVID-19 on the African American community. These episodes bring together real women and a curated panel of experts, professionals and thought leaders with host Carlos Watson for a timely discussion on how we are living during this pandemic. The specials air Saturday, April 18, at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. CT), and Tuesday, April 21, at 11 p.m. (10 p.m. CT) on OWN. Join the conversation at #BlackWomenOWN on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

She tried sounding the alarm. Philadelphia native Dr. Ala Stanford, the first African American woman pediatric surgeon to be entirely trained in the U.S., had been attempting to educate and dispel countless myths. She tried to get the word out with city and state officials and on social media, but nothing seemed to work. 

Then it dawned on her: Talking wasn’t going to do the trick. She had to act. 

“I’m hearing why this can’t happen and why that can’t happen, and basically reached out to my Black doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, medical officials and anyone who wanted to help to say: We have to test our people,” Stanford explains passionately on a special edition of OZY’s Black Women OWN the Conversation airing Saturday on OWN. Her sense of urgency about what Black Americans are facing both in her home city and across the country permeates the show. 

Normally taped before a live studio audience of 100 Black women cutting across class, age, profession and sexual orientation, these special editions were taped via Zoom. The topic, as you can guess, is the exact reason the conversation is virtual: COVID-19, and how it’s hitting the Black community especially hard

This pandemic situation is really just further exposing what was already problematic.

Bree Newsome Bass, activist

For episode 1, airing on Saturday night, host and OZY CEO Carlos Watson moderates a conversation including prominent Black women such as Stanford, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and activist Bree Newsome Bass. 

Although they constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up 42 percent of coronavirus deaths that have been reported with demographic data — and 70 percent in Cantrell’s home state of Louisiana. The reasons all point back to one thing: access. 

“It goes to the social determinants of health in vulnerable populations,” Cantrell says. “But of course in the United States, as it relates to the African American communities, it’s a question of no access to wealth, to opportunity, to quality health care — all the social determinants of health that heavily impacted the African American community for generations.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that people with heart and lung conditions, asthma and other preexisting conditions are most vulnerable to the coronavirus — and many of those conditions are particularly prevalent among African Americans.

These kinds of health disparities show how the Black community’s crisis predates COVID-19, says Bass, a grassroots organizer who famously climbed a 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina State House to take down its Confederate flag in 2015. Having worked with populations struggling to have stable housing, living wages and access to health care, she says the “normal” many hope to return to is already harmful. “This pandemic situation is really just further exposing what was already problematic in our structures to begin with,” Bass says.

And those structures make dealing with the disease more difficult. Kelly, an audience member from Philadelphia who survived COVID-19, tells a harrowing tale about not being able to receive care. “It took about 10 days before they actually told me I was positive, and I could have infected so many other people,” she laments.

Stories like hers, where Black survival is on the line, are the stories that matter. Tune in for more.