In a recent article, International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol asserted that the “huge disruption caused by the coronavirus has highlighted how much modern societies rely on electricity.” Also adding that in many countries, electricity is critical for operating the ventilators and other medical equipment in the hospitals treating the soaring numbers of sick people.

Birol noted that electricity also ensures the timely communication of important information between governments and citizens and between doctors and patients. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa hundreds of millions of people live without any access to electricity. This, Birol states, makes these Africans far more vulnerable to disease and other dangers. It also keeps them poor.

In this country, too, energy poverty can be linked to poor health and to COVID 19. According to a 2018 U.S. Energy Information Administration report, 31 percent of Americans have struggled to pay their energy bills – half of the respondents were African-Americans. Couple that with the statement from the Centers for Disease Control that, during March, 33 percent of individuals requiring hospitalization for coronavirus were black.

This confirms results of a 2016 study that found that, on average, low-income households pay more than twice as much of their income for utilities as the median household. That study also found that “housing for the low income also tended to be less energy efficient, researchers found. Families in that group were at higher risk for respiratory diseases and stress.”

Thus it is troubling to read that the first 12 COVID 19 deaths in St. Louis, Missouri, were all African-Americans. Dr. Fredrick Echols, Director of the City of St. Louis Department of Health, squashed the rumor that African Americans are more resistant to contracting the virus, noting instead that pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and heart conditions “disproportionately affect the black community.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s spokesman on the pandemic, agreed that, “Diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma are disproportionately afflicting the minority populations, particularly the African Americans.”

Electricity, to be effective as a tool against disease, has to be affordable to be truly “accessible.” In the United States, hydrofracturing (fracking) has brought the price of natural gas so low that the cleaner burning fuel has replaced coal as the nation’s largest supplier of electricity.

The economics of natural gas, however, are in jeopardy thanks to an unrelenting war on fracking that forced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking in his state. Cuomo and other progressive Democrats are even working to ban new natural gas pipeline construction and even the sale and use of natural gas powered appliances.

Even presidential candidate Joe Biden in March took the Bernie Sanders position to pledge to shut down hydrofracturing. Though Biden later “clarified” his statement to imply his proposed ban would apply only on public lands, the message was clear. Hey Hey Ho Ho, Fossil Fuels Have Got To Go.

Biden has benefited from African-American political support. Rep. James Clyburn’s (D, SC) endorsement sparked Biden’s massive primary victory in the South Carolina primary and prompted other candidates to drop out of the race, ensuring Biden a huge “Super Thursday.”

However, former Cincinnati Mayor and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell argues that adopting extreme green energy policies – like banning fracking – hurts black American voters. Leaders of normally progressive liberal civil rights organizations, recognizing this, are urging Democrats to reconsider their opposition to affordable natural gas.

A recent article in Axios stated that, “in recent interviews, Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and National Urban League President (and former New Orleans mayor) Marc Morial said that energy costs are hitting people of color unfairly hard.” These civil rights activists are opposing any abrupt move away from natural gas, putting them at odds with environmentalists and progressive Democrats (who now seem to include Joe Biden).

Morial has been especially vocal, arguing that “Natural gas is a bit of a bridge fuel. It’s a fuel that we need to have access to because the transition to alternatives is a long-range transition.” Politicians, he said, should not debate these issues “without consultation with the leaders of the African-American communities and neighborhoods affected by these issues.” Sanders’ radical approach to energy is a major reason black Democrats stuck with Biden, who now seems to have betrayed that trust.

Jackson had told Axios in February that he supports “the call [to ban fracking] with a proper transition. In the meantime, those who are down and out have to have it.” Sharpton agreed that “natural gas is a temporary solution, but in the interim people in communities of color should not pay the brunt of suffering through cold winters.”

Meanwhile, the corona virus has begun to spread into sub-Saharan Africa, with 33 of Africa’s 54 countries reporting cases as early as March 18. An earlier report noted that northern Nigeria, which is home to 90 percent of that nation’s poor, is ripe for a pandemic outbreak. Only 24 percent of households there have access to electricity, water, and sanitation.

Indeed, the West’s refusal to assist Africans to switch from dung and wood to fossil fuel energy (instead forcing investment in renewable energy that provides carbon credits for Europeans) may trigger a massive outbreak with few tools available to fight back – despite theories that this virus cannot possibly infect people in hot climates.

Just a decade ago, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa acknowledged that,“fossil fuels are important energy sources that play vital roles in the economies of African nations,” adding that over 80 percent of the electricity generated across the continent was from fossil fuels. Several African nations relied upon fossil fuel exports for much of their revenues. But, said the UN, the continued use of fossil fuels in Africa should take place “in the context of a low carbon development trajectory.”

The slow rate of progress toward full electrification in sub-Saharan Africa indicates that the suggestion by a French physician to conduct COVID-19 vaccine trials “in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care,” while roundly condemned as racist, somewhat accurately describes the common viewpoint that Africa is just fine without electricity, hospitals, and effective means to fight pandemic diseases.

Energy poverty – rampant in black neighborhoods in the U.S. and across most of Africa – creates opportunities for pandemics to spread without the means to fight back. Natural gas has proven to be a major weapon against energy poverty – and by inference, against deadly disease. Ventilators, for example, become quite ineffective when power is available only intermittently.


  • Duggan Flanakin

    Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."