Tragically, this simple phrase may become the most appropriate descriptor for the 21st century. It began in 2014 as Eric Garner cried out “I can’t breathe”—eleven times—upon his death at the hands of law enforcement on New York’s Staten Island.

It quickly escalated in prominence as scores of Black men and women across the US lost their lives to police tactics. Then, more than five years later, when Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, “I can’t breathe” ripped open the generational wounds of racism experienced by so many in this country. It offered a touchstone for empathy, superseding the chant, “hands up, don’t shoot,” as a mantra for the Black Lives Matter movement, reaching a global audience and reminding us all that suffocating injustice is more than intellectual phenomenon and can lead to actual, physical, painful death.

And then Covid struck and suddenly the phrase had a new meaning as hundreds of thousands in this country and millions around the world were literally left gasping for breath, struggling against the virus that ferociously attacked the respiratory system.  

Nebraska Medicine says this about the progression of Covid-19: “In patients who develop severe infection, shortness of breath becomes more intense after seven to 10 days of symptoms. That is because the virus has populated in the lungs where it causes inflammation…As a result of inflammation and fluid buildup, fluid may leak into the tiny air sacks in the lungs. This can lead to a critical condition called adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This makes it very hard for the lungs to move oxygen from the air in the lungs to the bloodstream, which keeps organs from getting the oxygen they need to function.”

While Covid has disproportionally affected people of color, it is a disease that knows neither race nor social status. Hence, the phrase, “I can’t breathe” becomes a lived reality for millions in all walks of life. The unimaginable pain and anxiety experienced upon being infected by Covid-19 is then augmented by heartbreaking loneliness as those infected frequently endure their final days in isolation, without the presence of loved ones. “I can’t breathe” takes on a whole new, devastating dimension.

But we are still early in the century. So, what does the future hold? If we believe climate scientists and expert testimony at this week’s United Nations General Assembly, “I can’t breathe” may be a common cry for all humankind as climate chaos destroys the global ecosystem and changes our lives forever. Unprecedented heat waves, out-of-control wild fires, and intensified hurricanes that displace people from their homes and cause flash flooding powerful enough to literally suck people into suburban sewer systems to their death will eventually impact us all.

UN General Secretary Antonio Gutterez said in his opening remarks to the General Assembly, “I am here to sound the alarm: The world must wake up. We are on the edge of an abyss—and moving in the wrong direction. Our world has never been more threatened…The climate alarm bells are also ringing at fever pitch. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a code red for humanity. We see the warning signs in every continent and region. Scorching temperatures. Shocking biodiversity loss. Polluted air, water and natural spaces. And climate-related disasters at every turn.”

We are all accountable. If we seek our legacy to be more than “I can’t breathe,” we must act now to end racism, encourage widespread Covid-19 vaccine distribution and other pandemic mitigating solutions and nurture the created world that we call home.

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