#overCOVID: Racial Inequality
People have said coronavirus is the great equalizer, but that can’t be further from the truth. We’re all in the same storm, but we are absolutely not all in the same boat. The fact is, COVID disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities and has shined a light on existing racial inequality in our communities. Because of the impact of COVID, we are seeing in real time the effects that structural racism has on our neighbors and communities. Non-white Americans are more likely to work in low-wage essential jobs (e.g. grocery stores, home healthcare, cleaning staff, public transit, food processing/service, etc.) that both require them to interact with people and often don’t offer health insurance. Due to decades of redlining and housing discrimination, people of color are more likely to live in densely populated areas or multi-family apartments which put them at higher risk. Plus, because of environmental racism coupled with a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, BIPOC are also more likely to have underlying health issues that put them at higher risk.
If most of the people you know have a home where they can safely isolate (or the ability to stay with family in a safe place), plus a job they can do from home, plus access to healthcare, that is a privilege. Let’s take a deeper look at how COVID affects our communities differently, and start conversations about what needs to change so that we can move closer towards racial equality.
COVID-19 and racial inequality in health outcomes
Let’s start with the facts. The CDC says that people with underlying health conditions are more likely to contract coronavirus or have severe cases. Heart conditions, obesity, diabetes, asthma, cancer, hypertension, etc. can all increase risk. While anyone can have these health issues, Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than white adults to have hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. That means that they are at higher risk to contract a serious case of COVID, even without compounded risks they may experience due to their work or living situation. Black folks are 42% more likely than white folks to have asthma, and BIPOC are more likely than whites to be exposed to air pollution (and all other types of pollution) which causes harm to lungs. In the middle of a pandemic that causes respiratory issues, having asthma is a major risk factor.
Lots of things contribute to these health disparities, for example: diet (and a lack of access to affordable healthy foods), income inequality, pollution/chemical exposure, stress, and a lack of access to quality preventative care. These health disparities are nothing new, but COVID makes resolving them seem even more urgent.
Right now, Black Americans are only 13% of the population, but make up 21% of COVID deaths and 33% of cases that require hospitalization. If Black folks were in the same boat as most white folks when it comes to the virus then we would expect these numbers to be closer to en even split among demographic lines, so Black folks would only make up about 13% of cases and deaths. But that’s not reality. Right now, we are seeing how deadly structural and environmental racism can be. This is the outcome of decades of policies that disproportionately harm communities of color.
COVID-19 and racial inequality in the workforce
We all know that one of the best ways to prevent COVID is to social distance, and keep the in-person circle tight. But if you work an essential job, that’s not an option (thank you–always–to our amazing healthcare workers!). And for people who work a low-wage essential job, they are basically being forced to trade their health and potentially their life, for a paycheck that doesn’t even meet living expenses. Even in healthcare, many of the essential but low-wage jobs are held by women and people of color, who, ironically, often don’t even have health insurance or other benefits like paid time off or sick leave.
People of color are more likely to be low-wage essential workers across industries, but those jobs often don’t do a good job of protecting them against COVID. All sorts of structural policies about how we fund education, where people can live, who companies tend to hire, and who we trap in cycles of poverty contribute to what we are seeing now: low income folks, who are disproportionately people of color, are being treated as both essential and expendable with little regard to the health risks that come with their work.
So, what can I do about this?
For one thing, we all need to recognize that these disparities will still exist after COVID unless if we make some big changes at governmental and corporate levels. Do your research on the people running for your local positions (like school boards and city council) and bigger offices like state or national legislatures and vote for those who support ideas and policies that would help lower income inequality, expand education and job opportunities, protect people and the environment from harm by corporate polluters, and provide healthcare to more people. Those policies would go a long way to closing the gaps that we see in racial inequality.
But getting involved in helping your community recover and get #overCOVID faster is something you can do right now that has a major impact. Volunteer at food banks, donate money or needed items to local nonprofits, or sew masks to give to homeless shelters to distribute among the most vulnerable in our communities. When things get tough, the best of humanity can show up, but only if we actually decide to show up for each other.
We mourn for everyone who has lost loved ones to COVID. Please do your part to help stop the spread and remember to wear a mask, social distance, and wash your hands! Together we will get over COVID, by supporting each other and the organizations that keep our communities up and running.