Here’s how to center racial justice in our response to covid-19

Sirry Alang, Ph.D. and Donna McAlpine, Ph.D.

We are beginning to see racial inequities in the impact of covid-19. Like the H1N1 pandemic or the economic shock of the Great Recession, Whites generally do better after catastrophic events than people who belong to racialized groups.

Most states have not released data about race for the people who have tested positive for covid-19 and those who have died. But early results in some states are alarming. Blacks make up about 14% of the total population of Michigan and of Illinois, and about 33% of the population of Louisiana. Yet, as of the first week of April, Blacks in Illinois make up about 30% of confirmed cases and 40% of the deaths that have been reported. Indeed, the Black population in Chicago is only about 30% but 70% of persons who have died from covid-19 in the city are Black. In Michigan, Blacks account for 35% of confirmed cases and 40% of deaths. Reports from Louisiana also show that more than 70% of covid-19 deaths are among Blacks.

We expect this to the be the case for all racialized groups because people of color are generally more exposed to the virus than Whites. They are disproportionately represented in high-risk service industries. Think farm-workers, grocery store attendants, bus drivers, janitors, nursing and psychiatric aides, and those working in long-term care facilities. Blacks, Latinxs and Native Americans are between 2 and 19 times more likely than Whites to lack access to running water needed to regularly wash hands, produce, and other assorted goods.

Asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes increase risks of death from covid-19. These conditions are disproportionately prevalent among Blacks, Latinxs and Native Americans. Among Asian Americans, Filipino and Vietnamese adults may be particularly at risk due to underlying health problems. Therefore, chances of survival once sick with covid-19 are likely lower for people of color compared to Whites.

The economic impact of covid-19 is just beginning. National data suggest that about 40% of Latinxs and Blacks have been laid off or lost a job compared to about 30% of Whites. Covid-19 will widen the well-documented racial wealth gap.

The racial structuring of resources makes it such that your risk of dying or losing your job post covid-19 is partially determined by your race. The pandemic has exposed the brokenness of our healthcare system. But it will also expose the brokenness of many of our other systems — education, criminal justice, housing, child welfare, employment and so on.

What should we do now?

1) Collect and report data by race and ethnicity. We need to know so that we can be equitable with our allocation of resources to help mitigate the impact of covid-19. Most states are not reporting these data.
2) Every policy intervention to flatten the curve MUST have racial justice and equity as guiding, essential principles. It is unclear whether the parade of governors and state health officers, almost all White, are seeking and taking seriously the concerns and experiences of people of color. Their voices should shape the response.
3) Policymakers and health officials must be clear about how the response will NOT leave communities of color behind. They must take the time to consider how every single action or policy might foster inequities and come up with a plan to mitigate it.
4) State and local governments, as well as institutions at the forefront of our response must coordinate with organizations that serve marginalized and racialized populations. It is critical to ensure that messages about prevention and treatment are developed and communicated by credible messengers.
5) We should consider who is left behind. It is no secret that people of color are over-represented in the homeless population, prisons, immigration detention facilities, as well as resource-poor nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, group homes and the foster care system. How is our current response taking their needs into account?

Ultimately, what comes next with covid-19 is likely to be devastating in all communities regardless of race. It should not be more or less devastating simply because of the color of our skin. Yet, here we are.

Sirry Alang is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Health, Medicine and Society at Lehigh University.