COVID-19 & Race: Commentary


"The novel coronavirus has embedded itself into the nation’s story, melding the multiple race based atrocities that have plagued the nation. To bring the issues of race and Covid-19 into sharp relief, we offer weekly news, analysis, and commentary about the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color.  The opening essay below, Coronavirus and Human Value, offers a frame through which to view the virus as it plays off longstanding racial inequities, and why an inclusive recovery of its ravages requires a radical reimagining of the broken systems the pandemic has exposed."
--Michael McAfee, President and CEO, PolicyLink

Issue No 1. April 15, 2020 

Coronavirus and Human Value

By Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee

Judging by the Twitter rage and stinging jabs from late-night comics, people were appalled by suggestions that grandparents should let themselves die of Covid-19 to save the economy. The outrage was predictable because the face of the old and frail, as put out by the media, was elderly  white people. The proposal, however, should not have been a surprise. The call to sacrifice old people on the altar of prosperity is an expression of something deeply rooted and destructive in American culture: the belief in a hierarchy of human value. 

The mindset goes back to the nation’s origins, built from stolen land and human bondage. How else to justify genocide and slavery than by relegating Native and African people to the bottom of a pecking order that placed white people on top? America has never reckoned with these sins or the foundational belief that certain groups have little or no worth. They can be shunted aside, exploited, killed, or allowed to die in order to enrich those who matter more.

People of color have always known where society places us on the value ladder, no matter how much we contribute, earn, or achieve.  In recent decades the nation has witnessed many white people being pushed to the bottom too, by an economy that places a premium on the wealth of a privileged few and disregards low-income and working people. As long as the Dow climbed, inequality was allowed to skyrocket. Despair was left to fester even as it has been killing working-class white Americans, as surely as the novel coronavirus, left unchecked, will kill their grandparents. The staggering increase in drug- and alcohol-related deaths and suicides among white adults without a college education is an example of what happens when whole populations are devalued.

Other examples may have been hidden in plain sight, but COVID-19 lays them bare. It also illustrates how devaluing some groups ultimately hurts all. Years of research have shown that Black people have much higher rates of chronic illness, yet the government has never seriously tackled racial disparities in lung disease, asthma, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes — the very conditions that can make this virus so deadly. Hundreds of communities on tribal lands and the Southern border lack access to clean water no matter how often they are commanded to wash their hands. Shelter in place, another common-sense order to slow viral spread, is infinitely more complicated for the roughly half-million people experiencing homelessness.

Gail Christopher, a philanthropic leader and executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, has been pushing the nation for years to come to grips with racism by acknowledging, and jettisoning, the hierarchy of human value. In thousands of personal ways, that may be starting to happen as we collectively face a virus that attacks without regard for the size of someone’s investment portfolio, even as it is more deadly for some. People are staying home not just out of fear and self-protection but so medical workers can adequately care for the sickest of the sick, and the nation can reduce suffering and deaths. Early signs offer hope it is working. Will the resolve to social distance for the good of self and others continue now that the data reveal that people of color, especially African American, are being hit hardest? 

The right thing to do in this moment is for government at all levels, especially the federal, to demonstrate that all people matter and prioritize those in greatest need—Black people, Native Americans, Latinos, vulnerable immigrants, elders, people with disabilities, and people struggling with poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and marginalization. Only by making sure they are free from the virus will everyone be safe.

This extended lockdown, which now affects nearly the entire country, is a rare opportunity for critical self-reflection and communal sharing. As we’ve learned with toilet paper and masks, hoarding makes it difficult for others to survive. This is true for all essentials, and not only during a pandemic. We are fooling ourselves if we think the nation can re-cover and heal without reimagining and rebuilding the systems and institutions the virus has revealed to be inadequate and broken. To recover, the nation must build a high-quality health care system available and affordable to all. We must make sure everyone has access to clean water, safe housing, and jobs that bring financial security. We must create an economy that shares prosperity broadly, rather than funneling the rewards to a few.

The good news is that the nation does not have to start from scratch to figure out how to do this. Dedicated, caring advocates for the most vulnerable have been developing and refining an equitable policy agenda for decades, one that honors the dignity and recognizes the potential of all. It includes universal access to health care and childcare, guaranteed jobs that offer living wages and paid sick leave, a fair criminal justice system, and a high-quality education system that prepares all children and young adults for the future. It also includes political reforms that invigorate our democracy, freeing it from corporate and wealthy influence and enabling people to hold elected officials accountable for serving the public interest.

As many of us sit at home, reflecting on what matters, let us first resolve to fight to get rid of the notion that some lives matter more than others. And let's learn from the starkest example of our mutuality and connection that any of us have seen in our lifetimes. If there’s a silver lining in this crisis, it’s the opportunity to transcend the categories that have divided us, including age, race, gender, class, income, ability, and political party, and to see the value in everybody. 

Angela Glover Blackwell is the Founder in Residence and host of the podcast Radical Imagination. Michael McAfee is the President and CEO.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

Data from cities across the country make alarmingly clear what many of us suspected. Covid-19 is infecting and killing African Americans at shockingly high rates. A Washington Post analysis of available data shows that counties that are majority Black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties with a majority of White residents. The podcast Code Switch explores the issue through the experience of Milwaukee, where in 2019 officials declared racism to be a public health crisis. NPR goes to New Orleans, where the virus has been devastating to the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, at the Black cultural heart of the city. Statewide, African Americans account for at least 70 percent of coronavirus deaths.

What’s behind these numbers? High rates of lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and the other chronic conditions make people of color especially susceptible to the deadly complications of COVID-19. And that chronic condition in America — inequitable access to health care — compounds the risks. The biotech data firm Rubix Life Sciences  reviewed billing information from several states and found that African Americans with symptoms like cough and fever were less likely to be given a coronavirus test. 

But the roots of COVID-19 disparities run deeper than access to health care. On the Brookings blog, Rashawn Ray points to structural inequities that compromise the health of African Americans, including concentrated poverty, densely populated neighborhoods, and poor access to healthy healthy food, recreational opportunities, and green spaces. Black people are also overrepresented in the “essential” workforce, accounting for nearly 30% of bus drivers and nearly 20% of grocery clerks and others who risk their lives daily on the front lines to keep society running. On the Urban Institute blog, Kilolo Kijakazi writes that the pandemic’s glaring racial disparities highlight the need for recovery policies that address structural racism.

The virus is also taking a huge toll on Native American and Latinx people. In New York City, now the global epicenter of the pandemic, Latinx residents are hardest hit by coronavirus deaths. The LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) Virtual Town Hall is an important conversation about the impact on and resources for Latinx communities, including small business owners.

In Navajo Nation, the New York Times reports that the scarcity of running water, the prevalence of chronic diseases, and crowded housing are enabling the virus to spread with terrifying speed. For a deep dive into the challenges facing Native American communities, check out this thoughtful, comprehensive American Bar Association webinar.

What do the racial disparities mean for reopening  the economy? The podcast In the Thick explores the question. In a New York Times essay, “The History of Immunoprivilege,” Kathryn Olivarius argues against proposals to mobilize a workforce that has demonstrated viral immunity. “There is already racial and geographic inequality in exposure to and testing for this virus. The most vulnerable people in our society cannot be punished twice over: first by their circumstance and then by the disease.”

While evidence of disparities is piling up, it doesn’t begin to reveal the full impact on people of color. Fewer than a dozen states have released coronavirus statistics by race and ethnicity. Aletha Maybank, chief health equity officer and vice president of the American Medical Association, moderates a penetrating discussion among physicians of color about why disaggregated data is key to fighting COVID-19. Read Maybank’s powerful op-ed, “The Pandemic’s Missing Data, in the New York Times, and Politico’s take on the issue.

People of color and low-income people are also shouldering the heaviest load of the social and economic fallout. Latino workers are losing their jobs at the highest rate. Mother Jones looks at the plight of tipped restaurant workers, who were already hanging by a thread. An innovative emergency fund, which helps restaurant workers survive the shutdown, could be a model for other industries. Black-owned businesses, which have always struggled to get bank loans, could get shut out of federal bailout aid, because banks want to lend only to long-standing customers.

The Guardian reports that the nation’s inadequate and vastly inequitable digital infrastructure is getting crushed by demand, now that life has moved to the Internet. The biggest problems are in poor rural and urban communities like the South Bronx — the very places that most need connections to information on the virus, job and benefit resources, and online education.

Although we’ve seen extraordinary acts of compassion and communal resolve, the pandemic is also exposing nasty racism. Asian Americans, in particular, are in the cross-hairs of hate. Kent Wong writes that racial animus, never far below the surface, has been exacerbated by President Trump’s labeling of COVID-19 as the “China virus.” In the New York Times Magazine, Cathy Park Hong describes how she began bookmarking anti-Asian slurs in tweets and news reports — a different, more openly vicious racism than the kind she was accustomed to. “It doesn’t matter if our families hail from Thailand, Burma, or the Philippines. Racism is indiscriminate, carpet bombing groups that bear the slightest resemblance to one another. We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.”

This first issue of COVID and Race wraps up where we started: with the hierarchy of human value. Who will be deemed expendable as medical rationing becomes a reality? Writing in Vox, Alice Wong reflects on measures and attitudes that threaten people like her with disabilities.

PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:

  • Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
  • Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
  • Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns. 

Please share with your networks and send your ideas and feedback. And follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. #COVIDandRace

Covid-19 & Race Digest produced by: Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones.