COVID-19 & Race: Commentary

Read the COVID-19 and Race Commentary a news digest and analysis about the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color and strategies for a just, fair, and inclusive recovery.

Issue No 3. April 29, 2020 

The Nation’s Test

by Angela Glover Blackwell

We have two crises: a health crisis and an economic one. When we finally get to see health and economic data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, age, gender, ability, and geography, we’ll likely learn there is not complete overlap between those hit hardest by the coronavirus and those hit hardest by the economic fallout. But we know they will disproportionately be people of color since Black, Native American, Latinx, and Asian elders have suffered so much sickness and death, and younger workers of color are overrepresented among frontline workers. Responding effectively to the dual health and economic challenge requires a level of targeting, specificity, and nuanced understanding of the realities for low- income people of color that is pretty much anathema in US policymaking.

The nation knows how to do universal programs — Social Security, Medicare. It prefers income- qualifying programs to deal with poverty, even as these initiatives ignore the extreme need located just above the cut-off—food stamps, welfare, housing assistance. Devising programs, however, that take race and ethnicity into account in a way that acknowledges and addresses the disproportionate harms experienced by people of color, often as a result of structural racism, has not sat well in this country. Think affirmative action.

So here we are, nearing a recovery moment that offers the nation the possibility to begin anew, opening not just shuttered stores, but economic opportunity. The first acts that will help society chug back to life will center around testing, which is at the intersection of the health and economic crises. Effective testing must deal specifically with the needs of people of color who are overrepresented among the sick, essential workers, and those impacted by layoffs.

Medical experts have said accurate, widely available, easy-to-administer tests with fast turnaround of results are essential for staying on top of COVID-19. Governors and city and county leaders have said testing is crucial to guide their decisions about when it is safe to reopen offices, factories, parks, and schools. Companies are calling for testing to ensure safety for their workers and customers and to avoid further disruption of business. Workers want testing so they know they are safe on the job and can return home at night without fear of exposing their families to the virus. Everybody wants testing.

Despite empty promises about universal availability, it will be some time before everybody can be tested. We have to make some choices, who first? After we get past those with symptoms or exposure and health-care workers, including home health-care workers, aides in nursing homes, and the cleaners and janitors in these facilities, the current workforce needs and equity and fairness concerns mean that low-income people of color should be in the early-testing wave. Priority must be given to essential workers, including farm and food workers and those who work in grocery and drug stores, sanitation workers, transit and public safety workers. People of color are concentrated in all these jobs.

As more of the economy opens, government at all levels must make sure that testing is not used to make it difficult for low-income people of color to work, but helps them. People who cannot work from home should be at the front of the line. Latinx and Black workers have not only absorbed the brunt of layoffs, but they also have little in savings to mitigate the impact.

Equitable testing must be in place. Testing sites should be located in communities of color and administered in settings and by people who are trusted. This means ICE personnel and law enforcement agencies cannot be involved or present. Data cannot be shared with ICE or police. People of color know their personal data can be and has been weaponized against them — from increased surveillance in Black communities to instances in which immigrant workers have inadvertently put themselves and/or family members of mixed status at risk of deportation. Under no circumstances can we allow this pandemic to serve as a pretext to push through hardline, punitive, anti-immigrant agendas.

Additionally, community-based organizations should be relied upon and compensated for assisting with administering tests in communities where they have presence, are trusted, and are familiar to residents. Often, the most authentic, respected organizations in communities of color are small. Therefore, being able to unbundle testing contracts, so that these smaller groups can participate, will be key. Information about testing — where, how, and why it is done — must be delivered in multiple languages.  To protect privacy, those who are tested must have complete control over who has access to their data.

Testing should be accompanied by service and support. Community test sites should provide free masks, both to encourage participation and self-protection. More importantly, workers who test positive must have adequate paid sick leave and financial support for treatment if they do not have health insurance. It’s unclear whether employers will have the legal right to require their employees to be tested, but if they do, they should not be allowed to open if testing is not broadly and equitably available in their area. And if employers require testing, they must pay people during quarantine periods and allow them to return to their jobs when quarantine is over.

Further, many governors and health officials say massive contact tracing will be needed along with widespread testing. This  presents a huge opportunity to address unemployment in communities of color by creating public jobs to do the work, and by making sure those jobs are available to low-income people of color. 

As always, seeking and getting direct advice from low-income people of color will yield even more considerations. 

Across the country, we’ve seen an outpouring of public gratitude for the valuable and courageous contributions of those who have kept us going while the nation is so vulnerable. But applause and handmade signs of thanks are not enough. As we look to the future, our collective appreciation for the value of all essential work — and all workers — must translate into higher wages, full benefits, decent working conditions, and voice and power in the workplace. Recovery strategies must meet the demands of the moment while correcting the societal weakness and structural racism that have led to widespread suffering and near economic collapse. The work will take resolve, investment, compassion, a racial and ethnic consciousness, an unwavering commitment to fairness, and radical imagination.

Applying the racial lens to coronavirus testing is just the beginning. Ultimately the real test is of the nation’s character.

Angela Glover Blackwell is Founder in Residence at PolicyLink and host of the podcast Radical Imagination.

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

While the public cheers and high fives essential workers, government policy and many employers treat them as expendable. The Atlantic reports on the conditions that  farmworkers are forced to endure as they grow our food. Social distancing is almost impossible in the fields. Reporter Madeline Leung Coleman writes about one large employer in California who donated protective gear and food to community organizations but didn’t give his workers masks. The federal relief bill passed in late March allocated as much as $23.5 billion to the agricultural industry, but promised none of that money to the workers.

For the largely immigrant farm labor force, the coronavirus is more than a health crisis; it’s also an environmental justice travesty, as Grist documents. After laboring all day, many farmworkers return to crowded housing, often in communities lacking clean water and fouled by agricultural pollution. “When governors across the country order residents to stay home during the pandemic, these residents are not retreating to safety — they are retreating to toxicity,” Yvette Cabrera writes. At the Center for Health Journalism, reporter Kaitlin Cimini describes a Salinas, California, motel where farmworkers on temporary visas sleep three or four to a room. Cimini writes that in a recent survey of migrant farmworkers, 45 percent said their housing was overcrowded and unsanitary, with some reporting broken bathrooms or infestations of rats or bedbugs.

Meanwhile, skyrocketing layoffs and long food-bank lines reminiscent of Depression-era bread lines are just two of the more visible reminders of the inequity and insecurity built into the economy all along. As the staggering hardship makes clear, the country shouldn’t think about returning to normal, but about building something better, argues a new report from the Brandeis Institute on Assets and Social Policy. “Normal was the problem before COVID-19, which now exposes our economic, social, and health vulnerability and utter inadequacies of our safety net infrastructure.” The report highlights promising policies to reduce poverty and build generational wealth, including baby bonds and children’s savings accounts.

We are nowhere close to flattening the curve on the economic pain, and it falls most heavily on lower income people — especially Black and Latinx adults, a new Pew Research Center survey finds.  Fifty-two percent of low-income adults say they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a pay cut due to the outbreak. For US adults overall, the figure is 43 percent, up from 33 percent a month ago.  Only one-third or fewer of Black and Hispanic adults, adults under 30, and those with no college experience have savings that would cover expenses for three months in an emergency.  

NBC News describes the economic blow to millions of Latinx people who were just recovering from the disportionate losses they suffered during the Great Recession. The median household wealth of Latinx families fell by two-thirds during the recession, the largest decline of any racial or ethnic group. Persistent wealth and income inequality, the fragility of Latinx-owned small businesses, and the large number of Latinx employees in shuttered industries now compound the toll of COVID-19. 

Discriminatory policy and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant fervor compound the hardship. Many Latinx people are at the end of the line for emergency aid — if they are allowed on the line at all. NBC News reports on a survey of more than 500 Latinx small business owners who applied for the first round of funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Programs. Only 97 received loans; the rest never heard back on their applications.

And the administration is denying coronavirus stimulus checks to millions of citizens because they are married to immigrants who use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number instead of a Social Security number, Democracy Now! reports. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is blocking undocumented college students from receiving coronavirus emergency aid.

For a close look at the disproportionate and far-reaching impact of COVID-19 on the Latinx community, watch this virtual town hall, hosted by UnidosUS.

The Center for American Progress reports on the outsized challenges facing women of color, including widespread financial and job instability and inadequate support for their growing needs as caregivers. Probably no group of workers shoulders heavier burdens than the nation’s almost 2.5 million domestic workers — 90 percent of them women, mostly immigrants and women of color. Of the more than 16,600 domestic workers who responded to a recent survey, 72 percent said they had no work for the week beginning April 6, up from 63 percent the previous week. Seventy-seven percent of respondents are their family’s primary breadwinner, and 84 percent said they were uncertain if they could afford food in the coming week or they knew they couldn’t afford it.

While young people have a relatively low risk of serious COVID-19 complications, they, too, are highly vulnerable to the economic and social consequences. A survey of 551 people ages 16-30, almost all of them of color, finds widespread anxiety about their economic and emotional security: 73 percent say they are worried about how the pandemic will affect their quality of life, 60 percent worry about their mental well-being, and 56 percent are concerned about access to health care. Thirty percent have been laid off and 22 percent more worry about it.

On the nonprofit news site The 74, Richard Whitmire writes that the wave of higher education closures threatens the nation’s progress in getting low-income, first-generation students to and through college. Thousands of economically fragile young people were struggling even before the crisis. Seventy percent held jobs while going to school full time. A 2019 survey of 86,000 students, found that 45 percent were food insecure in the previous month, 56 percent were housing insecure, and 17 percent had experienced homelessness in the previous year. Insecurity was highest for African Americans, students identifying as LGBTQ, military veterans, former foster youth, and students who were formerly incarcerated. How many will be able to survive the economic devastation and return to school? 

Grace Smith, a first-generation Latinx college senior, puts a human face  on the hurt and disruption for young adults like her who have seen their graduation ceremonies cancelled. “Walking across the stage was not just for me, but for those back home that waited for me to achieve what generations of people were not able to achieve for themselves.” A first-generation low-income senior at Boston University has created a website to collect stories of first-gen students across the nation and build a sense of community and solidarity. “Though we all may not walk across a stage, we can celebrate these moments together.” 

For extensive data on the pandemic’s stunning and racially disparate economic impact, see this report from the nonprofit Data for Progress.

If COVID-19 and the recovery open an historic opportunity to transcend the nation’s history of racial exclusion, a crucial place to start is with comprehensive reporting on who exactly is falling ill and dying, write Michael McAfee and Joia Crear-Perry on the Scientific American blog. They’re part of a coalition, WeMustCount, which has demanded that federal health officials release testing and health outcomes data by race, ethnicity, primary language, gender, disability status, and socioeconomic status. A bill drafted by Democrats in Congress would require the CDC to publish this information daily.

Without such data, it’s too easy for policymakers and the public to dismiss the high death toll among Black Americans as a function of poverty, not race. But emerging evidence suggests race is a major factor independently of income and wealth. Prince George’s, one of the nation’s wealthiest majority-Black counties, has reported the most coronavirus infections and some of the highest death tolls in the Washington, DC region, the Washington Post finds.

While the federal government drags its feet on the release of comprehensive disaggregated data, several independent organizations are gathering and analyzing information available from public sources and posting it online. APM Research Lab posts statistics on COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity in the 35 states (plus the District of Columbia) that release the information. NPR’s Code Switch talks to Alexis Madrigal of the Covid Tracking Project, the only publicly available centralized data source on coronavirus testing in all 50 states, DC, and the US territories. The project has just teamed up with  Ibram X. Kendi and his colleagues at American University’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center to create the Covid Racial Data Tracker. 

California publishes data on the race, gender, and age of COVID-19 patients and deaths, but the ACLU of Northern California has asked the state to go further and release zip code information and the number of sick or dying people who are LGBTQ, disabled, or essential workers, CalMatters reports. State officials say patient privacy laws prohibit them from publishing all that data, but proponents say it’s important to help communities understand the local impact of the coronavirus and target the hardest hit.

The Arizona Department of Health Services recently updated its coronavirus dashboard to include more specific location data by zip code, KTAR News reports.

COVID-19 statistics, broken down by race and place, underscore the emergency in the Navajo Nation, which has the third-highest infection rate in the US, after New York and New Jersey, NPR reports. The Navajo Nation and 10 other tribes are suing the federal government for what they say is their fair share of federal relief funds.

Big data, of course, isn’t the only way to measure lives lost and what it means to communities of color and the nation. The Church of God in Christ, the country’s biggest African American Pentecostal denomination, has taken an unimaginable blow to leadership, with reports of at least a dozen and maybe as many as 30 bishops and prominent clergy dying of COVID-19, according to the Washington Post. The paper also reports that the disease has dealt a crushing blow to jazz greats, including pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., bassist Henry Grimes, saxophonist Lee Konitz, and trumpeter Wallace Roney. “A uniquely American art form is being killed by a uniquely American incompetence.” Prominent civil rights activists have also died. The Guardian mourns “the last flag bearers of an era,” and profiles five influential African Americans here. 

A new CDC guide, COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups, acknowledges the outsize impact on Black and Brown communities and outlines steps that public health professionals, community organizations, health systems, and individuals should take to improve outcomes. Stat News reports on the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project, founded by a first-year Harvard medical student. It has translated essential COVID-19 information about prevention and treatment into more than 35 languages, including Navajo, Oromo (spoken by an ethnic group in Ethiopia), and Swahili.

Biases built into the medical system may further widen the health gaps during the pandemic and cost more Black and Brown lives. Several physicians have recently argued that “crisis standards of care,” which guide hospitals in determining how to ration ventilators, have implicit racial and ethnic biases.  In assessing who’s most likely to die so shouldn’t take up scarce life-saving equipment, the standards factor in a host of chronic conditions that disproportionately affect Black and Latinx patients. This “will almost certainly mean that racial and ethnic minorities will be placed in the ‘back of the line’ for critical care resources,” argue Jossie Carreras Tartak and Hazar Khidir, emergency medicine residents at Massachusetts General Hospital. In fact, these conditions may be a better proxy for poverty, structural racism, and neighborhood environments than for a COVID-19 patient’s chances of survival.

On the Scientific American blog, Amy Kosch also raises concerns that people of color will find themselves losing when doctors make triage decisions and employers decide whom to lay off. She cites troubling psychological studies showing that White people often perceive people of color as undeserving. “Stronger institutional protections and transparent decision-making are required now more than ever,” she writes.

Those needs, like the pandemic itself, are global. A national audit in the United Kingdom shows that Black, Asian, and other people of color make up 18 percent of the general population but 32 percent of COVID-19 critical care patients, spurring discussion that biological differences might be one reason for the disparities, write physician Rageshri Dhairyawan and teaching fellow Darren Chetty.

 “Notions of ‘race’ developed by European scientists and philosophers during the period of European colonial expansion ascribed different traits, and crucially, value to different bodies,” the authors write. “These theories helped facilitate the subjugation, enslavement, and genocide of peoples thought to be of lower human worth than Europeans. This thinking was also used to justify unethical medical experimentation on subjects. Doctors continue to use knowledge gained from these experiments, but are rarely taught about the origins of this knowledge.” 

Citing the need for greater awareness of how social conditions contribute to health disparities,  the authors conclude that “if we continue to misattribute racialised health disparities to innate biological causes, we ignore the socioeconomic determinants of health that contribute to these health inequities.”

The White House is using COVID-19 to push hard-line immigration policies. The pandemic has renewed the ugly fiction that immigrants threaten public health and steal jobs. In 2015, then-candidate Trump claimed, “Tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border,” Lourdes Medrano reminds us in The Myth of the Disease-Spreading Migrant, in Undark. But science says otherwise, Medrano reports. “Although there have been historical instances of immigration-related disease transmission, such as when European colonizers imported diseases like yellow fever and smallpox that infected Native Americans, studies reaching back decades have repeatedly found no link between modern migration and the importation of infectious disease to host populations.”

The president’s order last week temporarily suspending approval of some green cards is not the beginning of his pandemic-era immigration clampdown, nor is it expected to be the last in the lead-up to the November election. Border officials have used Covid-19 to remove more than 10,000 people who turned themselves in at the border ports of entry, without screening them for asylum claims, Time reports. Starting in late March, the State Department quietly stopped issuing nearly all visas. Border wall construction has picked up. 

The Latino USA podcast looks at the treatment of the more than 35,000 immigrants in detention, mostly in facilities under the control of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Even before the pandemic, some of these facilities came under fire for denying adequate health care to people. Now infections are spreading among some detainees and ICE employees. In this video, immigrants inside the La Salle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, describe conditions there, in English and Spanish. Speaking out takes courage. Mother Jones reports that at several detention facilities in the South run by the private prison operator GEO Group, immigrants were pepper- sprayed after demanding protection from the virus — or from mistreatment by guards while detainees were isolated to prevent the spread of the disease.

The government has cancelled citizenship oath ceremonies and in-person interviews, NBC News reports. If the shutdowns continue until October without provisions for remote alternatives, about 441,000 people who would have been citizens would be deprived of the opportunity to vote. This could make a difference in the outcome of the 2020 election, when naturalized citizens are projected to make up a record 10 percent of eligible voters.

The coronavirus is cementing technology’s central role in our lives and the dangers of tech inequities and misuse for people of color. Kindergartens through college have moved to remote learning, office meetings have switched to Zoom, and doctors see non-COVID-19 patients through telehealth. Yet the Federal Communications Commission says 21 million Americans lack high-speed internet access and other sources estimate the real number is double that, the Guardian reports. The American Medical Informatics Association urged the federal government three years ago to recognize broadband access as a social determinant to health. In the pandemic era, the  digital divide “is going to kill people,” Sascha Meinrath, co-founder of M-Lab, tells the newspaper. The New York Times has called on broadband providers to aid in the nation’s coronavirus response by creating and expanding low-cost options for Internet connections.

The use of tech as a tool for medical surveillance in prisons has raised alarms. Prison officials in at least three states are using software to scan inmate calls for mentions of the coronavirus, a practice that advocacy groups say is ripe for abuse, The Intercept reports. The software automatically downloads, analyzes, and transcribes inmate calls and flags them for review — a tool that in theory can be used to get help to sick inmates but that might be used to retaliate against people voicing concerns about prison conditions.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has written to Attorney General William Barr, protesting the use of another software product, PATTERN. The Bureau of Prisons is using the tool as it transfers vulnerable people from prisons to home confinement to minimize their exposure to the coronavirus.  Numerous civil rights and legal organizations previously warned that the software perpetuates racial disparity in identifying minimum-risk prisoners eligible for transfer. “The use of a tool like PATTERN to make life or death decisions is alarming and serves to justify leaving tens of thousands of people — mainly people of color — unprotected and at the mercy of a deadly pandemic.”

Leaders throughout the country are demanding action on racial and economic disparities and proposing strategies for organizing and developing equitable recovery policies. In an essay on the NBC News website, Rev. William Barber calls on Southerners of all races to join together and build a coalition that transforms public life. The focus:  fighting voter suppression and increasing the participation of poor Black, White, and Latinx voters by 3 to 5 percent, to fundamentally shift the political calculus. 

Lina Tucker Reinders, executive director of Iowa Public Health Association, calls on her state’s leaders to address the racial disparities COVID-19 has laid bare. In an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, she says prevention and recovery efforts must serve all and address the root causes of inequities by putting equity at the center of future decision-making on housing, health care, and economics. 

A PolicyLink webinar draws on the lessons learned in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to outline a common-sense, street-smart recovery strategy to build an inclusive economy and equitable nation that works for all. Movement Memos, a podcast from Truthout, examines the many ways that activists are organizing, advocating, protesting, and planning national collective action even while most states remain under stay-at-home orders.

In Stat News, psychiatrist Morgan Medlock writes that the pandemic is teaching him that policy can change almost overnight when the nation faces a big problem. After the president declared COVID-19 a national emergency, Medlock’s practice treating drug addiction shifted almost instantly from face-to-face visits to telehealth appointments. The Drug Enforcement Administration allowed doctors to prescribe addiction medicine after a telephone consult, a move they have advocated for years. And Congress has quickly passed relief packages. “As a psychiatrist who treats opioid addiction and works at a minority-serving hospital, I am delighted by these long-sought changes. But I am also frustrated that they have happened so quickly. Frustrated because the US has been facing an equally large and equally deadly problem — racism — for years and has done little to address it.”

But Darrick Hamilton, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, takes heart in seeing the government take unprecedented steps — at unprecedented speed — to mitigate the health and economic damage of the pandemic. For all the flaws, shortcomings, and unfairness of the federal bailout packages so far, they created support, like direct cash payments to individuals, that would have seemed impossible just two months ago. The legislation demonstrates the government’s ability to intervene in ways that improve the lives of vulnerable people, Hamilton says. And that means there’s no shortage of capacity to fix the nation’s biggest problems. It’s a matter of political will. Watch Hamilton in this pragmatic and inspiring video about the prospects for transformative change.

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

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.