Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Why trickle-down equity doesn’t work, workers rise up, when federal aid goes unused, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 52. May 19, 2021

Trickle-Down Equity Doesn’t Work

By Kristin Urquiza
Maryvale, Arizona, is a 75 percent-plus Latinx and 30 percent immigrant neighborhood on the west side of Phoenix. It’s where I grew up; it’s where my otherwise healthy father died from Covid-19 last summer; and it is the embodiment of the harm caused by the country’s race- and equity-blind Covid response and recovery.
The same June weekend that my dad woke up sick, the underinsured and uninsured people in our neighborhood waited for more than 13 hours in 114-degree heat for a Covid test at a mobile clinic. The lack of information, culturally and linguistically appropriate services, paid time off, and trusted spokespeople limited access while disinformation about eligibility, cost, and safety — particularly for non-citizens — fed fear and skepticism about testing. Under the previous administration, people in Maryvale couldn’t access Covid tests, and infection rates soared.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equity by turning the situation around. People in Maryvale cannot access vaccines and are still getting sick and dying. In mid-April, Phoenix local news documented vaccination rates in Maryvale at 14 percent, as compared to 40 percent for the state overall and 77 percent in rich, White Scottsdale, where Governor Doug Ducey opened up a mass vaccination site. In his one attempt to reduce vaccination disparities, Ducey claimed to have funded a public education campaign. He issued a $1.2 million, no-contest contract to a friend for flyers and door-to-door messengers in Maryvale and South Phoenix. No one we have talked to in these neighborhoods — in person, by phone, or on social media — has seen evidence that this campaign was implemented.
Late in April, I watched President Biden lay out his Build Back Better agenda to a joint session of Congress. The cornerstones of this agenda, the American Family Plan and the American Jobs Plan, are incredibly progressive, welcome changes. But they are only a first step toward addressing our nation’s systems of oppression, pointed out for decades by people of color and freshly brought to light by this most recent disaster. The country’s lack of a real safety net or an equitable system for health-care distribution has resulted in the loss of 600,000 people, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
As a long-time progressive advocate, I want to be able to celebrate our nation’s progress. But I, along with millions of others directly hurt by the pandemic, am horrified by how many people are still being left behind. Again, as always, they are predominantly poor and BIPOC. Biden boldly criticized trickle-down economics, a false promise that has only accelerated the racial wealth gap. Trickle-down equity doesn’t work any better and will not close the vaccine gap.
When the nation cheered the benchmark of 200 million shots, I wanted to celebrate but I couldn’t. Neither should you. Data that echoes Maryvale’s disparate outcomes is mounting across the country. A recent CBS News Poll found that Latinx people have the lowest rates of vaccine hesitancy, though they continue to be among the least vaccinated. While the country overall is doing better, those most harmed are not.
Though the new administration has offered us a representative Cabinet that looks like America, a Health Equity Task Force, and an executive order declaring equity as a priority, places like Maryvale have yet to see results.
There is an opportunity to change this. Marked By COVID, the nonprofit organization I co-founded after I lost my dad to the virus, has called media attention to the vaccine inequities in Phoenix. We raised the issue with Representative Ruben Gallego and within three weeks had vaccination sites and messengers at schools, churches, and other local sites, significantly boosting vaccination rates.

All of us at Marked By COVID throw out a challenge to the Biden administration: equity outcomes must be valued as core indicators of success. Two hundred million shots in arms is not a victory if those most in need aren’t represented in the uptake. What’s needed are data-informed recommendations that consider factors beyond vaccine effectiveness and national vaccination rates, including behavioral and social science, vaccination rates in the most vulnerable communities, and backlash from politicized health disinformation. The administration must:

  • Put pressure on local communities to adopt equity measures in their recovery and reopening strategies and measure and reward how local jurisdictions are doing against equity benchmarks.
  • Target resources and provide direct grants to community-based organizations to build their capacity and strengthen already trusted networks.
  • Make sure the data on vaccinations is fully disaggregated by race and ethnicity to provide greater transparency about exactly who is getting vaccinated and where vaccine access is lacking.
  • Deploy additional resources to communities of color where vaccination rates are low.
  • Focus communications and outreach efforts on at-risk, low-income, and/or BIPOC communities, particularly those where vaccine hesitancy is low and access is an obstacle. 

A just recovery cannot happen by implementing race-blind policies. The Biden administration must double down on its commitment to equity, recognize it doesn’t trickle down, and declare victory in the pandemic only when we are all safe.
Kristin Urquiza, MPA, is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Marked By COVID. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Yale University. 

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

More data needed on vaccine disparities

Federal data show that Latinx, Black, and, to a lesser extent, Asian communities are all receiving shots at disproportionately low rates, but the depth of the problem remains unclear. Race and ethnicity is known in less than two-thirds of those who have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported by CNN.

No group of people who have yet to get the shots are more eager to do so than Latinx communities, according to a new survey by Kaiser Family Foundation. One-third say they want the vaccine as soon as possible, but 64 percent worry about missing work due to side effects. More than half worry about the cost of the shots, though they’re free — another indication of the failure to counter misinformation aimed at communities of color. The foundation and UnidosUS will hold an interactive web event on Thursday, May 20, as part of a vaccine education campaign designed for Latinx communities.

Workers rise up

Restaurant workers — some of the lowest-paid people in the US — are rising up after a year that exposed and worsened the mistreatment and harassment they commonly face on the job, The 19th reports. Black and Latinx workers make up an outsized share of the industry’s labor force, and women of color are driving the fight for change. They’re pushing back against the narrative that a labor shortage is hindering hiring and broad economic recovery, making it clear that the bigger issue is low pay. The national coalition One Fair Wage is planning a series of strikes later in May to protest subminimum wages. “I have never seen in 20 years such an anger, such a willingness to organize,” Saru Jayaraman, the group’s president, told the news site. Manuel Pastor and Saru Jayaraman also spoke about Putting People First: Reimagining our Economy, on the Radical Imagination podcast.

After a grueling year, about three in 10 health-care workers — including doctors, nurses, and aides — are considering leaving their jobs, finds a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. More than half are burned out and say the stress of the pandemic has harmed their mental health. The toll has been hardest on women at all rungs of the professional ladder. The pandemic disrupted pipelines to leadership positions, tenure tracks, and research and networking opportunities just as women have become the majority of medical students, Shefali Luthra and Chabeli Carrazana write for The 19th. But the biggest burden has fallen on the lowest-paid workers, aides and assistants, mostly women of color and immigrants. As of March, men are back to pre-pandemic levels in almost every health-care occupation, while employment remains down for women who work in nursing and residential care facilities and home health.

Labor activist Kati Sipp tells the Philadelphia Inquirer that the pandemic may turn out to be as profoundly disruptive to the US economy and class structure as World War II was in the 20th century.

Childcare must be available and affordable if women are to return to work. But in California, childcare costs have skyrocketed to surpass housing as the top family expense, finds a new report by Insight Center, The Cost of Being Californian: 2021.  One in three Californians, overwhelmingly people of color, struggle to make ends meet. In an interview with Fast Company, Aisa Villarosa, a co-author of the report, calls for bold, targeted reforms — notably direct payments to households affected most by inequities.

Federal aid for your internet bill?

Tens of millions of families, including many who lost income during the pandemic, can get $50 a month for a few months to pay for internet service, the Washington Post reports. Huge numbers of people don’t realize they’re eligible for the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program. One hitch: the easiest way to apply is online, so it helps to already have access to high-speed internet, but phone and mail work too. The Post explains how to apply.

Thousands of unhoused people were moved into hotel and motel rooms over the past year, through emergency housing programs designed to slow the spread of Covid-19. Now cities are shutting down the programs though the need remains high, because federal support through the CARES Act has ended, Shelterforce reports. FEMA offers an alternate source of funding, but many cities aren’t taking advantage of it because of the complexities of applying for the money and uncertainty about whether a request will ultimately be approved.

Confusion over new Covid policies

Recent federal announcements, including the lifting of mask recommendations for fully vaccinated people and the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for teens and preteens, have raised more questions than they’ve answered. The nation’s largest union of registered nurses, National Nurses United, condemned the CDC’s about-face on masks and other precautions, the New York Times reports. Federal health officials have strongly defended the change, citing the sharp decline in Covid hospitalizations and deaths, and growing evidence that the vaccine prevents viral transmission. States continue to set their own rules. New York is following the federal guidance. California will wait until June 15 so more people — especially those in underserved communities of color — can get vaccinated before the state relinquishes the protections that mask mandates provide.

Extending use of the vaccine to adolescents as young as 12 adds nearly 17 million more Americans to the pool of people eligible for the shots. Although children seem to get sick from Covid less often than adults, nearly a quarter of new cases are among this age group, according to a weekly report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Severe complications are rare but they affect children of color disproportionately, and there’s growing concern about the possibility that children who have been infected or fallen ill are vulnerable to serious symptoms of long-term Covid .

Nevertheless, some ethicists and activists are objecting to a system and set of priorities that give vaccines to 12-year-old Americans before elderly people around the world. In Japan, which has one of the oldest populations in the world and limited vaccine supplies, some cities have set the minimum age of eligibility at 85, the Wall Street Journal reports.  

The Economist reports on the epic tragedy in India’s vast interior, where testing and vaccines are unavailable and cases and deaths go uncounted and are omitted from the official, staggering national tally. Over the past six weeks, as hundreds and then thousands of people have died every day, the pace of vaccination has plunged by more than half, from 4.2 million a day to 2 million, according to the Washington Post. President Biden announced he will tap US vaccine supplies to send 20 million doses abroad in addition to the 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine he already planned to send. That vaccine has not been authorized for emergency use in the US but is widely used around the world.

ICE neglect fuels Covid among detained immigrants

More than one in 10 people in ICE detention — a total of 1,906 as of Sunday — are being monitored for active coronavirus infections. Although the US has a vaccine surplus, ICE has not announced a comprehensive plan for inoculating the people it has locked up, Mother Jones reports. A new ACLU report calls on the agency to take action to protect people, starting with closing detention centers and using community-based alternatives. A New York Times investigation in April documented a pattern of neglect and secrecy by ICE that helped fuel outbreaks inside facilities and spread them to surrounding communities. The agency has wide discretion over who gets detained or released, and could control outbreaks by freeing more people. 

A surge of “pandemic refugees” has begun to arrive in the US, fleeing countries ravaged by Covid and shattered economies, the New York Times reports. Thirty percent of families captured by southern Border Patrol agents came from outside Mexico and Central America, up from 7.5 percent in April 2019. Many people fly to Mexico from distant countries, including Brazil, India, Ecuador, and Venezuela, then try to walk across the border seeking hope and opportunity. It’s another reminder that nation-centric solutions won’t end the pandemic. What’s needed are equitable solutions on a global scale.

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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.