We must speak the truth of the moment: America is suffering from a public health and economic crisis. And as with any crisis—like the Great Recession—communities that were already hurt by systemic inequality are being hit the hardest during the coronavirus pandemic. Black people, in particular, are being infected by and dying from COVID-19 at alarming rates. The available data suggests majority Black counties have an infection rate three times and a death rate six times that of majority white counties. These disparities are evident across the country, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. And this pandemic further reinforces historic inequities, which have roots in slavery and Jim Crow laws, that remain persistent and profound to this very day.
Some may wonder why Black communities are disproportionately suffering from COVID-19. Unfortunately, this news didn’t come as a surprise to me or anyone familiar with our country’s shameful legacy of racial inequality. This coronavirus preys on people with underlying health conditions, many of which Black people suffer from at disproportionate rates. In fact, 2.6 million Black people have asthma (partly due to high levels of air pollution in our neighborhoods) and more than 40% of Black people have high blood pressure. Black people are also more likely to have lupus and sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that makes a person particularly vulnerable to infections. Pre-existing conditions combined with having high-exposure jobs and inadequate health care is leading to the deadly consequences we are seeing across the country.
This is a public health crisis that caused an economic one. In recent weeks, more than 16 million people filed for unemployment after the coronavirus outbreak shuttered businesses across the country. That’s already nearly double the job losses that occurred during the Great Recession following the 2008 financial crash. This is especially painful for families that lack savings to fall back on during hard times. For the Black community, a lack of wealth results from a long history of discrimination that has led to the median Black household making 59 cents to the dollar of the median white household, Black people having more student debt than their white counterparts, less homeownership, and a lack of capital for Black businesses. And while employers and schools shift to remote working and learning, many jobs—essential grocery store workers, bus drivers, etc.—cannot be done from the safety of home. And many children—specifically Black children—don’t have access to the internet at home, which will likely cause them to fall behind other students in their age group. All of which continues the cycle of inequality.
There are things we can do to support people during this pandemic that will continue to pay dividends for working people long after we are on the path to recovery. Specifically, I have called for paid sick leave for everyone. There should be a suspension of credit card interest and penalties, evictions and foreclosures, and negative reporting that would hurt someone’s credit score. Small businesses should have an easier time gaining access to loans—particularly businesses owned by veterans, women, and minorities. The federal government needs to follow California’s lead and open enrollment into the Affordable Care Act because people need health insurance during a public health crisis. And it’s also important that we address implicit bias among health care providers, especially regarding COVID-19 testing.
Policymakers must also prioritize initiatives to study and reduce the disturbing racial disparities in health outcomes. I’ve demanded the federal government collect data so that we can understand the full scope of COVID-19, form a racial disparities task force that can give recommendations on closing inequalities, and prioritize resources to communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
The United States has the chance, during this National Minority Health Month, to right historical wrongs. We have the opportunity to make strides toward our founding ideals of equality, fairness, and opportunity for all. We must keep fighting to leave a better world for our children and grandchildren.