As the United States endures in the physical and economic decimation of COVID-19, one of the most troubling narratives surrounding the virus is that it doesn’t discriminate. However, communities of color and low income households are bearing the heaviest burden from coronavirus. As punitive measures are put in place as an attempt to contain its spread, it only reinforces the racial hierarchy which the country was built upon.
The coronavirus pandemic has spiraled into an international crisis, with arduous consequences that no one could have predicted. One of the biggest reasons it has spread in the United States so rapidly is due to the amount of misinformation that was given to the public, from Donald Trump declaring coronavirus a “hoax” devised by Democrats, to news outlet after news outlet proclaiming it is as manageable as the flu. But now as the country is engulfed in an outbreak that shows no signs of letting up, another fallacy surrounding COVID-19 has permeated the mainstream: that the disease doesn’t discriminate, and it has been dubbed by some as “the great equalizer”. However, communities of color and lower income households are bearing the heaviest burden from the illness.
As laborers who were once categorized as unskilled are considered essential in the face of the pandemic, they are also exposed to the virus at a higher rate. These jobs, including grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, bus drivers and energy employees, are largely comprised of people of color (specifically Black and Latino). Coronavirus has proven to be more severe in those with underlying medical conditions and as research has shown, black people (due to structural and environmental racism) are more likely to have heart disease, asthma, and diabetes – all while having less access to healthcare. People in lower income communities tend to live closer together, which increases the potential for the spread of illness. Needless to say, this population is – and will continue to be –disproportionately ravaged by COVID-19.
The U.S. homeless population, like the inmates of the prison system, are also primarily people of color that are at greater risk of contracting the virus. Despite the homeless being doubly at risk, they are still subjected to inhumane treatment that exacerbates their suffering. Rikers Island, America’s most infamous prison, has the highest infection rate in the country and no adequate medical care. Despite this harrowing fact, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo recently approved criminal justice reform roll-backs that would make it easier to send more people to jail before trial (New York also has the most cases of coronavirus in the country). The fact that Cuomo is making it easier for vulnerable groups to be confined in spaces that are practically a cesspool for the disease underscores health, racial and economic disparities in our society – it does not blur them.
America’s punitive response for failing to follow safety protocols when it comes to coronavirus is extreme, yet predictable. In certain states, folks can be fined for not covering their mouths or nose when in public or for not practicing social distancing. Any policy that leads to increased involvement with law enforcement isn’t a safe one for people of color, who experience higher rates of brutality when it occurs. It’s no surprise that the first person in Britain to be arrested under the Coronavirus Act is a black woman. She refused to give police her name, address or reasons for travel and was wrongfully charged. Not all groups have the luxury of social distancing and it’s clear that America isn’t concerned with making self-isolation economically sustainable for vulnerable communities. The neighborhoods that are already overpoliced – and most likely cannot pay the mandated fines – will be the ones that get hurt the most.
While political figures like Andrew Yang place the onus on marginalized groups to use the outbreak as a chance to engage in twisted nationalism and respectability politics, and the government pressures us to “flatten the curve” of illness by staying indoors, we must acknowledge the reality that COVID-19 has magnified inequality as opposed to lessening it. The Trump administration knew about the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic for years and that the shortage of medical equipment would allow it to cripple the nation –but did nothing. As we continue to navigate our new reality day by day, we must recognize the structures and policies that continue to punish the poor, the marginalized, and the unprotected. Catastrophe always has a way of exposing racial caste in America; coronavirus is simply no different.