Although the coronavirus has been impartial to race and nationality in its takeover of the world, it has exposed the structural racism that exists in many Western countries, particularly in the United States of America. While the virus also triggered explicit racist attacks against Asian-Americans, this article focuses instead on the more implicit institutional racism and discrimination that it has exposed in America.
Recent data released by a few states in America has shown that people of colour are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. This article explains these statistics by exploring three areas where structural racism in America has left African American, Latin, and Native American communities more vulnerable to the virus, showing that the main factor driving this is the higher poverty rates among these communities. As of 2018, there was a 22% poverty rate in the African American community, 24% poverty rate in the Native American community, and 19% in Hispanic communities, while only a 9% poverty rate in the white community. Before I go on, I want to emphasize what has been proven by multiple studies; that these disproportionate poverty rates are not because these communities, and other communities of colour, are inherently susceptible to diseases or poverty, but it is because of the history and continuing reality of oppression of these communities in the country (mass incarceration, decreased job opportunities, continuing discrimination, language barriers etc.).
Structural Racism in American Healthcare
Pre-existing health conditions increase the chances of being severely affected by the coronavirus. African-American, Latin and Native American communities have lower healthcare coverage than white communities, mainly due to wealth inequality, discrimination, language barriers for non-English speakers, and because they are less likely to have jobs that include health insurance. Because of reduced access to healthcare and preventative care, these communities are more likely to have serious health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, all of which have proven to increase the severity of the coronavirus. While already more prone to severe cases, reduced health care coverage means that infected people from these communities are less able to get tested and receive treatment due to the high cost of healthcare for uninsured Americans.
Another reason that these communities are more susceptible to pre-existing health conditions along with weaker immune systems, may be because foods with lower nutrition rates and high sugar values tend to be cheaper in America. This makes it the most affordable option for people in poorer communities. Applying the afore-mentioned poverty statistics, people from these communities have less access to nutritious food, exacerbating pre-existing conditions, further weakening their immune systems.
Structural Racism in the Housing Sector and Prison Systems
Years of residential segregation through discriminatory policies, has restricted African American communities (primarily) to very specific areas in urban cities, resulting in high population density. This is often accompanied by the state’s disregard for housing and hygiene standards. High pollution in these urban cities means that they are more likely to have respiratory diseases, like asthma, making them more susceptible to severe cases of the coronavirus. Overcrowding in these cities also increases their exposure to the coronavirus which spreads extremely easily in crowded areas. Even now, with the partial lockdown, people in urban centres will have much more contact with others when grocery-shopping, using public transportation etc. This may explain why one of the most densely populated cities, New York City, where 57% of the population is non-white, has the highest rate of cases in America.
In addition to crowded cities, the coronavirus will also spread faster in prisons due to overcrowding. This again means that African Americans and Latin people are more likely to catch the virus, as prisons in America have a highly disproportionate amount of African-American and Latin people due to proven structural discrimination in the incarceration process – they are more likely to be searched, arrested and given longer sentences for the same crime.
Structural Racism in the Job Sector
Ongoing occupational segregation in America means that African American and Latin workers are more likely to be involved in lower income, daily wage jobs.
One result of this is that workers from these communities are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus as they are less likely to have jobs where they can work from home. Data shows that as of 2018 a larger proportion of the African American and Latin communities were involved in service and transportation jobs, with an overwhelming number of African Americans working as health aides and nurses. Some posit that these jobs are often the most accessible to those looking to escape poverty. Now that these jobs are deemed essential, many from these communities must continue working and exposing themselves to the virus.
African American and Latin communities are also more likely to become unemployed during the current crisis, due to their economic vulnerability. This is because they are over-represented in sectors that are more likely to experience a downturn and lay off workers during the current crisis, such as construction, hotels, restaurants, bars, department stores, etc. This is why, according to a chief economist, William Rodgers, the current unemployment rate for African Americans is likely 20.7%, and 18.7% for Latin workers, which are much higher than the official rates that are around 4-6%. Because these communities are more likely to live on what they earn daily, unemployment will mean that they don’t have enough money to buy food, pay bills, rent, etc. Additionally, these workers are also less likely to own houses and more likely to rent. As a result, their landlords are likely to evict them if they are unable to pay rent, leaving them both unemployed and homeless.
How Should We Respond?
These inequalities are the result of years of structural racism and disinvestment in communities of colour. As they become more vulnerable with the ‘Coronacrisis’, the American government, along with other western countries with similar results, should continue to publicly research the correlation between race and the coronavirus, and offer more economic and health support to these communities. Now, if ever, is the time to acknowledge the harmful consequences of past and ongoing racism towards communities of colour, and the resulting inequality in suffering caused by the current pandemic. Now is the time to change the narrative and begin actively investing in racial minority communities. While this pandemic rages, that must include proactively protecting them from the effects of the coronavirus.