“Pandemic” comes from the Greek words for “all” and “people,” meaning it affects everyone. But COVID-19 doesn’t strike everyone equally. People in poverty, people of color and those who live in densely populated areas are far more likely to get sick and die of a coronavirus infection. Often these three categories overlap.
The coronavirus outbreak is exposing America’s racial and economic disparities. It is laying bare the inequities that make certain populations more vulnerable.
Statistics from Chicago and New York City in mid-April offered alarming examples. In New York City, black and Latino residents were dying at twice the rate of whites. In Chicago, African Americans made up 30 percent of the city’s population but 72 percent of the dead. Disproportionate rates of coronavirus deaths among black residents were also reported in Louisiana, Michigan and New Jersey.
Camara Phyllis Jones, a physician and epidemiologist, described for CNN the factors that influence who gets the virus and who is more likely to die.
“Black folks are getting infected more because they are exposed more and, once infected, they’re dying more because their bodies — our bodies — have borne the burden of chronic disinvestment and neglect of the community,” she said. “It is because of structural racism, which puts us in the forward-facing jobs so that we are exposed and less valued and don’t have the protection that we need.”
Anabaptists who affirm the ideals of antiracism have a special responsibility to examine relationships across racial and economic lines. The present crisis ought to motivate us to address inequities.
While the national safety net stretches to the breaking point, three leading Anabaptist agencies have created a new source of mutual aid. A Congregational Relief Fund established by Everence, Mennonite Disaster Service and Mennonite Central Committee U.S. gives priority to racially and ethnically diverse churches. By April 27 the $550,000 fund had received requests totaling more than $1.2 million. Dina Gonzalez-Pina, MCC’s ethnicity and gender equity specialist, described the grants as “a lifeline for churches that serve the most vulnerable.” MCC, MDS and Everence issued an urgent call to replenish the fund.
Those at the lower end of the income spectrum are not only more likely to die from COVID-19 but also face a greater risk of losing their jobs — or, if still employed, of getting infected while on the job. While rural and small-town residents may find social distancing relatively easy — and many of the more affluent workers can do their jobs at home — millions of others live in places or work in jobs where they have little control over how many people will come in close proximity to them.
Hardship faced by the newly unemployed casts light on the lack of reliable access to health care. In 2018, 28 million Americans still had no health insurance. This year, 22 million have lost their jobs, and 9.2 million of them may have lost their employer-provided health coverage, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute on April 16.
The pandemic has exposed the unfairness of America’s employer-based system of health insurance. The principle that health care is a human right — championed by former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — has grown in urgency and belongs at the center of the election-year conversation.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, more than 75 percent of Americans reported living paycheck to paycheck, and 57 percent said they didn’t have enough cash to afford an unexpected $500 expense. Many who were living on the edge have fallen over it. Long lines at drive-up food banks show the depth of need. Those who just want to get back to normal shouldn’t forget that normal wasn’t so great for many of their neighbors. Fighting the pandemic includes leveling the field.