One thing you may have heard people saying about COVID-19 since it reared its ugly head late last year is that coronavirus doesn’t care what color your skin is, where you live, or how much money you make. While it’s theoretically true that, all things being equal, everyone is at risk of getting sick — all things aren’t equal. For proof, take a look at the data. Black and brown people are getting sick and dying at a disproportionately higher rate than white people. Last week, research from John Hopkins University found that the death rate in predominantly Black counties was six times that in predominantly white counties. In Chicago, Black people make up one-third of the population, but account for more than half of COVID-19 cases and nearly 70% of deaths. In New York City, Black and Latinx people are dying at twice the rate of white people.
We’d call that … not exactly equal. And yet, medical professionals have confirmed that there’s no medical reason behind the unequal rates of suffering. So why are Black and brown people getting sick and dying at a faster rate? It can largely be explained by just two words: systemic racism.
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Why Systemic Racism Is to Blame
Systemic racism permeates every level of our society, from the obvious — segregation in schools and racial profiling — to more subtle injustices, such as those evident in real estate, unemployment rates, and salary data. It’s also terrifyingly evident in healthcare, where the mortality rate among Black babies born in the US is twice the rate as for babies in other racial groups. Stark inequalities persist into adulthood as well: Black people are more likely to die from cancer and heart disease than white people, and more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. People of color are also far less likely to have the kind of healthcare that would help in times of crisis (read: coronavirus) — and less likely to have access to top doctors.
The impacts of systemic racism on communities of color are made even more clear by the current pandemic. Employees all across the country, for example, are being told to work from home while quarantines are put into effect from coast to coast. But it turns out that being able to “work from home” is a privilege largely enjoyed by white people. As such, a large proportion of “essential workers” — janitors, cleaners, grocery store employees, bus and train operators — are people of color who have to go to work to get paid. (In New York City, 75% of these frontline workers are people of color.) And if you can’t work from home and are already dealing with pre-existing conditions, you’re at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Here’s the kicker: You’re also six times more likely to obtain a coveted coronavirus test if you live in a higher-income community than if you’re poor. While income isn’t necessarily analogous to race, groups such as the We Must Count coalition believe there’s a strong correlation between race and the testing conducted.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that we’re in the middle of what Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, called a "racial pandemic within a viral pandemic."
How Do We Fix This?
The racial injustice playing out right now might be predictable, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Public health experts are calling for states and cities to take action right now to save lives. They're calling for:
1. Better Access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Frontline workers include janitors, home health workers, delivery people, grocery store employees, farm workers, sanitation workers and transit operators. The CDC is calling for all people to wear masks. We must normalize it for all people, regardless of “public perception” or fear of racial profiling. Show your support for organizations like the United Food and Commercial Workers International union, which is calling for the CDC to protect frontline workers with mandatory PPE.
2. Faster and Better Access to Medical Care
Equitable healthcare means better care for people with pre-existing conditions, and increases the chance that people who think they’re infected will seek out care. And we need paid time off for all employees to decrease spread of the virus via workers who literally can’t afford to miss work.
3. Expand Testing in Communities of Color
The more we know, the better we can fight. Writing for the Brookings Institute, journalist Rashawn Ray calls for “health action zones” in local churches and community centers to help bring testing to the people who need it most. Senator Elizabeth Warren is calling for the government to “step up in a big way to ensure that communities of color have equal access to free testing and treatment.” And yes, she has a plan to make it happen.
Stand with Us to Fight Racism in the Face of Coronavirus
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do in the face of a crisis. And while we aren’t all qualified to fight the virus within hospital walls, now is the time to stand with our friends and neighbors across racial, ethnic, and geographic divides. We must confront the underlying structural issues that created this disaster, and stand with those calling for action and accountability from our government. At Ben & Jerry’s we’ve thrown our support behind the People’s Bailout, a grassroots movement now embraced by more than 1,000 progressive groups calling for aid and support for everyday people. By working together, we can turn this crisis into an opportunity, creating radical change that results in a more perfect — and healthier — union than before.
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