by Mary T. Yelenick
Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team member
Amidst the widespread fear, anxiety, and disjointedness triggered by the steady global march of coronavirus, many of us harbor the hope that the fact that the virus affects all people – regardless of nationality, education, background, class, religion, or political affiliation – may lead the global community finally to recognize and acknowledge our inherent and essential interconnectedness.
Yet we are not the same. Our race plays a critical role in whether, and how seriously, coronavirus may upend or destroy our life. As Dr. Lisa Cooper of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently warned, “I expect the COVID-19 pandemic to impact African Americans to a greater extent than other more socially advantaged groups … because as a group, African Americans in the U.S. have higher rates of poverty, housing and food insecurity, unemployment or underemployment, and chronic medical conditions, and disabilities.” Recognizing this fact, some officials are seeking to collect data regarding the racial breakdown of coronavirus deaths.
Photo from Color of Change
Sheltering-in-place, social distancing, and even frequent hand-washing
are dangerous or impossible for many People of Color
The recommendations and strictures being imposed in various States in response to the growing pandemic have very different meaning, practicality, and effect, depending on where one stands in the artificial and continually-reinforced hierarchy of racial and socioeconomic privilege. While for some, sheltering-in-place may mean simply inconvenience, for others – notably People of Color – sheltering-in-place may equate to a death sentence.
White families, by virtue of generations of entrenched racist housing and lending policies, are far more likely than are People of Color to live in, or have access to, safe shelter. In large urban areas, such as New York City (currently the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak), apartment buildings in which most whites live are likely to be more expensive, and to offer more safety-related services to their residents, than those in which People of Color reside. More whites than People of Color are likely to have access to secluded laundry facilities, daily cleaning staff, and regular trash removal. More whites can also afford to have food and other essential items delivered to their doors in times of quarantine, thereby minimizing potentially infectious contact with others.
For individuals or families (most of whom, as a direct result of our nation’s policies and practices, are People of Color) residing in crowded public-housing complexes, jails or prisons, homeless shelters, or on the street, the directive to “shelter in place” may constitute a virtual death sentence. “Social distancing” is viewed by health authorities as key to preventing viral transmission between people. But avoiding close contact with others may not be possible in a crowded shelter or prison. And while some communities are now considering accelerating the release of some elderly prisoners, many of those elderly people will have no realistic option but to join our nation’s burgeoning homeless community, in the process spreading any virus to which they were exposed in prison.
Even the recommendation to wash one’s hands for twenty seconds, several times a day, is meaningless if one resides in a place (be it on the street, or in a municipality like Flint, Michigan) lacking a readily-accessible and affordable source of clean water.
Underlying pre-existing conditions, suffered disproportionately
by People of Color, magnify the viral mortality risk
Medical specialists warn that people with pre-existing conditions may be far more susceptible than are healthier people to fall victim to coronavirus. Whites in the United States generally continue to enjoy better access than do People of Color to good health care, quality educations, good-paying jobs, and clean air and water. And whites have not experienced the searing daily and generational effects of racial prejudice – the consequences of which affect all aspects of one’s life, and may manifest in stress-related illness. Even relatively affluent Black women who are pregnant display more problem-related pregnancies than do their white counterparts – an affliction thought to reflect the effects of generational racist trauma.
The quality of hospital care varies by funding and geography
Patient outcomes are affected by the relative resources available to the particular hospital in which that patient is seeking care. While even well-funded private hospitals in Manhattan, staffed by world-class medical practitioners and specialists, are experiencing, daily, the deaths of coronavirus patients, hospitals in poorer sections of New York — including the beleaguered Elmhurst public hospital, which has witnessed an extraordinary number of deaths among its largely-immigrant, racially-mixed, and lower-income community — are faring far worse.
The “essential” work relegated to some People of Color during this pandemic
does not necessarily pay compensation proportionate to its risk
To the degree that people are being asked to continue to perform jobs deemed socially “essential,” while others take shelter from the pandemic, the magnitude of those workers’ personal risks of job-related virus exposure should, ideally, be reflected in their paychecks, and in the social esteem with which they are regarded. Yet while those in the higher echelons of medical care are presumably being compensated financially for their sacrifice, the members of the janitorial and cleaning staffs responsible for the potentially-deadly job of keeping surfaces virus-free — whether in those same hospitals, or in office buildings – receive far less attention, and far less pay. Those people are likely to be, at least in New York City, People of Color. So too are the workers charged with making daily deliveries to their safely-quarantined fellow citizens. At least in New York City, the color lines of who is being publicly exposed during this crisis, versus who is being permitted to seek safe shelter, are visible and stark.
Racism is the virus that renders this pandemic so brutal
and deadly for our Sisters and Brothers of Color
As peacemakers, we frequently publicly oppose, and actively advocate for nonviolent alternatives to, war – particularly the wars fomented by our own nation against others. All too rarely do we focus upon – or publicly speak about – the war raging among us, within us, and all across our own land: the longstanding and persistent war by whites, and white institutions, against People of Color. It is that war that continues to permeate our nation’s institutions. It is that war that afflicts and warps our relationships with each other. And it is that war that, in this time of coronavirus, will kill our Sisters and Brothers more cruelly and effectively than could any biological virus.
The real, lasting vaccine for the heightened plague besieging People of Color during this coronavirus pandemic cannot be found in any laboratory. It lies within the minds, hearts, and actions of white people.