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.

15 thoughts on “Pandemic & privilege: U.S. policies and practices condemn our sisters and brothers to death by coronavirus

  1. Mary, Thank you for the in-depth analysis of personal and systemic exclusionary and systemic practices and policies that truly keep us from oneness with our sisters and brothers of People of Color. There is magnificence lost in diversity of God’s Creation if we do not break down these barriers of deprivation of their human rights.

  2. Thanks Mary for looking at the many discrepancies between us whites and our brothers and sisters who have more vibrant coloring.


    1. Virginia Dorgan, RSHM This is from Dawn Rawls ( hoping to find you once again. General comment: we can have hopes of the new Biden Administration at least trying to open a path toward ending these destructive social divisions and inequality. Dec 8, 2020

  3. Thank you, Mary! Yes, it is urgent to unmask and dismantle what you clearly name: “racism as the virus that renders this pandemic so brutal and deadly for Sisters and Brothers of Color.” Seems we are in a Kairos moment, both to challenge institutions and those stoking race-based fear to maintain power, and also to reconstruct our world in new and transformative ways. Let us stir the moral imagination and take bold steps to further the building of the “beloved community!.”

  4. Try replacing references to the “CoronaVirus” with the term “OxyContin” and see how it now reads! [Opioids @ 400,000 deaths with115 deaths daily].

  5. When Mary Yelenick clearly stated “we are not the same” it really hit home.
    Charles Blow also hit home in todays nyt
    I’m aware, I’m ashamed and I want to change things.

  6. Mary, this a superb analysis and really lays bare the vicious racial inequities of our culture of racism. While I have been able to work at home during the pandemic, both my sister and brother are considered “essential” employees — retail clerks — and I pray for their safety daily. I realize that many whites are considered essential employees as well, but disproportionately, these folks are people of color. Thank you for articulating such a terrible, terrible injustice.

  7. Much of the food we depend on would not be on our tables were it not for the continued work of People of Color, primarily Latina/o and immigrant laborers. How many of them can safely distance? or wash their hands with clean water? Or just stay home?

  8. Thanks very much Mary, for your article. Yes, we can be our brother and our sister’s keeper. During Holy Week, we see and hear and feel the fear and betrayal of those who Jesus thought were his friends. This is the week of abandonment, betrayal and and yes death. But we know that violence did not have the last word, that darkness did not win. Racism, Sexism, Anti semitism and Islamophobia never will win. MArtin Luther King, whose anniversary was Passion Saturday, April 4th, reminded us
    ” Darkness will not overcome darkness, only light can do that, hate will not conquer hate, only love can do that” As Fr. O’Brien, at Our Lady of Sorrows, in Jersey City, used to say, ” it is Friday, but Sunday is Coming, it is Resurrection time. This corona crucifixion will pass and early in the morning, there is an empty tomb because, ” He is Risen ” Alleluia and Amen !!

  9. Mary, your words are both truthful and challenging, thank you for both. That’s the vaccine we all have
    with us and is waiting to be used. Sr. Mary Ann Figlino, CSJ

  10. Thank You, Mary for going deeper and revealing what is the under story and so often not seen.

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