Photo courtesy of H-E-B Newsroom.

COVID-19 does discriminate: The disproportionate impact of the virus on the poor and vulnerable

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon

May 11, 2020

How many times have we heard it said over and over on the news, in social media, and other venues: “COVID-19 does not discriminate”? This statement is true, medically speaking – a virus does not discriminate based on race or socioeconomic status. However, the effects of the 2019 coronavirus do discriminate in terms of the resources, access to healthcare, and other critical realities that determine which populations will be the most affected by the virus.

The very same systems and power structures that embody racism and oppress the most vulnerable among us under normal circumstances make the experience of living during this global pandemic decidedly unequal.

As schools and universities close their physical buildings and shift to online learning due to COVID-19, home internet access and personal computers move from luxuries to necessities. With schools and libraries closed, students in the 44% of U.S. households with income under $30,000 lacking broadband internet access at home have no ability to continue their education.

While white-collar professionals navigate new video conference technology and find themselves frustrated by slow internet connections, individuals in other industries wonder how they will pay their rent or buy food for their family’s next meal. In March 2020, the U.S. experienced its highest monthly increase in the national unemployment rate since 1975. People whose work is not “essential,” but does require physical contact with other people, are suddenly finding themselves unemployed. Most of those jobs are low wage or limited hours and fall into the categories of leisure and hospitality, non-grocery retail, and transportation. According to Brookings, 39% of Americans do not have sufficient funds to cover even a modest $400 emergency without borrowing or selling an asset.

For low-wage workers whose jobs are essential, the picture is not much better. Individuals who work in agriculture, warehouses, and grocery stores are more exposed to the virus, but most do not have adequate health care. In the U.S. almost ten percent of the population, 30 million people, have limited access to healthcare while another 27 million, almost nine percent, have no health insurance. 

In the midst of a strained healthcare system and stay-at-home orders, anxiety and tension rise in all communities. When individuals or societies find themselves under stress or strain, racist ideas about people of color come to the surface. Asian Americans share how in the current climate they go from being a “model minority” to a “yellow peril” with a simple sneeze. These reactions are exacerbated by U.S. President Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as a “foreign disease” and the “China Virus.” These attitudes do nothing to combat the virus or protect people from getting sick. They do, however, fracture communities, sow fear, and destroy small businesses.

Asian Americans and their communities took to Facebook, Twitter, and social media by launching the campaign #IAmNotAVirus. Allies can join in solidarity in calling for us to be anti-racist in our responses to the virus by learning more about the Asian American Christian Collaborative and signing onto their statement which includes practical steps like holding officials accountable, educating and committing to anti-racism, and supporting local Asian businesses.

The very same systems and power structures that embody racism and oppress the most vulnerable among us under normal circumstances make the experience of living during this global pandemic decidedly unequal.  

Isolation of people groups can perpetuate negative stereotypes and lead to rejection of individuals or groups, which can lead to denials of healthcare, education, or even housing and employment. The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Studies show that black mothers are dying at 3.3 times the rate of white mothers. Organizations seeking to improve black maternal health outcomes have encouraged black women to use doulas. As hospitals respond to COVID-19 by further restricting who is allowed in the delivery room with a laboring mother, a doula is no longer an option.

In Chicago, Illinois, black residents make up 32% of the population but account for 72% of the COVID-19 deaths. As WBEZ, Chicago’s local public radio station, reports, these numbers reflect a history of “Chicago’s black communities being disproportionately affected by health-related issues.” The COVID-19 numbers reflect both this history and the reality that many black residents are more likely to use public transit and work jobs that cannot be done from home.

If we turn our attention to the global community, we are reminded that for many individuals living on less than $2 a day access to clean water and basic sanitation are out of reach. India illustrates the challenges for a country with a large population density and large migrant worker population. Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a lockdown on March 24, the most basic measures for avoiding COVID-19, such as handwashing and social distancing, were difficult. Much of India lacks regular running water and soap is a luxury. Following the lockdown order most of India’s informal sector, made up of approximately 450 million people without any job security, found themselves without work. In what may be the largest mass migration since the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, many of these migrant informal sector workers are returning home to their villages on foot.

As we consider how COVID-19 has disrupted our lives and communities, it is important that we stop and count our blessings. It is a privilege to be able to stay home, wash our hands, and connect with others or work via the internet. As followers of Jesus, we must turn our eyes to the most vulnerable among us. There are tangible things we can do during this pandemic. First, speak up when you witness racism and make sure information you are sharing about COVID-19 is accurate. Support local Asian businesses when possible. Many Asian restaurants are open for curbside pickup or delivery. Support your local economy and small businesses when possible. This can make the difference between a local business surviving these difficult times and closing its doors. Give blood if you are able. The Red Cross has been forced to cancel blood drives across the country, resulting in a blood shortage during this critical time. The needs that existed before the current crisis still exist – and are often compounded by the pandemic. May the Christian community lead the way in responding to COVID-19 in ways that are both anti-racist and committed to responding to the most vulnerable in our communities.

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is an author, speaker, advocate, and peacebuilder. She is the author of several books including award-winning Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World and Beyond Hashtag Activism: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age. She is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). You can learn more practical steps about how to respond to COVID-19 on her Activism podcast.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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