Coronavirus Highlights and Perpetuates Inequities in Our Society

  • March 24, 2020
Workers Disinfect Schools Against Coronavirus in Bojnord

Over the last several weeks, we have seen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic pervade every facet of daily life.  Of course, the chief concern about the novel virus is its impact on community health and our healthcare systems. Beyond the immediate threat of contracting, spreading, and treating the virus, however, are the undeniable ripple effects COVID-19 has on systems and structures in society.

States and major cities have taken historic measures to increase social distancing and to attempt to “flatten the curve” of active COVID-19 cases. This has resulted in many states and major cities ordering “shelter in place” or “safer at home” initiatives and requiring non-essential businesses to close if they cannot move their workforce online. While in most cities across the U.S., restaurants and bars can remain open for carry out or delivery, many cannot keep their business running with the additional restrictions and significant decrease in customers. As of March 23, 2020, 46 states and Washington D.C. had closed schools for at least several weeks. These closures have both an immediate and a long-term impact on our health, welfare and economy. It is important that we pay attention to how COVID-19 will continue to widen societal inequities and further marginalize already vulnerable groups of people.

Consider the following:

Bias, Discrimination and Hate

Anxiety and panic about COVID-19 have led to stereotyping, scapegoating, bias and hate crimes against Asian American people. Bullying, harassment, slurs, microaggressions and exclusion have become commonplace. Lawmakers and the President have referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese coronavirus” or “Chinese virus,” referring to its country of origin rather than its scientific name. A coalition that recently formed to track coronavirus-related attacks against Asian American people tracked forty incidents within the first 24 hours. As a result, ADL and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, along with over 260 other groups, urged lawmakers to address the “growing tide of racism directed at the Asian-American community.”

K-12 Schools and Higher Education

As of March 23, 2020, forty-six states have closed schools. Combined with district closures in other states, at least 121,000 U.S. public and private schools are at some level of closure. This impacts at least 54.5 million elementary, middle, and high school students in the U.S. and poses significant challenges for young people and families including food insecurity, lack of access to social services, ELL (English language learners) and special education services, the digital divide and more. Nearly 30 million children in the U.S. rely on low-cost or free breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner. While grab and go breakfast and lunch are offered in some districts, this option won’t be accessible to all for a variety of reasons: older siblings who are watching younger children, children staying with grandparents who are isolating themselves, or those with parents who work low-wage, hourly jobs with no time off and no option to work from home or drive to school to pick up meals. The current reality of “remote learning” also highlights the digital divide as schools struggle to engage students in online instruction, streaming videos, digital libraries and other virtual tools.  Lack of access and equipment disproportionately impacts children in families with low-incomes. 

Over 300 colleges and universities have ended in-person classes and have moved to online classes due to the coronavirus, with most students vacating campuses. Some of these closures were announced as temporary and others sent students home for the remainder of the school year. Institutions are using online learning, digital tools, video conferencing and other tools to keep students on track and connected.  However, there are many challenges, especially for students who are from low-income families. A 2020 study of college students reveals that 39% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 46% were housing insecure in the previous year, and 17% were homeless in the previous year. Many students don’t have a place to go and don’t have reliable internet access.  Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor at Temple University and author of the study, said, “There’s a very real chance that students facing financial crises—which are about to get worse—will not be coming back to school. You’re putting the most disadvantaged students at a bigger educational disadvantage.”

Immigration and Immigrants

As COVID-19 sweeps the nation, people who are immigrants are terrified about how this will impact their communities. Fear of seeking medical help, especially for those who are undocumented and in mixed-status families, is one of the many concerns and areas of vulnerability faced by this community. Because many recent immigrants work in jobs without sick leave and are unable to self-quarantine, their susceptibility to the virus is higher than the general population. If they do miss work or lose their jobs, they face potentially dire circumstances including losing their housing. Twenty-three percent of documented immigrants and forty-five percent of undocumented immigrants are uninsured, which makes them particularly at risk of not getting the care they need.  There are currently over 37,000 people in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody. With staff coming in and out of detention centers daily, those living there are at increased risk for coronavirus due to close quarters, crowded conditions, and poor sanitary conditions including lack of adequate access to hand sanitizer and soap.  Indeed, a staffer at the detention center in Elizabeth, NJ has already tested positive for COVID-19 – yet little, if anything, has changed within the facility to improve health and sanitary conditions for detainees.

Other Marginalized Groups

Many people who are members of marginalized groups have already experienced disproportionate harm as a result of this global crisis. People who are incarcerated, and especially those over age 65 with underlying health conditions, are particularly vulnerable. Crowded and unsanitary conditions in these facilities can lead to the spread of the virus and products that prevent the spread, like bleach and hand sanitizer, are considered contraband. As a result, some cities are taking action to lower the inmate populations in the interest of public health.

This pandemic will have a myriad of other impacts, for example increasing the potential danger for victims of domestic abuse because there is more time at home, stress and financial strain. In China, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the local police tripled in February during the intense period of quarantine. Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Women, said, “while we absolutely support the need to follow these measures of social distancing and isolation, we also recognize that it provides an opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence.”

With over half a million homeless people in the U.S., this population is also extremely vulnerable. People who are homeless have higher rates of tuberculosis, HIV, and pneumonia. The very practices CDC recommends to prevent the spread—frequent hand washing, social distancing, resting when ill, avoid touching surfaces—are virtually impossible for people who may live on the streets or in shelters where everything (sleeping, eating, etc.) is done in groups.

The LGBTQ+ community is also at risk of disproportionate harm because LGBTQ+ people, especially transgender Americans, face more barriers when accessing healthcare; LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have existing health issues; and they are more economically vulnerable.

Economic Inequities

As people struggle to navigate the health care system, school closings, reduced employment and shelter-in-place restrictions, people with lower incomes and fewer financial resources will be impacted disproportionately.  With working from home the “new normal” and shutdowns of cities and states across the country, many workers have lost or will soon lose their jobs. According to Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “A huge service-sector recession is coming, and we’re talking about more than 10 million jobs at risk that are often low-wage, low-benefit, or tip-based.” The employees in these sectors (salespeople, waiters, hotel desk clerks, groundskeepers, maids, and entertainment attendants)—have a few challenges in common that make them especially vulnerable: (1) their average annual wages are less than $30,000, including tips, (2) they have the fewest labor protections, such as paid sick leave and (3) they can’t do their work from home. There are a variety of ways that COVID-19 will put people living in poverty at an increased risk of getting sick. Among them, almost 30 million Americans  do not have health insurance.

Here are some general recommendations of things you can do amid this crisis and its accompanying inequities.

  • Keep up-to-date on and support legislative and advocacy efforts that center helping those most affected by the crisis.
  • Discuss these and other equity issues with your family members and with other young people in your life.
  • Consider joining, supporting, or forming a mutual aid group. Stay virtually connected with vulnerable people in your community and look for ways to support them with individual actions or volunteering. If you can, offer to help your neighbors by running errands, walking their dogs, or sharing resources.
  • If you can, donate to or volunteer with food banks and organizations that provide food for people in need.
  • Donate to a bail fund in your area – you can even find bail funds specifically for people being held in immigration detention facilities.