1. Update
  2. Economic Justice

When Racism Intersects with COVID-19

By Andre Gobbo, May 8, 2020


While the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone, people of color are disproportionately impacted.

In Louisiana, African Americans make up 32 percent of the population but 70 percent of deaths caused by the coronavirus. In Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, African Americans accounted for nearly half of all COVID-19 cases and more than 80 percent of deaths. This trend is mirrored in Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York.

The death rate is staggering. And the impacts of the pandemic on communities of color are wide-reaching. Discriminatory policies have exacerbated the consequences of COVID-19. Here are some of the ways this is playing out across our nation:

Increased Economic Insecurity

MTA New York City Transit personnel perform disinfectant sanitization aboard subway car March 3, 2020, as a precautionary measure in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

MTA personnel perform disinfectant subway cars. Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

People of color are disproportionately employed in sectors that require considerable public exposure, such as administrative and health care support, transportation, social services, food service, and sanitation. This puts them at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

Many of these jobs are deemed “essential,” but don’t offer paid sick leave, forcing workers to make an impossible choice between keeping their job and risking their health.

Disproportionate Negative Health Outcomes

Health disparities were stark before COVID-19—from 2010-2018 black people were 1.5 times more likely to be uninsured than white people, and Hispanics/Latinos experienced an uninsured rate that was 2.5 times higher than their white peers. In addition to reduced access to affordable health coverage, people of color face discrimination in treatment. Studies have shown that people of color and women are subject to less accurate diagnoses and worse clinical outcomes. These factors exacerbate the impact of COVID-19.

Environmental Racism Linked to Increased Deaths

Recent studies have shown a link between high levels of pollution and an increased risk of death from COVID-19.

There’s an ever-growing body of research highlighting disproportionate levels of pollution in communities of color. Researchers have found fracking wells are more likely to be found in minority communities, and an increased prevalence of dangerous chemicals and lead poisoning. This in turn affects the health of those communities. Recent studies have shown a link between high levels of pollution and an increased risk of death from COVID-19.

Remote Learning Disadvantages Students of Color

COVID-19 caused schools to switch from in-person to remote learning. This intensifies the achievement gap in schools. Children of color are less likely to have access to the technology needed to learn from home. Low-income families tend to be more dependent on smartphones instead of computers and are likelier to lack access to broadband internet, making it difficult for their kids to get online. Finally, school closures make it harder for students who rely on free and reduced-price meals to get the food they need.

Communities are Being Harmed: Here’s How Congress Can Respond

Solving this crisis will require structural changes. There are steps Congress can take to mitigate these negative outcomes for communities of color right now. Some solutions include:

  • Providing paid sick and family leave for working families: This would make it possible for “essential” workers to take time off if they’re sick or caring for an ill loved one, without fear of losing their job or paycheck.
  • Expanding broadband access: This would help ensure that students in urban and rural communities have access to remote learning opportunities and prevent the achievement gap from worsening during COVID-19

  • Establish a moratorium on credit and loan payments, utility shut offs, evictions, foreclosures, and repossessions: Congress can prevent further hardship and help people who are out of work weather the economic crisis. This would also ensure that people can safely quarantine at home if needed.

  • Increasing funding for, and access to, health care programs that help low-income individuals: Community Health Centers are chronically underfunded, yet provide critical health care in communities of color. Expanding access to Medicare and Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act would also help reduce the uninsured rate.

These disparities have life and death implications. The time is now for U.S. to implement legislation that will help reduce these racial gaps.

Background Responding to the Coronavirus 

The coronavirus pandemic is a generational threat, and its impacts will be felt by all of us. But know this: Our work for peace and justice will go on. Here’s how we will continue our advocacy in the face of COVID-19 and how you can join us.

Andre Gobbo

  • Legislative Representative, Domestic Policy

Andre Gobbo adds capacity to the Domestic Policy team by handling constituent queries, writing action alerts and sign-on letters, assisting with lobbying visits, creating informational content, supporting coalition relationships, and helping execute FCNL’s legislative strategies.