What COVID-19 Laid Bare

The old saying that when America catches a cold, Black people get the flu has been quoted often recently. And for good reason. Covid-19 has highlighted many of the most troubling aspects of American society with a particularly cruel clarity. Although, as many have noted, everyone is susceptible to the novel coronavirus, when the virus is introduced into systems that are discriminatory in individual, institutional and structural ways, both the impact of the virus and the existence of widespread systemic discrimination is highlighted. Under the cold light of statistics, the reality of persistent racial and ethnic disparities in employment, access to healthcare, a safe environment, adequate housing, access to education, and likelihood of being subjected to highly dense, unsafe conditions as a result of mass incarceration is shockingly obvious. We will be judged as a nation by how successfully we address the immediate needs of everyone affected by the current crisis. But the extent to which we are true to the values we have long espoused will depend upon whether and how well we address those fundamental, structural inequalities which has resulted in such an unbalanced burden after the immediate Covid-19 threat is addressed.

The devastating disparate impact of Covid-19 is beyond dispute. Even the far from perfect demographic data makes obvious the fact that people of color, particularly Black people, represent a grossly disproportionate number of people being hospitalized and dying. Long standing disparities in access to hospitals and doctors is exacerbated by the fact that people of color are less likely to be tested for Covid-19. Highly dense, segregated housing contributes to the racial and ethnic disparities as does the increased likelihood of living in housing plagued by environmental stressors such as mold, lead paint and lack of access to clean water for hand washing and drinking. Meanwhile, the greater likelihood of working in low-wage jobs increases the chances of losing those jobs or, when they are not lost, being compelled by economic necessity to work without the luxury of working remotely but instead having to work in jobs which often involve potentially deadly contact with a large number of people. And the health dangers are only part of the panoply of threats posed by the pandemic. Low income students , particularly students of color, are the ones most likely to suffer from the closing of schools potentially losing access to school lunch programs and being more likely to have access to the equipment, internet service and the space necessary to receive the benefits of remote learning. Add to all of these the inaction or affirmatively harmful actions of government, from the very top down, which taken together, further marginalizes the most vulnerable groups, including people of color, the disabled and low-income workers.

NCLEJ is seeking to address the additional needs of the people whom it serves. It has expanded its advocacy for fair access to public benefits and relief for those who suffer because of the coronavirus, for protection of the economic stability of low-income workers, for assurance that people with disabilities are not excluded from receiving vital treatment for the disease and for protection for groups like agricultural workers and home health workers who, despite the importance of the work they do, are denied fair compensation and praise.

But simply returning to a pre-Covid19 “normal” is not sufficient. NCLEJ faced no paucity of work in the past and will undoubtedly continue to find far more problems in the Covid-19less future. Of course, everyone will have to take steps to assure that the immediate needs caused by the coronavirus will be met. Government will have to be sure to collect the data necessary to assess and address the unbalanced impact of this Pandemic. But if we return to a world where workers are denied adequate access to health care unless they are lucky enough to work in jobs that provide such benefits, where people work full time jobs without leave and receive pay that falls below subsistence level, where full access to the necessary means of survival are denied, we will have failed as a nation to learn the bitter lessons of this Pandemic. That failure will leave us to suffer continued corrosive inequality and catastrophic future emergencies like those caused repeatedly by pandemics and natural disasters in the past.

Dennis D. Parker
NCLEJ Executive Director

Deborah N. Archer
Associate Professor of Clinical Education
Co-Faculty Director of the Center on Race Inequality and the Law at New York University Law School
and NCLEJ Board Member