Thomas Reese on the Coronavirus Puts a Spotlight on Inequality and Racism

In this April 7, 2020, photo, a subway rider wears a mask and a bandana to protect himself against COVID-19 in New York. As the coronavirus tightened its grip across the country, it is cutting a particularly devastating swath through an already vulnerable population, black Americans. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS.


While the coronavirus is an equal opportunity killer, the poor and people of color are disproportionately suffering and dying from COVID-19. These communities were least prepared to respond to the virus for reasons rooted in racism and inequality.

When the virus arrived, public health experts told us to protect ourselves by working from home, keeping social distance, isolating the sick and quarantining those who have come into contact with the sick. But all of these recommendations are easier for white, affluent suburbanites to follow. They have large homes they share only with family, and jobs that can be done online. Their financial reserves can cushion the impact of hard times.

Those who work in restaurants, grocery stores, warehouses, hotels, slaughterhouses, agriculture, factories, construction, nursing homes, retail stores, maintenance and cleaning cannot work from home. Security guards, maids, janitors, bus drivers, truck drivers, waiters, dishwashers, cooks, cashiers, farmworkers, delivery people and receptionists must show up for work if they are going to be paid.

Many of these workers survive from paycheck to paycheck with meager reserves to withstand the loss of their paychecks. About 1.8 million workers are paid the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) or less, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly half (48%) of workers earn less than $15 an hour. In bad times, they have hardly anything to fall back on. Nearly 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, according to GoBankingRates.

Also, poor people of color are more likely to suffer from underlying conditions that put them more at risk if they do get sick. Sadly, many have either no health care or substandard health care, especially in states where Republican governors and legislatures have refused to expand Medicaid as proposed under the Affordable Care Act. Undocumented immigrants are afraid to go to hospitals because they fear federal agents will seize them there, and deport them or their family members.

These people were already on the edge. With the coronavirus they are in free fall with no end in sight.

Not only are they in danger at work, they are also at risk at home. Minorities and the poor are more likely to live in crowded quarters. They are more likely to have a family member who will bring the virus home from work. The idea of isolating or quarantining someone in an apartment with six or more people and one bathroom is a cruel joke.

We should not be surprised that African Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites, according to APM Research Lab.

The black community’s disadvantage can be traced back to slavery and the racism that blacks have historically endured. If African Americans had ever received just wages for their work, had been allowed to borrow money from banks, open businesses and own homes, then over generations their wealth may have equaled that in the white community.

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Source: Religion News Service