COVID-19 and the Black Community: Part II

This piece serves as a continuation of COVID-19 and the Black Community article (click here) written in late 2020. As a recap, “COVID-19 and the Black Community Part 1” gives a background about the origins of COVID-19 and the three common assumptions about the health disparities caused by the pandemic: increased prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity in African Americans. However, these chronic conditions are quite common among White Americans as well. Instead, we look towards a different perspective to account for the variance in health outcomes between African Americans and White Americans. Ultimately, two main reasons might account for why African Americans died from COVID-19 at higher rates than their White counterparts: higher amounts of public testing sites in predominately white affluent areas and African Americans holding larger shares of non-medical “essentials jobs,” contributing to increased contact with individuals (some of whom could have been carriers of the virus). In the first article, we examined the first reason in more depth. Now we will focus on the second reason: African Americans holding larger shares of non-medical “essential jobs.”

            African American workers are statistically more likely to hold a position as an “essential” worker. They make-up up 16.7%  of all front line workers, but only make up 11.9% of the workforce. These workers make up a large part of the COVID-19 labor market with employment in grocery, convenience, and drug stores, public transportation, trucking and warehouse, postal service, health care, and child care and social services. During the pandemic, these workers remained in these positions in order to provide for their families. Essentially, they protected the community during this incredibly challenging time by providing services that are fundamental to the existence of mankind. Without “essential” workers, it would have been very difficult for whole communities to survive the pandemic, given “essential” workers provided access to life’s basic necessities. Although these workers were providing services for the benefit of society, unfortunately, they were in roles that inherently put themselves and their families at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to increased contact with many, many people on a daily basis. Not surprisingly this increased contact, significantly raised their chances of contracting COVID-19. Unfortunately, adding to their own increased exposure, upon returning home, their families also assumed increased risk by simply living in the same space and being in close contact with the “essential” worker(s) of the household. 

            Now that we know about the inequity of increased black labor in “essential” front line worker positions, let’s examine why African Americans disproportionately hold higher positions in this labor market. Unfortunately, the reason is quite simple: systemic racism. For decades, African Americans have faced unfair discrimination and have been historically disadvantaged in many sectors such as housing, employment, education, healthcare, and leadership opportunities. The consequences of persistent discrimination dating back decades has resulted in higher prevalence of African American deaths due to COVID-19 in the this pandemic.

            What can we do about it? We need to protect African American workers. This means implementing policies about adequate and sufficient amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line workers with oversight and enforcement, assuring accountability. It means ensuring economic stability and benefits (e.g. health insurance, workers’ compensation, stock options, and increased paid time off and emergency time off) for front-line workers. Wages need to significantly and permanently increase from their pre-pandemic poverty wages, as that was insufficient for front-line workers and their families then. A commitment to fighting racial injustice and protecting African American workers begins with enacting policies to ensure workers are protected with proper equipment and are adequately compensated at significantly higher wages to at least eliminate racial disparities in housing, income, wealth, education, and employment. 

            COVID-19 has hit the African American community hard with higher death tolls, less COVID-19 testing in predominately communities of color in comparison with predominately White affluent neighborhoods, and increased risk of exposure due to higher rates of “essential” front-line African American workers. In order to move forward, we need to protect African Americans with policies and policy enforcement, ensuring equity with their White counterparts across all sectors.  

References: 

1. https://www.epi.org/publication/black-workers-covid/

2. https://www.brookings.edu/research/black-essential-workers-lives-matter-they-deserve-real-change-not-just-lip-service/