COVID-19’s equity problem is easier to identify than it is to solve

African Americans and people in lower socioeconomic groups are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but experts also lack data to properly quantify and address.

Drawing of people figurines in rows wearing face masks.
Though everyone is vulnerable to COVID-19, African Americans and people in lower socioeconomic groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. (Getty Images)

African Americans and people in lower socioeconomic groups are being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to speakers on a coronavirus webinar hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University and the American Society for Public Administration.

Susan T. Gooden, Ph.D., dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, moderated "Acceptable Losses? COVID-19: Social Equity and the African American Community,” on Thursday, April 16. The webinar is the first in a four-part series the organizations will host in the coming weeks. 

Gooden was joined by Curtis Brown, chief deputy state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and co-founder of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, and William Spriggs, Ph.D., chief economist to the AFL-CIO and a professor in the Department of Economics at Howard University. 

Gooden said the data is starting to show that states, especially Southern states with a large proportion of African Americans and a history of racial inequality, are showing a larger percentage of blacks dying from the coronavirus. For example, African Americans make up 28% of the population in Alabama, but account for 37% of the positive cases of COVID-19 and 54% of the deaths. Gooden said officials and the media are quick to point to preexisting conditions, but she said the problem is more complicated.

“Social distancing in and of itself is a privilege,” Gooden said. “One of the greatest weapons that we have against the coronavirus so far is to practice social distancing, but what I think we need to understand is that the practice has disparities. We have those who are privileged, who are able to have less exposure, and those who are more vulnerable. Disproportionately, African Americans fall into this group who have more exposure.”

People who have white-collar jobs and can telecommute are able to reduce their risk of exposure. They can purchase a large supply of groceries to limit trips into the community and still get paid while staying at home. Front-line workers such as grocery store clerks, health care aids in nursing homes and bus drivers are subjected to more exposure on a daily basis. They have less money to purchase food and must interact with a large number of people through their jobs, Gooden said.

“These people are often working more hours, because there is greater demand for their services,” she said.

Brown said this is not uncommon in a disaster and mentioned Hurricane Katrina as an example. People who had money and resources left the region before the hurricane struck. The people most affected by the disaster were the poor and people who did not have access to resources. They were exposed and suffered greatly when the storm hit, Brown said.

The coronavirus is a “historic disaster that will have generational impact across the whole country,” Brown said, and first responders and emergency management professionals need to understand that minorities and lower socioeconomic groups are suffering greater harm from the virus. 

“This is not a surprise,” Brown said. “We know that the vulnerability has already been baked in. Some communities in many ways were designed to fail.”

Social distancing in and of itself is a privilege. One of the greatest weapons that we have against the coronavirus so far is to practice social distancing, but what I think we need to understand is that the practice has disparities. We have those who are privileged, who are able to have less exposure, and those who are more vulnerable.

Gooden highlighted several cities that have worked hard to include minorities and those on the lower socioeconomic scale in disaster preparedness. Cities such as Seattle embraced an inclusive posture prior to the outbreak, and that appears to have leveled out how groups were affected by the virus.

“You already want to have those relationships in place,” Gooden said. “And the data does suggest that those cities that did the groundwork to prepare for racial equity and the delivery of their services may be faring better now in terms of outcomes.”

Spriggs said any discussion about minorities being severely impacted by the pandemic must include discussions about income and occupation. Unfortunately, not a lot of data exists on the occupation of people who have died or tested positive for the virus. Transit workers and health care workers are contracting the virus at larger numbers than the general population, but meat-packing workers are another example.

Spriggs would like to see more data collected on what sectors of the economy are coming down with the virus and which are having death and hospitalizations as an outcome.

“We don’t have a very good breakdown on a lot of things, and it stymies us in terms of looking at things through the equity lens,” Spriggs said. “We know disproportionately that African Americans, women [and] Hispanics have jobs that are forward looking, that is that they deal directly with customers or they are in manufacturing and that involves close contact. And they disproportionately hold jobs that you cannot telework. You have to be there and be present. Yet when you look at the data, very few states have positive testing or death by race and we don’t have anything that gives us an indication by occupation or by industry.” 

Brown said he is working with the emergency management community to understand these racial and economic issues and how they affect disaster response. Statistics have shown that 70% of the workforce in emergency management are white males. The profession is trying to recruit more minority individuals and conduct training to educate emergency management professionals. 

“There is a lack of understanding of the communities that are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 response,” Brown said. “The lack of diversity ties directly to the response.”

Gooden will facilitate a second discussion as part of this series — this one on effective leadership in crisis — on April 22.

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