Can a pandemic be racist?
Like other infectious diseases of the past, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on low-income, communities of color. Illuminating these racial disparities calls into question the predisposition of marginalized groups to health crises. And as policymakers scramble to provide support for people within their own jurisdictions, it is important to understand that ‘getting back to normal’ may include reinstituting the same structural conditions that embed racism within public policy and everyday life.
Following a social-determinants-of-health perspective, the causes of these unequal outcomes point to where people live, work, and play. Conversations about racial disparities mask the real public health emergency – racism. Symptoms of this disease include processes of housing segregation, under-funded educational and health institutions, dependency on public transportation, and lack of access to financial capital. Even while governors enact (and loosen) shelter-in-place orders, communities of color become further marginalized due to the precarity of work. Unequal access to healthcare further exacerbates issues of testing and medical treatment.
The heightened risk of some neighborhoods and communities to infection is not ‘novel’ at all as these inequalities have existed long before COVID-19. The legacy of racism and white supremacy within the United States creates pathways of vulnerability. And current responses do not disrupt these systems. Rather, they reinforce their very existence.
While many may call for a revolution given the current times, it is important to remember that during economic downturns, marginalized communities, often already in precarious situations, bear the brunt of social change. To think of the current pandemic as racist dilutes the intentionality of racism as an interlocking system of oppression. Operating at institutional, intermediate, and internal levels, understanding the structure of racism helps contextualize the true impact of COVID-19.
At an institutional level, understanding the relationship between where people live and access to healthcare services illuminates how processes of redlining and segregation still play a part in social outcomes. People in highly segregated neighborhoods have differential access to resources thus creating further issues of containing the disease. At an intermediate level, the impact of the virus has led to an increase in discrimination incidences among Asian Americans as well as inaccurate early reporting of immunity among African Americans. Race thus is interpreted as a biological trait. As a result, responses to COVID-19 tend to frame race as a key indicator rather than a process of exclusion due to society’s racial hierarchy.
Internalized racism is both historic and contemporary and occurs when members of a group believe negative perceptions of their own being and results in a devaluation of one’s own worth. For African Americans, this has led to a problematic relationship with the healthcare sector overall. Historic events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or the case of Henrietta Lacks highlight a lack of trust between communities of color with healthcare professionals. This results in fewer people seeking services when symptoms first become apparent.
These different processes converge to produce vulnerability. If society is to get back to a state of normalcy, conversations about racial disparities must acknowledge racism not as a separate issue, but as a comorbidity.
© Prentiss A. Dantzler, April 29, 2020