As we near the month and a half mark since Gov. Jay Inslee issued the order to close non-essential services, we have a better idea of how preparation and infrastructure have impacted the effectiveness of the COVID-19 response. Early action no doubt ameliorated conditions for many, and we count ourselves fortunate relative to other, harder-hit states. This, of course, as we bear in mind the underwhelming federal response that is comically terrible at best and grotesquely heartless and devoid of human consideration at worst.
One sobering reality that was unearthed at the local and national levels is how institutional racism and classism have coalesced in an unholy mix, ever-festering in our society’s utter disdain for people of color and poor people. COVID-19 infection rates and casualties point to infrastructural neglect and de facto practice that leave socially and economically marginalized communities in perpetual fear for their health and economic survival.
The first analysis of confirmed COVID-19 cases in King County offers a glimpse of the pandemic’s impact. Per early results from Seattle & King County Public Health, African Americans (7.5 percent versus their 6.4 percent of the population), Latinos (17.1 percent vs. 10 percent) and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (1.7 percent vs. 0.8 percent) were disproportionately impacted relative to their populations in the county. Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders and Latinos account for the highest rates per 100,000 cases.
The Washington State Department of Health also offered initial findings that illustrate that Latinos (26 percent vs. 13 percent) and African Americans (7 percent vs. 4 percent) are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infection relative to their state population. These results point to systemic factors that place these communities at higher risk of infection. I cannot say I am shocked by these early results as they appear to be consistent with data sets emerging across the country.
Reports throughout the country echo a similar dynamic. In New York City, African Americans and Latinos account for 61.4 percent of COVID-19 deaths, per the New York City Health Department. Health disparities coupled with institutional racism have created an environment that disproportionately afflicts these two communities.
The precariousness of economic circumstance also factors in. Many people are without the luxury of working from home and are at higher risk of exposure in essential jobs. These communities, and poor people in general, encounter the need to continue working to pay for necessities as institutional support is timid at best at the federal level.
This is important to consider as states debate reopening economies. Access to personal protective equipment and adequate compensation for hazardous conditions is not only a labor rights issue but a civil rights issue as well. May Day this year will have a different tonality. It is about life or death.
Read more in the Apr. 22-28, 2020 issue.