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COVID-19 and the Racist Disparities Fueling the Uprising

26-Aug-2020By Robert Shields

“Unless public spending is restored and coupled with access to high-paying employment, preventive and emergency health care, and safe, secure, and affordable housing, then it is hard to take seriously the expressions of outrage at the poverty and racism in this country.” ~ Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Over 790,000 people have died from COVID-19 around the world with over 170,000 of those deaths occurring in the US, though a New York Times analysis suggests the real death toll surpassed 200,000 in July. This pandemic has shown how unprepared our society was for a deadly virus to spread throughout the globe. We are now into our seventh month of the pandemic, and some horrifyingly familiar trends have started to emerge.

Black and Latino communities have the highest rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Black people are dying from COVID-19 at a rate three times higher than whites. In the early weeks of the pandemic, testing failed to show these disparities for exactly the reasons the disparities exist in the first place. When it came to testing, there were many more tests available in richer, whiter areas, and testing centers were in drive-thru centers that lower-income people were not able to access easily. New Orleans had to shift to mobile testing sites, as have many other cities, in order to reach into working-class communities.

At this point, the terms “income inequality” and “racial inequality” are household phrases, and now we have the dystopian phrase “testing inequality.” Testing is still wholly insufficient and inconsistent. This is a disgusting reflection of the structural racism built into our system, and it is very likely that the data we have access to is still significantly understating the actual injustice that exists. As people die without healthcare access in this country, we may never know the true depth of the inequality.

“Health disparities are as much markers of racial inequality as mass incarceration or housing discrimination,” explained Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. The data make this clear. Black people in the US have diabetes at a rate 56% higher than whites, and for Latinos it is 67% higher. Black people have the highest infant mortality rate, 138% higher than whites. One of the worst examples of this disparity is the fact that Black people have the highest rate of mortality in 8 of the top 10 leading causes for death.

Racial disparities exist in just about every aspect of social and economic life in the US. Even during this pandemic, Black and Latino people are often forced into working low-wage essential jobs where social distancing can be impossible. Access to much-needed paid sick time is often lacking in these jobs. People of color also disproportionately face evictions and homelessness, are more likely to live in “food deserts” where healthy produce is not available, and are less likely to be believed by doctors about their health concerns.

It is also impossible not to mention the scale of mass incarceration in a conversation about racial disparities. One out of every 10 Black men in their 30s is sitting in prison on any given day. With COVID-19 rampaging through these institutions, the disastrous effects of the racist mass incarceration system are even more brutal as crowded prisons, jails, and detention facilities are becoming a death sentence. The Marshall Project has been following the impact of COVID-19 in prisons and found that over 78,000 prisoners tested positive, and over 700 have died. Black people get locked up in state prisons at a rate 5 times higher than white people. This has led to renewed calls by activists to release all non-violent prisoners and immigrant detainees.

These disparities and the lack of a social safety net during the pandemic has exposed how vulnerable we all are, as well as how racist the entire system is. This was a central factor in the reaction to the racist murder of George Floyd. The scale of mass support centered around racist police violence grew into a mass uprising against the systemic racism deeply rooted in US capitalism. It’s also exposed just how bad things have been already, especially for oppressed communities in the US. Fighting back effectively requires fighting back against the logic of the capitalist system — the social system that perpetuates these hierarchies.

Hazard Pay for Workers or Record Profit

In the early stages of the pandemic many workers, particularly Black and Brown workers, did not have a choice to stay home as stay-at-home orders were implemented. Under pressure, many corporations offered hazard pay. Among the places that offered hazard pay were Kroger, Walmart, Target, Costco, CVS and Amazon. All have since ended the hazard pay program, despite push-back from workers and unions. In particular, Kroger continues to receive pressure from UFCW—the largest union representing grocery store workers—to bring back hazard pay, which Kroger ended in May.

Did Kroger end hazard pay because the company’s bottom line was hit hard by the virus? Absolutely not. Kroger’s profits have soared 50% more than this time last year. Was it because the company thought the threat of the virus was over? No again—Kroger held its June 25th annual shareholder meeting online, presumably to avoid the health dangers that they force their low-wage workforce to risk everyday. In the midst of the rising costs of healthcare and housing, corporations continue to put their profits literally over the lives of the workers who are risking their lives daily to produce that wealth.

Since hazard pay was ended, cases of COVID-19 have reached record-breaking numbers, and deaths continue to occur disproportionately in communities of color. This is in stark contrast to the record-breaking profits corporations are reeling in right now. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, added $13 billion to his wealth on July 22nd alone, the highest single day increase of wealth ever recorded, and he has added over $74 billion in wealth since the beginning of the year.

In August, the two major political parties failed to reach a deal on extending unemployment benefits or a stimulus bill. Instead, Trump signed an executive order which he claims will give unemployed workers $400 per week. In order to receive the benefit, states will have to pick up 25% of the tab. Furthermore, the majority of this funding will be taken out of the Disaster Relief Fund right before hurricane season. Even if it was deemed constitutional, this new program could take weeks or months just to get up and running while the eviction crisis looms. Neither President Trump nor the Republicans’ recently proposed HEALS Act mentions hazard pay. The Democrats have requested $200 billion for hazard pay in their Heroes Act, but they have failed to mobilize the working-class pressure needed to force the Republicans' hand. The situation is crying out for a political party that would fight to overcome the Republicans’ resistance by calling mass protests and sit-ins to force the Republicans’ to back down.

Reopening Schools

Teachers and teacher unions have entered the fight to protect students and themselves. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) drafted a report for safely opening schools called “The Same Storm but Different Boats: The Safe and Equitable Conditions for Starting LAUSD 2020-21.” They list Medicare for All, a wealth tax of 1% on billionaires, defunding police, and housing security among other demands to safely reopen schools. They correctly point out that their district, the second largest in the US, has a student population which is over 70% Latino, who are already 5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites in California.

After the union made its demands known, the Los Angeles Unified School District school board quickly decided to shut down schools at the beginning of the semester, seemingly deciding that the board would prefer schools to be closed than to either meet the demands of the union or face another confrontation like they did with UTLA's recent victorious strike. Chicago’s School District made a similar assessment to keep schools closed when the Chicago Teachers Union threatened to strike.

Picture taken by Georgia student on first day of school

In other areas, students and teachers have not been so lucky. When a Georgia student posted a picture of crowded, maskless hallways in her newly reopened school outside of Atlanta, she was suspended—and then unsuspended after public pressure. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has threatened to defund school districts that don’t reopen in the fall. "If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds," she said. "Give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise." She clearly wants to use this crisis to fuel her for-profit charter school agenda. We should expect this fight over whether and how to reopen schools to spark intense battles.

Delay or Cancel the Rent

According to the US Census Bureau's Pulse Survey, 12.5 million people in July were unable to make rent, and twice as many did not feel confident they would be able to make rent in August. Over half, 56%, of respondents were Black and Latino. Without any action by local, state, or federal governments, we may experience the biggest wave of evictions and homelessness in US history. The most vulnerable renters are people of color, especially women of color.

The approach of corporate-friendly Democrats is to limit their proposals to a ‘moratorium’ (a pause) on evictions and rent payments, which only kicks the can down the road. Left-wing Democrat Ilhan Omar starkly rebuked this, proposing instead to cancel all mortgage and rent payments during the COVID-19 crisis. The Democratic leadership restricts its proposal to what’s acceptable to large landlord companies, whereas Omar based her proposal on the needs of working families, especially in communities of color.

MAGA or Masks

A July 10th ABC poll showed Trump’s approval rating on the handling of the pandemic at an all-time low of 33%. This comes months after he called COVID-19 the “Chinese flu” and “Wuhan flu,” which whipped up conspiracies that the pandemic was a planned intervention by the Chinese government.

To divert attention away from his colossal failures, Trump constantly attempts to divide the country and stir up racism and conspiracy theories. In July Trump sent federal agents to multiple cities to clamp down on Black Lives Matter protests rather than focusing resources on addressing the pandemic. Activists, on the other hand, have united around calls to defund the militarized police and redirect that money toward vitally needed social services.

When Trump’s approval began slipping and Biden’s began rising, Trump shifted slightly on his approach to the pandemic. He called wearing masks “patriotic” and cancelled the Republican National Convention which had previously been moved to Jacksonville, FL. It is clear his support declined in a country that agrees the pandemic should be a top priority. But would Biden do much better?

COVID-19 for All or Medicare for All

Biden wouldn’t deny the significance of COVID-19, as Trump has, nor fan the flames of anti-mask conspiracy theories, but that’s not enough to address a pandemic. This virus has exposed how a for-profit healthcare system that denies healthcare as a human right puts us all at risk, insured or not. But even in the face of this, Biden and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party continue to vehemently oppose Medicare for All.

The Democratic National Committee Platform Committee overwhelmingly voted against including Medicare for All in its party platform. Judith Whitmer, who spearheaded a petition to vote against the DNC platform was quoted in Politico stating, “This pandemic has shown us that our private health insurance system does not work for the American people. Millions of people have lost their jobs and their health care at the same time. There’s people leaving the hospital now with millions of dollars in medical bills. What are we going to do about that?”

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the working class to fend for itself amidst uncertain times. Medicare for All would provide universal free healthcare access and a nationwide system to distribute healthcare resources quickly and efficiently, which would have dramatically changed the governmental response to this crisis. The racial disparities in health care and in this pandemic are enough evidence alone to show any reasonable person that we must do better, but to do so would require stripping large healthcare capitalists of their power.

By shooting down Medicare for All during a pandemic, the DNC has sent a clear signal that they are more loyal to private insurance companies than they are committed to protecting the lives of the people they claim to serve. If the Democratic Party leadership truly believes that Black and Latino lives do matter, then Medicare for All would be front and center in their platform. While we must also fight against other aspects of our healthcare system that lead to differential outcomes, from unequal exposure to environmental toxins to physicians’ racist biases, universal healthcare is an absolutely indispensable part of addressing healthcare racism. Given the Democrats’ opposition, what’s needed is an independent working-class fight-back.

It is no surprise we are in the middle of the biggest wave of socialists, progressives, and BLM candidates taking office. Just one of the many exciting victories was Marquita Bradshaw’s campaign for US Senate. The DSA chapter of Memphis endorsed Bradshaw, an environmental activist who supports the call for Medicare for All and an end to racist policing. She won the Democrat primary race despite her opponent raising $2.1 million compared to her meager $8,400.

Unprecedented Crises Require Unprecedented Solutions

This pandemic requires more than incremental change can deliver. We face an oncoming flood of the largest housing crisis in US history, a higher unemployment rate than during the Great Depression, more inequality than during the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, a planet on fire, and mass preventable death from COVID-19 in Black, Brown, and low-income communities. This is less a COVID-19 crisis than a crisis of capitalism. The largest Black liberation movement and this new wave of successful socialist candidates in decades are rays of light in these dark times. They are bringing the demands, energy, and power of a movement that is exposing the system as one based fundamentally on exploitation and oppression.

We need a society and economy that ensures everyone receives high quality healthcare, housing, and an education. A democratic socialist system would be as stocked with medical supplies as this system is with nuclear warheads. It would provide as much free healthcare as we provide free handouts to for-profit corporations. It would kick corporate board members out of their undemocratic positions of power, but never kick families out of their homes.

The capitalist system has failed us, but it has not stopped our will to fight. We must fight against every racist component of the COVID-19 response, and doing that will require fighting against the capitalist system that underpins it.

Robert Shields is a member of DSA in Los Angeles and a DSA Neighborhood Captain. He is also a member of DSA’s Reform & Revolution caucus. Robert works as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.