Inequalities Amid the "Great Equalizer"

Dear Asian Youth,

Pandemics like the one we are in right now are often referred to as “great equalizers”; they affect everyone the same, regardless of dividers like race or social class. They are collective experiences we all share and have touched every corner of the world. However, COVID-19 has proven to be the opposite, affecting certain minorities like low-income groups and people of color disproportionately.

For many people, school isn’t just for learning. Public education can bridge the divide between social classes, and many schools have programs that guarantee low-income students reduced-price or even free meals at school. Every day, the National School Lunch Program provides for over 30 million children. In New York, around 114 thousand homeless students rely on local schools for basic services like hot meals, medical care, and even laundry. The closing of most public schools in the country has been especially detrimental to these children, resulting in nation-wide food insecurity.

Additionally, the benefits of schools go beyond primary and secondary education and actually extend to higher education. For low-income students, earning a degree is already challenging without the added stress of a global pandemic. According to a 2015 study, only about 14% of low-income students earn a degree within 8 years. Now that colleges are sending students home, many of these low-income students return to drastically different living conditions. While all students share the same dorms at college, moving out of campus means that some of the low-income students are returning to a cramped or tense living situation. Juggling family responsibilities makes it hard to study, and many of them may not have access to reliable internet or technology. An additional casualty of this pandemic are college towns, for when students are sent home, there are many losses for community services like public transport and freezes on projects like hospital expansions. This year, the reduction of off-campus activities created many challenges for local retailers. In Ithaca, New York, the 25 thousand college students contribute $4 million each week to the local economy. The students at Iowa State University account for one half of the population of the city of Ames, and, since the pandemic, daily bus riders there dropped from 33 thousand to one thousand, causing a loss of over $9 million. These are just a few examples of where COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on higher education, and how the results of that have spread further to hurt groups that depend on these institutions for their livelihood.

Pre-existing social inequalities or vulnerabilities only get worse after a disaster like this one, creating a mutually reinforcing cycle and widening socio-economic divides. Of course, we cannot talk about inequalities without discussing racial inequality, especially in light of the Black Lives Movement that has recently gained momentum. Historically, racial inequality has been the norm in America, and racist policies like redlining and blockbusting display this well. Basically, in the 1930s, mortgage lenders would refuse loans to African Americans and minorities because they lived in “red” areas, regions that were deemed to be financially risky. While white families were able to get loans, purchase homes, and gain wealth, these minority races remained in poorer neighborhoods; this difference magnified over time. Wealthy (ie white) neighborhoods had better public schools and attracted more businesses, while the “red” neighborhoods where people of color lived remained impoverished. Additionally, when minority races move into a neighborhood, “white flight” often occurs; white families quickly sell their homes before the price of their property drops. Even though these practices eventually became illegal, poorer neighborhoods couldn’t afford to move up, and to this day—almost a century later—communities are still segregated by race.

So how does this relate to COVID-19? Well, because of these housing policies, African American communities experience inequities in health status and health care because of these longstanding structural inequalities. They are more likely to live in crowded households (because of unaffordable housing) and share many resources in addition to housing like transportation, food, and childcare; this increases their risk of exposure and transmission of the virus. Additionally, they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with environmental contamination. Studies have directly linked COVID-19 deaths to poor air quality, which is worse in poorer communities. To add to that, they also experience health inequities such as an increased risk of preexisting conditions. Because African American communities are often located in food deserts or suffer food insecurities, they are more susceptible to conditions like diabetes or cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. This leads to increased mortality, and low-income communities—which tend to be communities of color—are the hardest hit by these pandemics.

In addition to that, they also endure gaps in health insurance coverage and unequal access to health services, which only deepens the divide in the quality and accessibility of their healthcare. Being a majority-black city, Detroit, Michigan, is becoming a disease epicenter. About 79% of its population is black, and over 80% of the state’s COVID-19 cases are found in that city. In Chicago, African Americans make up only 30% of the population but make up 50% of the virus cases and 68% of deaths. In New York, the death rate of African Americans is twice as high as that of white Americans. It can be seen that statistically, African Americans are disproportionately more likely to get infected and die. They often also don’t have the means or the mobility to leave these disease hotspots, leaving them trapped in dangerous regions.

Health inequality is also a problem for more affluent communities because poorer neighborhoods can often speed up the rate the virus spreads. Things like universal access to affordable and high-quality health care, paid sick leave, and expanded food assistance programs could be implemented to alleviate some of the pain struggling communities are facing right now. But there are a few things we should keep in mind: victim-blaming further magnifies inaccurate stereotypes and we need to remember that while we may not be racist, the continuation of racist policies has only propelled white Americans forward by preventing colored societies from progressing.

Especially now with the #BlackLivesMatter movement fresh in our minds, it is important to take advantage of this moment where America’s social system is made vulnerable. While we cannot really stop the spread of COVID-19 (beyond properly social distancing and practicing good hygiene!), supporting African Americans will help a large portion of those affected by this pandemic. Eliminating white supremacy is a start to helping African Americans make a life for themselves as equals in our society. As an Asian American, I cannot possibly understand the rage they feel after generations of oppression. However, it is also our obligation to do what we can to help enact change. We can donate our money and time to black organizations. We need to hold police accountable and limit the power they maintain within our community. This can mean contacting your local officials or even voting them out to get new officials into the system that will make sure police actually serve time, demilitarize them, and redirect funds to other community services. All of the information on how to do this is readily available online—do research! This is a momentous period in history, and we cannot let it slip away; we need to set precedents and pass legislation that will have a national effect, and for ordinary citizens, that means voting.

Diseases don’t respect the boundaries that separate the rich from the poor. However, while this virus can infect anyone, it affects those that are experiencing things like racism and financial instability to a much greater extent, which only serves to further the divides that split our country. In other words, those most vulnerable are the same ones who can least afford it.

- Erika