COVID-19 and Structural Racism: How Policies Can Address Disparities

Catherine Kaufman is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a second-year MPA student.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard one phrase over and over again: we’re all in this together. But systemic disparities highlighted in the ongoing racial justice movement make it clear that COVID-19 and the ensuing economic hardships affect some communities far more than others, making unified guidelines (such as stocking up on supplies and social distancing) and recovery from a highly communicable disease nearly impossible. 

In an article entitled “We’re Not All in This Together: On COVID-19, Intersectionality, and Structural Inequality,” Dr. Lisa Bowleg, a social psychology professor at The George Washington University, argues that a collective “we” ignores inequities inherent in U.S. society. The pain and suffering exacerbated by policies under the current administration have been unequally borne by people of color, widening the gap in the health and economic recoveries between racial groups in America. 

So, what are some of these racial disparities, what causes them, and how can policymakers start to address inequities in their COVID response policies?

Disparities and the Reason for Them

COVID-19 has made obvious the challenges facing communities of color in the United States. Across U.S. states, deaths from COVID-19 include two to three times (or more!) the number of Black individuals than would be expected based on their share of the population, while white deaths across most states are lower than their share of the population. And Hispanic Americans make up two to four times more cases than would be a proportional share. These data are not perfect, of course, which further hampers an adequate response (and could indicate that disparities are even greater than they appear, as a Brookings study argues).

Many structural factors go into these disparate cases and deaths. Higher rates of underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease found in Black Americans contributes to more severe cases that are more likely to result in death. These conditions are also linked to exposure to air pollution, which racial minorities are more likely to experience, particularly in inner city settings. And both Black and Latino communities are more likely to have jobs deemed “essential,” making work-from-home much less available and increasing likelihood of exposure to the virus. 

Social distancing at home can also be harder in communities of color, where dense and multi-generational housing can help the virus to spread more quickly. Even park access represents a disparity: parks in communities of color are an average of half the size and serve five times more people per acre than parks in majority-white communities. This difference remains even when comparing low-income white communities with low-income communities of color. This disparity makes it harder to spend socially distant time outside.

The disparity (not unrelated) in the economic effect of and recovery from the coronavirus also looks grim.  The median wealth of white families is ten times higher than that of Black families, and the Black-white wage gap has increased by 20 percent in the past 20 years. Historical exclusion from housing and capital as well as racial differences in labor market outcomes contribute to these disparities. Labor market discrimination has also contributed to historically higher joblessness and employment exit rates for Black workers. Lack of access to childcare also has an impact on parents (and particularly mothers) in the workforce. 

All of this results in lower earnings and thus a worse ability to absorb or buffer the economic shock delivered by COVID-19. Black and Latino workers in particular have borne a much larger share and rate of employment loss and subsequent job recovery, as demonstrated by the chart below:

graph depicting the disparities between the unemployment rates during the pandemic between white and latino and black populations in the US.

Ultimately, the reason for these racial disparities is both the persistence of racial discrimination and (perhaps more substantially) the structural inequities caused by centuries of racist policies in housing, healthcare, and employment, among many others areas. 

What Can Policymakers Do?

All of these inequity issues clearly overlap policy areas, as they are all interconnected and based in structural issues that are difficult to single out. When it comes to a direct COVID-19 response, however, the National League of Cities (NLC) offers a helpful guide for city leaders on how to address the disparate economic impact that COVID-19 has on people and communities of color. First, they suggest partnering with local healthcare providers to collect accurate COVID-19 demographic data. This step would help to assess the disparate impacts of their policies on communities of color. Leaders then need to target their resources to address these impacts. Third, the NLC suggests ensuring that emergency centers, which determine how to allocate resources effectively, formally integrate equality. Fourth, stigma from xenophobia and racism need to be addressed, such as by condemning scapegoating language and racially motivated attacks. Fifth, cities should invest in local businesses run by people of color in order to keep them afloat and their workers employed throughout the economic uncertainty of the pandemic.

Dr. Leana Wen, physician and visiting health policy professor at The George Washington University, suggests other short- and long-term solutions to addressing racial health disparities. In the short term, public health resources need to be targeted toward minority populations, including through free and widespread testing, contact tracing, establishing facilities to use for isolation, and gathering and releasing racial demographic data regarding COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, and mortality. In the long term, policymakers should prepare for a second surge by implementing a national and coordinated effort to ensure enough supplies can be distributed as-needed; equitably distributing a vaccine and treatment once available; investing in health systems to provide a safety net, especially for communities where primary care may not survive the pandemic; and target resources to address the disparities in social health determinants.  

All in This Together

Clearly, policymakers have a long way to go to truly addressing the structural inequity in many areas that leads to widely different pandemic impacts. Doing so must, however, be a priority. Policymakers must recognize these disparities and use their pandemic responses to address glaring issues of inequity in our society, such as in healthcare, housing, and employment, that have long been ignored by those in power—otherwise, COVID-19 will continue to wreak devastation on our society, and for marginalized communities far more than others. We all must be truly in this together if any lasting progress is to be made.

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