Diseases don’t discriminate. Societies do. We need to keep that in mind when fighting the coronavirus. And while each infectious disease is different, there’s one constant: It’s the poor who suffer the most.
This pandemic is showing us what we must do — not just now, but going forward — by magnifying the inequities of our society. Whether you are more susceptible and more exposed to getting the virus, or dying from it, is very much influenced by what color you are and how much money you have.
We’re seeing that disproportionate impact in many ways. Low-income people have less access to testing and health care, more of the chronic health problems that make the virus so deadly, and less ability to “shelter in place.” They work in places like nursing homes and meat processing plants. They can’t telecommute. They have to show up, even if that means risking their health or even their lives.
Fewer resources, more vulnerabilities
Then there are the tens of millions who have lost their jobs. Figures compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute show that the workers hardest hit by the pandemic are those who have the fewest resources to deal with it. “Up to 86% of the initial impact affects jobs that were paying less than $40,000 per year,” it says in a new report on the impact of COVID-19 on workers.
Within the low income group, African Americans are particularly affected by the disease. A study of eight hospitals in Georgia found that over 80% of the COVID-19 patients were black. African Americans are 32% of Georgia’s population, but as of April 24 had accounted for over 50% of its deaths from coronavirus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month underscored the problems that make racial and ethnic minorities vulnerable to severe disease. It said African Americans are afflicted with diabetes at a rate that is 66% higher than for white Americans. The rate of hypertension is 49% higher. Rates of cardiovascular disease and obesity are similarly lopsided.
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And while the Affordable Care Act rectified some of the inequities in the U.S. health insurance system, the law is being slowly and intentionally eroded by the Trump administration. And it’s clearly the poor who bear the brunt of the damage.
Recognize who is suffering most
This disease affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. In order to address the problem most efficiently, we have to have clear eyes and open hearts, and to recognize where the suffering is the most intense. With that in mind, here’s a to-do list for fighting the virus and afterward:
►Testing! We need to massively ramp up testing and contact tracing, especially among the lower-income populations where the disease is spreading faster. Singapore, which had done such an excellent job of containing the virus, is just now learning a lesson about not paying sufficient attention to the poor. The virus has surged among low-wage migrant workers who live in crowded dormitories. The cases among migrant workers now account for 88% of the infections in Singapore.
►Health care now! Health care, especially as it relates to COVID-19, needs to be a national priority, while at the same time, health care costs shouldn’t be a burden on those who have contracted the virus. Nobody should be turned away from testing or treatment due to lack of insurance.
►Health care forever! Once the crisis has passed, we need to address this country’s long-term health care needs. That will undoubtedly take place within the context of the 2020 election. Even with COVID-19 finally defeated, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure will still be killers, and too many of our fellow Americans struggle with them.
►Jobs! We need to do more than just give a 7 o’clock shout-out to the millions of Americans working at jobs from ER worker to nursing home attendant to grocery cashier. If nothing else, this catastrophe has made it clear to us how much we rely on the people who perform these jobs. It’s time we address the shocking income disparity in this country, and give them the living wage they deserve.
►Voting! Another tragic shortcoming that this crisis has exposed is our lack of a secure and reliable way for everyone in this country who is entitled to vote to be able to vote. We need to dedicate money and resources into making sure that we never repeat the shameful fiasco of this year’s April 7 Wisconsin primary. At least 67 people who worked or voted in that election have tested positive for COVID-19. We need to make voting by mail a reality. California set the pace last week with plans to mail a November ballot to every registered voter.
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As Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights leaders have said, nobody's free until everybody's free. It’s easy to see how a similar logic applies to being free of this pandemic. We can’t quarantine it within pockets of poverty. Communicable disease will always spread unless it is eradicated. As long as anyone has it, we’re all in danger of getting it. In order for any of us to truly be free of COVID-19 and future pandemics, we have to make sure that all of us are free from it.
Donna Brazile, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is a Fox News contributor, an at-large automatic delegate to the 2020 Democratic convention, former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee and author of "Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House." Follow her on Twitter: @donnabrazile