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An Equal Opportunity Virus in an Unequal Society

UMD Expert Seeks Solutions to Heightened Coronavirus Toll on African Americans

By Liam Farrell

Worker wearing mask and face shield moves cart

Photo by AP Photo/Gerry Broome

A Whole Foods Market worker moves grocery carts this month in Durham, N.C. Associate Professor Rashawn Ray notes that African Americans make up almost 20% of front-line personnel such as food service workers, janitors and cashiers, and that hazard pay and sick leave could help these employees.

The novel coronavirus may not discriminate based on skin color, but who is most at risk to catch the deadly disease—and whether they live or die—is very much influenced by racial inequality, according to a UMD expert.

Infection and death rate data that was released earlier this month revealed alarming racial disparities, particularly among African Americans in places like New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee and a cluster of counties in southwest Georgia. As of yesterday, the 31% of Marylanders who are black accounted for 37% of the state’s infections and 41% of the state’s confirmed deaths.

Rashawn Ray, a UMD associate professor of sociology and David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said the pandemic is laying bare the everyday gaps that black Americans face in quality of life, from a lack of healthy food options to limited health care—meaning they often aren’t making bad choices, they are making the only choices available to them.

“The ‘why’ is not black people’s behavior,” Ray said. “The ‘why’ is an inequitable society.”

Ray believes this crisis ultimately exposes needed fixes, such as universal health care, and he spoke about other structural causes and possible solutions to Maryland Today.

Cause: Underserved neighborhoods
Coronavirus is deadlier for people with underlying health conditions such as chronic lung diseases and asthma, obesity and diabetes, and the neighborhoods where African Americans disproportionately live—with fewer amenities and higher levels of toxins like lead—make those conditions more likely, Ray said.

It’s a long-term legacy of 20th century “redlining,” which confined African Americans into dense, poor districts and denied them home loans and mortgages available to white people.

“That means fewer hospitals, fewer urgent clinics, fewer pharmacies,” he said. “Fewer grocery stores, more fast food restaurants.”

Solution: “Equitable” testing
The coronavirus can’t be fought with a “colorblind approach to a health care system that’s not colorblind,” Ray said. So as states and public health agencies ramp up testing, they need to have a strategy specific to minority communities, particularly as many African Americans are skeptical of doctors, spurred by incidents ranging from the legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis study to the persistent black maternal mortality rate.

“There’s a collective memory of distrust,” Ray said.

Black churches should be testing sites, he said, pointing to research that shows churchgoers are generally more trusting of the medical community.

Cause: Prevalence of “essential jobs”
While African Americans comprise about 13% of the U.S. population, Ray said they make up almost 30% of bus drivers and 20% of front-line personnel such as food service workers, janitors and cashiers. None of them can self-isolate and work from home.

“Social distancing is a privilege,” Ray said.

With fewer trains and buses running now, rush hour commutes can still be packed and thus, more dangerous. Ray said he knows some black men who—to prevent virus transmission while avoiding racial profiling—are trying to procure bright pink or smiley masks.

“They are worried about wearing masks in public,” he said. “And they should be.”

Solution: Hazard pay and sick leave
Since grocery store clerks and janitors are putting their lives on the line to keep shelves stocked and stores clean, all essential workers should be paid as such, Ray said. Hazard pay is one option, further compensating them for doing work with new physical dangers.

And since most of those jobs don’t allow workers to miss shifts and get paid, sick leave is a necessity as well. Without it, Ray said, people who are falling ill won’t be able to stay home without losing their livelihoods.

“People are transferring the virus,” he said, “because they can’t afford not to.”

For more on this topic, visit Ray’s articles at the Brookings Institution on why blacks are dying at higher rates and how the racial gap can be reduced.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.