The coronavirus reveals discrimination’s lasting legacy

Dear Changemakers,

I have never seen more compelling evidence that our nation’s history of discrimination is baked into the very fabric of society than the horrendous news that COVID-19 appears to discriminate. Early statistics from cities such as Chicago, states like Michigan, and elsewhere in the country reveal that the rate of illness and death are disproportionately greater for black residents than for any others.

I am appalled, yes, but I guess I am not surprised. Many who have died had underlying health conditions—and it is no accident that those diseases correlate closely with race, income, and access to quality health care.

I expect the economic impact of the crisis will follow a similar pattern. Many black Americans will lose jobs, shutter small businesses, face eviction, and lose their homes, disproportionate to their numbers. Many immigrants, people of color, low-income families and children, and people experiencing deep poverty will suffer more lasting effects than the population as a whole. That is the lesson of the Great Recession and, without intention, it will be the legacy of the COVID-19 recession too. It is our responsibility to remedy the consequences of historic discrimination, or else its effects will continue repeating.

How can we avoid repeating the past?

First, we must disaggregate the data on the health, social, and economic impacts of the disease and—as importantly—about our response. We have to put in place dashboards that measure who gets the immediate aid offered, how much, and the speed at which it is received. Given the complexity of the delivery systems used to provide assistance, it is urgent to plan from the start to measure whom we reach and whom we don’t and how well the response works.

Second, we need to focus not just on recovery, but on inclusive recovery. Urban research has found that when places adopt a shared vision of an inclusive recovery and frame inclusion as integral to long-term growth, their local economies grew together (PDF) and became less segregated and segmented. The solutions for our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly need to be bolder than ever before. Some of my colleagues have, for instance, proposed a jobs program to train and retrain people for new and better jobs after the pandemic, including workers in industries hit hardest by the crisis.

We also must think beyond recovery to resilience by redesigning our social compact to ensure everyone in our society has some buffers against destructive change. If ever there was a lesson in how our fates are entangled with one another, it is watching those deemed essential stock our groceries and deliver medicine to our homes while we remain safely inside. As they continue working despite the health risk, others do not have the chance to earn any paycheck. Among those whose livelihoods are most precarious are independent contractors—especially those in low-wage jobs in home care, construction, nail salons, cleaning, and landscaping—who also have the least access to social insurance and health benefits, fewer workplace protections, and little chance at upward mobility.

Now is the time for change agents to start thinking about the kind of postpandemic world we want to build so that all families can be resilient in the face of unexpected shocks, gaining and retaining a foothold on the path to a better life. Because sadly, regional and global crises—be they climate, health, cyber, or others yet unknown—may prove to be more frequent ahead, not less.

Warmly,
Sarah