COVID-19: A Harbinger of Death and Great Ethnic Disparity

By Chris Bridges, Equal Justice Society

It’s astounding how much has changed. Just over one month ago, I was in Chicago–the best city in the world (yes I am biased) — for vacation and a long overdue visit with my family. On March 16, 2020, the day after returning from that trip, the Bay Area officially went into lockdown under Governor Newsom’s shelter in place order.[i]

The Bay Area is now lauded for being proactive and prepared ahead of the rest of the country for what many experts deemed an inevitable spread of COVID-19. Even with zero confirmed cases in San Francisco at that time, Mayor London Breed declared a local emergency on February 25 to protect the community’s health.[ii] Both Mayor Breed’s and Governor Newsom’s actions exemplified leadership and commitment to public health amidst the rapidly spreading global pandemic. 

Sadly, the President has exhibited the complete opposite—incompetence and poor judgment—during this crisis. Despite being warned as early as December 2019 (if not earlier) about the very serious threat of the novel coronavirus spreading to and across the United States President Trump did not begin taking the threat seriously until the middle of March.[iii]

Trump actively dismissed the threat during braggadocios press conferences in late January, claiming the US had things “totally under control” and  asserting the virus was “the Democrats’ new hoax.”[iv] Even more deplorable, there is significant evidence that indicates that Trump knew that a pandemic of this scale was possible if not probable and failed to prepare for it.[v]

The first recorded U.S. death from Coronavirus was on February 29, 2020. Now just over six weeks later, there are at least 610,408 confirmed cases nationwide with 29,777 deaths reported.[vi]  Even with swift action taken by lauded officials like Newsom and Breed, the virus has ballooned in California to 25,793 confirmed cases and caused 782.[vii]

How incredibly sad it is that countless individuals are waking up today with a beloved family member dead from COVID-19. Many are forced to die alone in quarantine for fear of spreading the virus to others. How infuriating it must be for those impacted to know that their loved one’s death may have been prevented if the President had taken COVID-19 seriously and acted with the necessary urgency instead of dismissing the threat as a “hoax” and broadcasting confusing and inconsistent messages about the pandemic.

While Trump’s mishandling of this world health crisis should be self-evident, more must be said and done about the detrimental impact of his actions and inactions on multiple levels for communities of color—Black people in particular.

An article by Sarah Ferris and Heather Caygle highlights evidence the coronavirus is disproportionately sickening Black and Latino populations.[viii] Chicago has reported data showing that 70 percent of the city’s residents killed by the coronavirus are Black even though they make up just around a third of the population.[ix]

In Louisiana, Black people comprise 32 percent of the population but a count for 70 percent of the deaths. Data coming in from other states mimics these trends. Ferris and Caygle cite high numbers of uninsured residents, lack of access or close proximity to hospitals, and the prevalence of underlying health conditions in Black and Latino communities as factors contributing to these great disparities.  Ferris and Caygle also noted that the impact of this virus does not just pose grave racial disparities but also economic disparities as well.[x]

Chandra Whitfield’s research, which delves more deeply into this intersection of racial and economic disparity as a result of the novel coronavirus, elucidate the old saying, “If White America catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.”

Whitfield extends the Ferris and Caygle analyses by highlighting the overrepresentation of Black workers in “essential” jobs.[xi]  Citing low pay, pregnancy discrimination, childcare needs, and longstanding inequality and discrimination going back to the country’s origin, Whitfield warns that “while all Americans will suffer hardship from the coronavirus, Black Americans—particularly Black women—will likely face a swift and sure economic death from the pandemic, too.”[xii]  

According to a new report from the National Partnership for Women & Families, Black women are paid 62 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men– a median wage of $38,036 per year compared to $61,576.[xiii] Further, Black women’s earnings often support an entire household and 80% of Black mothers are their family’s primary breadwinner.[xiv] Black women are overrepresented in service-industry sectors such as restaurants and hospitality which have been decimated by the coronavirus stay-at-home orders.[xv]

While COVID-19 is devastating the communities of Black Americans, author Ibram X Kendi pleads we must also be acutely conscious of how this racial pandemic within a viral pandemic disparately affects undocumented immigrants.[xvi]  These immigrants are Latino, Middle Eastern, Black, Asian, and White people.

Kendi illustrates the convergence of xenophobia and COVID-19 leaving many immigrants with impossible choices- “Quitting low-wage jobs could mean getting deported. Getting tested could mean getting deported. Getting treated could mean getting deported. And if they are arrested, they could be thrown into ICE’s network of jails and detention centers, where the coronavirus is already spreading.”[xvii] 

Equal Justice Society has long worked to expose and combat the disparate treatment of communities of color across this country in its various and often insidious forms. Our fight to pass ACA 5, the California Act for Economic Prosperity, to restore fairness in employment, contracting and education, is a part of that work because we know that businesses owned by women and people of color will be hit harder than others as a result of COVID-19.We know that the more education one has, the brighter one’s chances for success are.  If one does not experience discrimination in the workplace, life is better.

EJS’s continued advocacy for equal rights, fair treatment, and equitable representation in our society necessitates we also raise collective levels of awareness about the disparate treatment of Black and Latino students in k-12 school systems.

As Americans nationwide are being forced to adapt to the new normal of sheltering in place, leaving only for essentials, wearing masks and protective gear, and practicing rigorous sanitizing, we cannot overlook one critical new area of disruption and pain for marginalized communities—forced home schooling.

Black and Latino students have long been the subject of poor educational support while simultaneously remaining on the receiving end of disparate treatment when it comes to suspensions, expulsions, and involuntary transfers. Before COVID-19, many of these students already faced barriers to basic support services and educational access at their school sites due to disproportionate institutionalized poverty, transportation barriers, and lack of basic resources and support critical to develop and nurture a student’s education.

These challenges have intensified exponentially as a result of the pandemic. Entrenched institutional racism means that many students of color lack the adequate technology devices and teaching aides to make on-the-fly homeschooling orders effective.  The federal government has tried to undercut the rights of students with disabilities.[xviii]  The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) has denied Native children their education altogether.[xix] And Asian students must grapple with the added anxiety of  COVID-19-related anti-Asian hate speech and violence.[xx]     

As we figure out how to provide just healthcare and protection and financial aid to working families and individuals across the country, we must comparably work to address these myriad disparities in education for the millions of students who have had learning completely upended by the pandemic   At a minimum, we must:

  • Ensure that District and County of Education school websites have easily identifiable information (in multiple languages) pertaining to distance learning, and related COVID-19 response plans and policies for their students and personnel.
  • Work directly with families to develop distance learning plans for students with IEPs and/or other students with disabilities.
  • Create effective plans of engagement and distance learning for houseless and foster youth who may not have parental supports in place to assist them in their distance learning.
  • Provide alternative learning options and plans for students who may not have access to the tools necessary to complete various distance learning requirements.
  • Ensure all students have equitable access to education regardless of their status.
  • Identify and clearly designated support personnel who students and parents may contact to address any issues that arise with or pose barriers to distance learning.

Witnessing such swift and devastating changes to the world, makes me even more sympathetic to those among us who have little access to adequate safety, shelter, and quality education. As both a member of EJS and a broader coalition of social and racial justice advocates, I stand at the ready to lend any services possible to fight for quality support to and humane treatment of our underserved communities.


[i] See San Francisco Office of the Mayor News Release, available at https://sfmayor.org/article/san-francisco-issues-new-public-health-order-requiring-residents-stay-home-except-essential

[ii] See San Francisco Office of the Mayor News Release, available at https://sfmayor.org/article/city-san-francisco-moves-proactively-prepare-possible-novel-coronavirus-activity-community

[iii] See “Trump, finally, takes the coronavirus emergency seriously”, available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/17/politics/white-house-donald-trump-coronavirus-emergency/index.html

[iv] See “The Trump Administration Fumbled Its Initial Response”, available at https://time.com/5805683/trump-administration-coronavirus/

[v] Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice met with her successor General Michael Flynn on four occasions, handing off over 100 briefing papers to him citing issues she thought most salient to him. Among them, the risk that the US would face another pandemic. She drew from her experience with the Obama Administration and their handling of the swine flu in 2009, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016.  Accordingly, she provided the Trump Administration a 69-page “pandemic for Dummies” playbook to try and warn and prepare their White House successors. Her effort now appears to have been in vain. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/06/susan-rice-trumps-coronavirus-response-he-has-cost-tens-thousands-american-lives/

[vi] See “Tracking new coronavirus cases…”, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/coronavirus-count-state-day-2020-united-states-n1173421

[vii] See “Coronavirus Tracker”, available at https://projects.sfchronicle.com/2020/coronavirus-map/

[viii] See “Democrats urge White House to step up as minority communities hit hard by coronavirus”, available at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/08/coronavirus-race-congress-175790

[ix] See “Democrats urge White House to step up…”, available at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/08/coronavirus-race-congress-175790

[x] See “Democrats urge White House to step up…”, available at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/08/coronavirus-race-congress-175790

[xi] See “Black Women’s Livelihoods Will Be Yet Another Coronavirus Casualty” available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/22460/coronavirus-especially-threatens-black-womens-livelihoods

[xii] See “Black Women’s Livelihoods…”, available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/22460/coronavirus-especially-threatens-black-womens-livelihoods

[xiii] See “Black Women’s Livelihoods…”, available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/22460/coronavirus-especially-threatens-black-womens-livelihoods

[xiv] See “Black Women’s Livelihoods…”, available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/22460/coronavirus-especially-threatens-black-womens-livelihoods

[xv] See “Black Women’s Livelihoods…”, available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/22460/coronavirus-especially-threatens-black-womens-livelihoods

[xvi] See “What the Racial Data Show”, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-exposing-our-racial-divides/609526/

[xvii] See “What the Racial Data Show” available at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-exposing-our-racial-divides/609526/

[xviii] See “DeVos Weighs Waivers for Special Education. Parents Are Worried.” Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/us/politics/special-education-coronavirus.html

[xix] See BIE Study Group: Blueprint for Reform, BIE Progress Report 2015 at 3, available at https://www.bie.edu/cs/groups/xbie/documents/document/idc1-030931.pdf (2015); BIE, Synopsis of the Reprogramming, https://www.bie.edu/BFRI/index.htm (2017).

[xx] See “Anti-Asian Racism has come roaring back with Covid-19”, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/01/cathy-park-hong-minor-feelings