From alarming death rates for Black, Latinx and Indigenous people to the fact that women of color make up an astonishing percentage of the essential workers putting their health on the line, the coronavirus pandemic is hitting communities of color hard. We are all facing this virus together, but we are not all at equal risk.
The coronavirus pandemic is exposing a long-standing truth: people of color face deadly health disparities in the U.S. Enduring structural factors such as long term pollution exposure, living in communities with less hospital beds, the inability to afford health coverage, high rates of chronic illnesses and high maternal mortality rates have contributed to worse health outcomes for people of color in nearly every measurable way.
Communities of color, especially Black and Latinx people, are dying at staggering rates in this pandemic. In Michigan for instance, Black people are 14 percent of the population but 31 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 40 percent of the deaths in the state. As of late April in Chicago, Black people make up 30 percent of the population but account for over 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths - 70 percent! In New York city, latinx have a death rate of 22.8 per 1000, higher than any other group.
A recent survey found half of all Latinx people reported losing a job or income related to COVID-19, compared to 33 percent of all people surveyed. Native American and Alaska Native populations face a number of risks: unsafe water at home; higher rates of diabetes and hypertension than any other racial group in America; and an underfunded healthcare system. Adding insult to injury, tribal communities still haven't received the $8 billion they were allocated in the CARES Act. People of Asian descent are subject to racist attacks on top of concerns about the virus, as the President continues to label COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and exacerbate anti-Asian hatred.
The All Means All campaign has found 59 percent of America’s uninsured are people of color. Taking a closer look at some of the states where disproportionate levels of people of color account for higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths, we see that 37 percent of Michigan’s uninsured are minorities, but people of color make up only a quarter of the general population. In Louisiana, more than half of the uninsured population -- 55 percent -- are people of color. Of the uninsured in Louisiana, 78 percent are from working families. The approximately 10.5 million undocumented people in the U.S. are less likely to have any health coverage and are often hesitant to seek medical attention for fear of deportation. When people are left out of any relief packages and cannot seek treatment when needed, we are all at risk.
Despite the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, there has been a decline in access to healthcare for people of color, especially for nonelderly Black and Latinx communities. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that for these communities, post-ACA coverage, access, and use of care are worse compared to white Americans. Nonelderly immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are significantly more likely to be uninsured than citizens. Because of these barriers, and economic and social circumstances, minority groups are already more likely to have the underlying chronic health conditions that leave people vulnerable to COVID-19.
Despite the clear impact on communities of color, much of our government’s response has left our communities behind and explicitly excluded immigrants from much of the CARES Act relief package. Black and Latinx small businesses got shut out of small business loans. Community health centers, which often serve communities of color, didn’t get the funding they need to serve their patients. Essential workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color, haven’t gotten the hazard pay or protections they deserve. The Heroes Act takes steps towards a more inclusive relief package, but the Republican-controlled Senate has so far not agreed to vote on the bill. We can and must do better.
COVID-19 shows us just how much we need Medicare for All, especially for communities of color. Medicare for All would ensure everyone in this country has full health coverage without any copays or deductibles regardless of income, immigration status, or race. Medicare for All would mean that less people would be vulnerable to the virus because of untreated chronic health conditions. Medicare for All would mean everyone can afford a trip to the doctor and seek testing and treatment for a potentially deadly virus. Medicare for All would make it possible for our health system to respond quickly to a deadly pandemic and, in the case of COVID-19, slow its spread. The current healthcare system is built to protect profits, not people, especially not people of color. COVID-19 is exposing the truth: a for-profit healthcare system costs us lives, especially for anyone already dealing with the impact of structural racism.
As we face this pandemic, we can’t just let our broken healthcare system return to “normal.” The old “normal” left millions of our families struggling to survive, let alone thrive. Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal end this discrimination in their new bill -- the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act. This emergency legislation covers immediate no-cost healthcare for all medically necessary health services for everyone, including undocumented immigrants for the duration of the pandemic. This bill must be signed into law to save lives and we must continue the fight to guarantee health coverage for all through Medicare for All. Now is the time to rewrite the rules and unrig our system so that it works for everyone, no matter where we were born, how we look, or how much money we make.
Alan Barber is the policy director at the Progressive Caucus Action Fund where he leads the policy team and the organization’s Policy and Research Council, a coalition of think tanks, advocates and experts strengthening the progressive movement.
Hebah Kassem, MPH is the organizing associate at the Progressive Caucus Action Fund where she leads the organization's advocacy efforts on Medicare for All. She has served as an organizer and advocate for communities of color to achieve racial and health equity.
Sanjeev K. Sriram, MD, MPH is a Senior Advisor for Social Security Works. He leads the All Means All campaign to make racial equity a cornerstone of Medicare For All. Dr. Sriram is also “Dr. America,” a Health Justice Correspondent for We Act Radio. He currently practices general pediatrics in southeast Washington, D.C.