Commentary | The pandemic exposed how the U.S. failed the working class

McDonald's essential worker

Restaurant employees — often low-wage earners with no employer-provided health insurance — were deemed "essential workers" during the pandemic. (Paul Sableman/Creative Commons)

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Throughout this pandemic we’ve seen a vast amount of people be affected in different ways. But COVID-19 has especially exposed the discrepancies facing people from marginalized groups. 

Minimum wage and frontline workers have been losing their jobs and continue to live paycheck to paycheck during this pandemic. Since March, over 30 million Americans — or 18.6% of the workforce — have filed for unemployment. The highest it has been since 2009

The rich have been the only ones to escape the economic unpredictability of the outbreak — and have actually capitalized on the socioeconomically disadvantaged. 

According to an article published by Business Insider, between the mid-March and mid-April, billionaire wealth in the U.S. increased $282 billion, or 9.5%. In the same period, over 22 million Americans filed for unemployment. This further exposes the wealth gap and wealth discrepancies within our nation. 

“No one has benefited as much as Jeff Bezos, whose wealth surge is unprecedented in the history of modern markets,” the Business Insider article states. “Bezos’ wealth has increased over $25 billion since January 1, 2020 and 12 billion since February 21, 2020, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic” (in the United States). 

It is not new information that impoverished, marginalized groups are being affected by this pandemic at significantly higher rates compared to those who have a good economic standing. We may be asking ourselves why this happens, but the truth is that many workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak are people from a lower socioeconomic status. 

According to an American Community Survey by the Census Bureau, essential workers make up nearly 70% of the labor force. Of those, 25 million nonelderly adults were working minimum wage paying jobs, making them part of the bottom 20% of earners, as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Unfortunately, people who lose their jobs, often lose their health insurance as well. Those lucky enough to have employer-supplied insurance, and are an “essential worker,” must keep working in hazardous conditions to keep their insurance.

These workers risk their lives daily in order to afford their basic expenses. Taking time off is not a luxury they have because many of them live paycheck to paycheck, and most low-wage jobs must be done in person. 

In addition to this we not only see the impact of coronavirus alone, but we also see the impacts of environmental racism in marginalized communities. Environmental racism is defined as the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement’s response to environmental racism. This results in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.

Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color.

In New York City we see the impacts of environmental racism clearly. According to a study by Harvard Chan School of Public Health, there is a positive correlation between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths. Additionally, this study also discusses the poor ventilation in lower income housing which contributes to bad indoor air quality. Communities of color are disproportionately faced with lack of access to safer environments. This includes transportation, healthy food, and even exposure to pollution in the air and water. Because of this, communities of color are at a higher risk to be exposed to COVID-19. 

According to a Time article about how COVID-19 is affecting New York City’s low-income neighborhoods, “The ZIP codes in the bottom 25% of average incomes represent 36% of all cases of the disease, while the wealthiest 25% account for under 10%.” This further shows how marginalized groups are being attacked by this virus.

However, we don’t only see higher incidence rates within impoverished communities alone, but in minority populated areas as well. African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are being affected by COVID-19 at significantly higher rates compared to non-Hispanic white persons.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to a non-Hispanic white person, non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native persons and non-Hispanic Blacks are approximately 5 times as likely to contract COVID-19, while Hispanic or Latino persons are approximately 4 times as likely. This shows the significantly disproportionate rate at which minorities are being affected by this virus.

CDC COVID-19 hospitalizations chart by race and ethnicity

In Michigan, where 14% of the state is identified as Black, the coronavirus is killing Black individuals at significantly higher rates — around 40% of the state’s 1,076 coronavirus deaths as of April 9 — compared to the average death toll of coronavirus, a Vox report said. 

This type of statistic, however, is not specific to Michigan. We are seeing these repeated patterns nationally. In Chicago, according to CBS News, 70% of COVID deaths have been Black people. And Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, also discussed how the 70% of the COVID deaths in Louisiana were Black people — even though they make up just a third of the population. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health reports the death rate for Black people is higher compared to whites for “heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.” Additionally, underlying medical conditions — which include asthma, heart disease, and other chronic lung disorders — have higher incidence rates among Black people.

Vox reporter Fabiola Cineas explains higher death and incidence rates as “hundreds of years of slavery, racism, and discrimination.” Redlining, policing, and restricting access to public health resources “have compounded to deliver poor health and economic outcomes for black people.” 

In addition to people continuing to work in unsafe conditions, many have to risk their lives prematurely for the sake of the economy and welfare of other people. Our government has made it very clear that the economy is the No. 1 priority during these trying times. 

Florida is the epitome of this phenomenon. As it has continued to a full reopening, cases are now spiking and yet the governor is refusing to recall any sort of freedoms they have enacted — to the detriment of everyone’s health. The state’s health department has confirmed a total of 497,330 cases and 4,402 resident deaths as of Aug. 4. While individuals have to work tirelessly, and simultaneously try to maintain safe conditions, ultimately the government has brushed off efforts of safety in order to redeem the economy. By prematurely opening America, it puts people at significant risk and workers may not have the choice of stay at home. 

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unravel, it will continue to expose discrepancies that do exist within our nation. For now the best thing we can do is acknowledge the issues that do exist and keep ourselves and others informed of what is really happening. 

We must support the environmental justice movement and continue the support for Black and Brown lives to create justice for marginalized communities. Additionally we should continue to do our best to keep workers and civilians safe. This could look like moving to restrict the full opening of America, and continuing stimulus checks for marginalized individuals. We also must continue to take heavier safety precautions and make masks a requirement for everyone to keep ourselves safe. By doing these things, we can promote long-term sustainability in regards to both the coronavirus and the general welfare of our people.  

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