The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequities built into the very systems that are meant to serve families facing financial insecurity. As a result, BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are disproportionately feeling the devastating impacts of this pandemic and resulting economic recession.
Essential or frontline workers, such as those working in grocery and food services, child care, and health services, are putting their lives on the line so that we can collectively stay safe and continue to enjoy access goods and services during these times. Existing policies that have limited economic mobility, such as unequal access to educational and job opportunities, result in more women and black, indigenous, and people of color employed in frontline work. Frontline workers have always been and continue to be critical to our communities – we simply see it more clearly now. And today they face greater risks of exposure to COVID-19, while they help others stay in their homes and stay safe.
To make things worse, BIPOC communities also have less access to health care services, and subsequently, experience higher rates of underlying health issues that can pose greater risks of illness from coronavirus. As just one example, African Americans comprise less than one third of the population in Louisiana, but represent nearly three-quarters of those dying from COVID-19 in the state. Inadequate investments in the core building blocks that ensure economic stability, such as safe and stable housing, public transportation, and quality education, have a lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of communities. The systematic underinvestment in low-income communities have resulted in families less likely to receive preventative health services and lower-quality care overall.
Access to health services for American Indians is inextricably linked to the federal government’s unique trust obligations and its failures to meet those obligations. Through over 400 treaties negotiated between the U.S. government and tribal nations, tribes ceded control of millions of acres of their homelands in the U.S., in exchange for compensation, which often included medical services. And yet, severe and chronic underfunding of Indian Health Service and tribal health departments has resulted in limited medical services for indigenous people. Thirty-five percent of American Indians in Montana lack access to a primary health care provider, compared to 26 percent of whites. This lack of access to health services coupled with generations of historical trauma has resulted in higher rates of asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. Many tribal nations in the U.S. are seeing greater spread of COVID with fewer resources to address it.
Historic racism and present-day discrimination have also resulted in policies that don’t reach BIPOC communities in a meaningful way. Workers making lower wages are less likely to have access to paid sick days or paid family leave or employer-provided health care. Traditional small business lending programs are often geared toward white-owned businesses with access to collateral and needed resources. The pervasive legacy of racist policies, such as redlining, and current day discriminations through housing, education, and employment have prevented many BIPOC families from moving up the income scale, but even more starkly, from building wealth. Today, the average wealth held by a white individual who has dropped out of high school exceeds that of a Black or Latino college graduate. Black, indigenous, and families of color living on low incomes are more likely to lack even a few hundred dollars in savings to call upon in times of crisis.
As we rebuild our economy, this is an opportunity to create structures to no longer harm, but instead support, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. BIPOC communities best know how to begin to right these injustices and must be represented as we collectively work to fix system deficiencies that have been made more apparent during this pandemic. We must look at policies that will address the historical injustices and ensure that all communities have the freedom to thrive.