Bending the Moral Arc

This national crisis magnifies the inequities in our society.
by Johnnie Grant –

When All Indicators Point to Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Cases.

As the COVID-19 epidemic continues to ravage the American public, an unsurprising story emerges: The death rates are staggeringly high among African American communities. This national crisis magnifies the disparities and inequities in our society.

While anyone can be infected by the COVID 19 virus, the effects of the ongoing pandemic—including the responses from our government and our health care system—do not impact everyone equally.

For African Americans and other minority populations, social determinants of health (conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age), encompass a longstanding mix of variables associated with an overall disenfranchisement. These conditions sometimes determine your outcomes for life.

Limited or No Wealth

The virus doesn’t discriminate—but our country’s policies do.

Wealth has always been unequally distributed in America. While the virus infects people regardless of wealth, African Americans are disproportionally affected due to historic, and continuing, policies of segregation by income.

Wealth gaps are not solely individual choices, but instead are evidence of collective harms compounded over time. When emergencies occur, an individual’s wealth can provide a level of security. Wealth, especially liquid assets, allows people to respond immediately to unexpected expenses that may result from the unforeseen, whether a job loss, a car breakdown, or, as now, a pandemic. The legacy of discriminatory housing policies, coupled with generations of wealth disenfranchisement, can be measured in physical health.

African American Coronavirus Stats
African American share of state/city populations
and COVID-19 deaths as of April 6, 2020.
Sources: 2010 Census; respective state/city health departments.

Poor Health

When America catches a cold … black folk catch Pneumonia!

This saying holds true. African Americans are more likely to suffer in conditions that leave them vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19. Persistent barriers to healthcare coverage prevent people from accessing the medical care they need, including the treatment they need when exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Being medically uninsured or underinsured is yet another deterrent and stressor that studies have shown greatly impacts one’s ability to fight off illnesses. Living in poverty contributes to poor health.

How must we act to mitigate the devastating effects of the COVID 19 virus?

What follows is a short list of how resources can, and should, be invested to promote overall resiliency in our communities and protect populations that are most vulnerable.

Ensure access to affordable or no-cost medical care. Ensure fully paid sick leave, family leave, and medical leave for all workers.

As we move forward from this crisis, there must be a renewed commitment to broadly provide health care coverage to the underserved and uninsured; to improve access to housing; and to eliminate food deserts.

North Carolina (and the 14 other states that have refused for partisan reasons) should expand Medicaid immediately. Any resident needing care should not have to face the financial stress or stigma that might deter them from seeking essential help—deterrence that itself puts them and others at risk.

While Congress has taken the first steps toward providing targeted protections for working people, it’s important to extend protections to ensure that workers across the country have access to paid sick days, family, and medical leave to address their health and caregiving needs. No one should have to work when they or members of their family are sick.

Comprehensive action for student college loan debt. Students are struggling to finish college.

More than 40 million federal student loan borrowers are struggling to make their payments during this pandemic. African American borrowers take on more debt, and are less likely to get the same return on their investment, as their white counterparts. They are also more likely to default on student loans.

Policymakers must ensure their robust packages stop the accumulation of additional interest and provide a moratorium on student loan payments and collections activity. African American college students who received full scholarships (or a full ride) struggle with other students in areas of need: books, room and board, lab materials, meal cards, are normally not included.

Waive all late payments and interest for credit cards, auto loans.

There’s an old saying that if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, the banker’s got you in his grip; but if you owe the bank a million dollars, you’ve got the banker in yours!

Halt credit reporting.

Minority borrowers tend to have more costly debt and carry more debt relative to their assets, and pay higher rates for installment loans such as credit cards and auto loans than their white counterparts—even at the same income levels. Such disparities are partially due to credit steering and deliberate (and illegal) credit-market discrimination.

Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced new legislation to protect credit scores during the coronavirus pandemic. The “Disaster Protection for Workers’ Credit Act” would provide an immediate four-month moratorium on all negative credit reporting and offer longer-term protection for those facing hardships due to the outbreak. The bill would also provide unlimited free credit reports and credit scores for a year after the crisis ends. It would also extend protections past this pandemic and cover those impacted by future disasters.

Times of crisis are prime opportunities to make big structural changes in society.

“All of a sudden,” government policies have been enacted, along with funding for them—funding that’s been sitting on the back burner for years. Our Washington policymakers will need to consider underlying inequalities in responding urgently to the mounting challenges of the COVID 19 pandemic. We must work together to change the rules, thus changing the dynamics.

“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their county.”

Many years ago (and maybe still today), this was a typing exercise that allowed one to access the majority of keys on a typewriter. But here’s what’s really needed:

Now is the time for all good people to come to a seat at the table—especially those who have been denied a seat, refused service, kept out of the room, and shut out of the building for generations. Now is the time to change the paradigm and, as Dr. King reminded us, to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Our very lives depend on it!

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