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why has COVID disproportionately affected people of colour?

Photo by Kayla Speid on Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic coincided with several revelations about racial injustice around the world. It’s become clear: systemic racism is still thriving. With vaccinations now underway, people are finally reflecting on the hardships people of colour (POC) faced in health and finance during this tumultuous year.

Staying at home wasn’t an option

While much of the world went remote in early 2020, many POC never had the luxury to work from home. Nearly one in four Hispanic and Black or African Americans in the U.S. workforce work in the service industry. In Australia, areas with more diverse ethnic populations are more likely to be labourers and traders — rather than managers and professionals — and face higher rates of housing stress.

The higher concentration of POC in essential and low-paying roles meant that avoiding exposure was often not an excuse to stay home. Following sanitary practices — which required monetary investment — was the best alternative.

Unfortunately, without the ability to avoid close interactions altogether, POC remained at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Additionally, taking time off work due to the disease, especially for COVID long-haulers, was often financially detrimental — a lose-lose situation.

More stress for POC mums

For others, financial stress was multiplied due to job loss, especially for women. Women around the world lost their jobs faster than men. But even when mums of young children remained employed, their average work time reduced by 2.6 hours per day, while fathers’ work hours stayed the same.

The burden of caretaking has long fallen on mothers. It’s a cultural norm in much of the world. For the many POC mums — especially the disproportionately high number of single mums in Black or African American communities — the stress of caring for kids and financially providing was a tremendous weight throughout the pandemic.

Limited access to healthcare

Financial instability among POC communities, unfortunately, goes beyond this past year. Instead, POC communities have had a long history of financial instability, which has also led to a lack of healthcare and generations of health risks.

Nearly 16% of Indigenous Australians — double the amount of non-Indigenous Australians — had at least three chronic conditions that put them at greater risk for COVID fatalities and hospitalisation. The majority of indigenous adults are also obese (a major COVID co-morbidity), pushing weight worries well beyond the cosmetic.

Many indigenous populations also lacked access to basic healthcare due to location and language barriers. In the United States, where health insurance is critical for reducing soaring healthcare costs, 22% of Native American and 19% of Hispanic populations are uninsured, compared to just 8% of White populations.

This lack of healthcare didn’t just put POC lives at stake during the pandemic. It also pushed these historically underrepresented groups back into a cycle of poverty, especially when professional care was a must.

Two stories of segregation

On top of excessive financial stress and lack of healthcare, decades of discriminatory city planning and policies also had a significant role in creating harsh effects for POC during the COVID-19 pandemic. The story of segregation played out differently in the United States and Australia, but its effects were ultimately the same.

In the U.S., POC communities have historically been pushed to small, densely populated areas — those in which social distancing isn’t always possible even in the modern day.

Before racist zoning policies were outlawed in 1917, Minneapolis alone had already planned expensive single-family housing on 70% of residential land. To reinforce racial segregation, even without zoning, lenders refused to work with many POC. Diverse populations settled in on significantly more packed residential areas that were prone to the spread of disease.

As it stands today, lack of investment in improved urban planning keeps POC susceptible to future outbreaks. With more investment in spatial urban planning and safer public transportation, cities can curb disease spread, instead of letting it attack susceptible communities.

In Australia, POC groups were pushed to the fringes of cities, rather than into the middle of them. Indigenous Australians were pushed away from urban areas by colonists and kept inside zones in the 1900s. In the same century, Indochinese refugees formed clusters due to discriminatory policies.

This discrimination is a big contributor to the lack of healthcare access, healthcare education, and financial opportunities that many members of these communities face.

Systemic racism in urban planning may have moved Australian and American POC in different directions, but it still contributed to modern health crises regardless.

Combating inequities in the future

The disproportional effects of COVID on people of colour are just a glimpse into the long-standing history of segregation and discriminatory laws in the U.S. and Australia. Systemic racism has created seemingly endless cycles of poverty and poor health for many POC communities.

Putting a stop to this cycle requires POC and non-POC to join forces and advocate for equitable policies. With more equitable treatment, POC communities can rise — even if faced with health and financial crises like COVID-19 and its recession in the future.

Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer passionate about workplace equity, and whose published works cover sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more. You can see more of her work by visiting her portfolio.

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