COVID-19 has laid bare how systemic racism impacts health.
As the U.S. economy slowly opens back up, this is the reality some workers face in the age of COVID-19, and the risk isn’t evenly spread across racial groups. Black and Hispanic/Latino Americans are three times more likely to get infected by the coronavirus than their white neighbors. In part, this is because persons of color are disproportionately represented in low-wage positions that put them face-to-face with the public. Other factors include underlying health conditions, poverty, a lack of hospital beds and poor housing conditions.
Ruqaiijah Yearby, a law professor at St. Louis University, says coronavirus has exposed the inequalities in our system. “A majority of people deemed essential workers who have to continue to work even when there’s stay-at-home orders are low-wage workers, often minorities,” she says. “At this point, if they’re risking their lives, it should be clear that they deserve more. They deserve a living wage. They deserve health insurance.”
When Blacks are 23% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., but make up only roughly 13% of the population, we should look at where the health disparities stem from, and how they affect employment.
Health disparities hinder the job search
It’s harder to hold down a job when you have a chronic illness. In the U.S., poor health is associated with an increased risk of job loss or unemployment. Job loss itself can be a cause of worsening health, which makes it even harder for workers to get back on track.
Black Americans are 30% more likely to have underlying health conditions that exacerbate the virus. Black adults have a higher prevalence of obesity than white adults, as well as higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. They also have lower rates of insurance coverage, which leads to a greater likelihood of dying of serious illness.
Geography plays a role in deepening this disparity. Black and Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets and more small grocery stores than their white counterparts, where junk food options are more prominent. More than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities in the U.S. are people of color, and children of color who live in urban areas are at the highest risk for lead poisoning caused by lead-based paint.
Due to segregation and systemic racism, Black people in the U.S. are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and Hispanics/Latinos have about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Latino/Hispanic whites. Water contamination has largely affected children of color who live in rural areas, indigenous communities and migrant farmworker communities.
Ultimately, if the damage caused by racist policies isn’t actively undone, inequality could become even worse as climate change and other challenges depress the quality of life for people of color around the world. Living under the strain of a structural racism environment has also been found to directly, physically affect minorities' rates of hypertension, anxiety disorders and heart issues.
As one op-ed put it, “Where we live determines opportunities to access high-quality education, employment, housing, fresh foods or outdoor space — all contributors to our health. Communities that understand these challenges are moving the country to a better place. By accepting hard truths and offering solutions to seemingly intractable problems, we can rectify this injustice and give millions of minority Americans a real chance at a better life.”
Coronavirus exposed the depth of disparity
Black Americans are almost twice as likely to live in counties at highest risk of health and economic disruption due to COVID. Further, people of color are more likely to be forced to come into work while others stay home, and they’re more likely to get laid off when businesses are struggling.
Economic insecurity is the norm for many Black Americans. In August 2019, when unemployment reached a low point, the Black joblessness rate was two percentage points higher than that of white Americans. When COVID hit, Blacks disproportionately suffered the consequences. Virtually overnight the best Black job market in recent history was hobbled.
If history is any indication, the road to recovery will be longer for Black employment. Indicators already point to the trouble that lies ahead. By July 2020, when the white unemployment rate had fallen to 9.4%, and the Hispanic/Latino unemployment rate to 12.9%, the Black unemployment rate continued to stall at 14.6%. Meanwhile, more than 40% of Black business owners reported they weren’t working in April; only 17% of white small business owners said the same.
Double-digit unemployment isn't new for Black Americans. From September 1974 to November 1994, the black unemployment rate topped 10% and did so again from July 2008 to February 2015.
“To me what [COVID] reveals is that we need to make some changes,” Yearby says. “It has to be a recognition by our public health leaders that it's not just about masks and social distancing and staying at home when the reality is not going to allow for that if people have to keep working.
“Our public health as well as the officials dealing with COVID need to understand the structural inequalities that result in exposure, infection and death.”
If you’re unemployed and/or seeking to change industries, there are steps you can take to land a safer, more fulfilling and more financially rewarding job. You should:
- Update your resume. As you begin your job search, update your resume with your last position, including your chief tasks and accomplishments. Consider refreshing the formatting and removing old or irrelevant positions to prepare you for the job hunt to come.
- Network. Many jobs are not found through formal means, but instead through personal contacts who just might help you get your foot in the door at their organization. Make a list of everyone who might be able to help, including distant acquaintances. You never know where your next job will come from.
- Always be applying. The truth is, the sheer magnitude of your efforts makes a difference. You might get one interview for every 10 to 20 applications you submit. Doubling the pace — and casting a wider net — will help increase your chances of landing a job.