Nonprofit finds women, people of color hit hardest by pandemic's economic downturn

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, September 28, 2020 - 12:49pm
Updated: Wednesday, November 24, 2021 - 6:21pm

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LAUREN GILGER: The pandemic has widened gaps that have long existed in our communities. Extensive reporting has revealed disparities in who has lost jobs, homes, access to health care and more. The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom, found that women have been hit hardest by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. More than 800,000 women have already lost their public sector jobs, for example, and more will follow. Many of those are women of color. Similarly, people of color have suffered more when infected with the virus. In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged this, stating, quote, "Long-lasting systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19." The factors found to contribute to that heightened risk include outright discrimination and more systemic failures, like a lack of access to health care or reliable housing. These are not new problems, but the pandemic now threatens to deepen these divides. Donna Patterson is the chair of the Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy at Delaware State University. She's been studying COVID-19 in the context of race. And I spoke with her about the lasting impact the virus will have on already marginalized groups.

Donna Patterson
Donna Patterson
Donna Patterson

DONNA PATTERSON: Race is factored in in a number of ways. I'll give New York as an example. If you look at the race and the really high numbers of infection, a lot of people were infected. But in terms of those who actually went to the hospital and those who died, we started to see these patterns of people of color dying at a higher rate — particularly people who were Black and Hispanic in New York. And a lot of this pattern we saw then spread across the country as the pandemic spread more widely throughout the nation.

GILGER: And this has to do with inequities and sort of access to health care, what we call the social determinants of health, right? That have existed in this country for a very long time.

PATTERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. It goes back to that. But also, both the access and sometimes certain communities are more likely to have comorbidities, which also contributes to death rates with COVID-19. And in that, one of the things that we find is, for instance, the mortality rate, kind of the biggest gap that we see is between white people and Black people. You can have someone, let's say, a highly educated Black person, someone who's a medical doctor and their neighbor, who's also a medical doctor who is white. So they've had the same sort of education, they have similar income, they live in the same neighborhood. The doctor who is Black is going to die much earlier, on average, not even being in a pandemic than the white doctor. And so that varies to some degree, but let's say about 10 years. A lot of studies say that it comes from stress, just kind of the stress of race and how that manifests in bodies.

GILGER: That's really interesting. So that, that brings me to another point, which is at the same time we've been experiencing this pandemic, we've seen racial tensions really rise in the country as more people of color continue to be killed by police and the protests that follow. How has that simultaneous response to police violence played a role, you think? Like as you say, there is this sort of underlying stress of being a person of color?

PATTERSON: That's a great question. I believe it has absolutely played a role. Definitely thinking about the protests, both in terms of the stress of people feeling like they're under assault, like, "It could be me, it could be my child, it could be my brother, it could be my sister." And I think we've seen this heightened racial tension, particularly since George Floyd died. But I think too, it's an election year, people are heightened in a lot of other ways. And so this could be a contributing factor for sure, because the stress is even more than it might have been during normal times. Both there's the pandemic, but also there's this added tension with race.

GILGER: Yeah. And then there's the other side of the coin here, which is the, the economic impacts of this pandemic. And that has also been more severely felt by people of color and by women.

PATTERSON: Absolutely. Definitely in terms of women, particularly women who are in service industries and this sort of thing. But child care, either a woman who may provide supporting roles and work, but also professional roles, childcare is a big issue because a lot of people are now working remote. Or there have been these periodic shutdowns throughout the country. And so even in that shutdown, it's partial. There are still people who have to go to work in person. So now what do you do with your child? So now sometimes women have to choose. You know, if they can't work remotely, then they may have to stay home with their children if no one else is available. And how that's impacting the household, it's also impacting both women and other people of color, particularly single mothers, particularly in the service industries, you know, because restaurants and hotels and a lot of these places are taking a hit. And if you look at a lot of these around the country, women hold a lot of positions in these, these sorts of spaces.

GILGER: So let's talk more about this. Like all of this considered what kinds of long-term impacts economically and in a health care setting do you anticipate on communities of color in particular, like, who have felt this in such a severe way and who are still feeling it?

PATTERSON: Economic impact will definitely continue. If people lost their jobs, they've lost their houses. Rises in homelessness rates or people having to move, maybe a single family having to move with extended family just to be able to get housing. That's definitely going to impact things. And people of color are feeling that very strongly. I think other things to think about, too, are kind of this community impact, the broader community impact. What does this mean in communities that are losing their elders — the grandparents, their parents, people who hold knowledge — both familial knowledge, community knowledge, some of the history, the traditions. If you're looking in particular at indigenous people, the languages. And so what does this mean in terms of health? One of the things that we're seeing from COVID-19 is that people who catch COVID-19, even if they're asymptomatic, they may develop certain health problems. One way that people are seeing this is in how it affects the kidneys and how it affects the heart, for instance, even in younger people. What will that mean long term as they age? You know, will this manifest in a way that it wouldn't have if they hadn't caught COVID? And going into that a little deeper, a lot of people now are having more long-term illness or disability that was caused by them having COVID. And so I think this is something that we're definitely going to see longer term in the years and the decades once the pandemic ends.

GILGER: So let's talk about what can be done then. Like how can families, how can entire communities kind of make up the difference when, as we said, these were already inequities that existed to begin with? Like, what tools do these communities need now to, to move forward and not go backward?

PATTERSON: I think some of that you can do now. A lot of that's a longer term project, frankly. Definitely educating yourself as a community, maybe having a plan. I mean, I don't think everybody wants to think about this, but what is your plan? What is your plan if someone gets sick? What if the main breadwinner gets sick in your family — how are you going to respond to that? Do you have health insurance? If you don't have health insurance, where can you go for treatment if you need to? What hospital maybe has the best outcomes in your community? Are you able to get there if you did get sick? Those sorts of things. Longer term, really investing in communities that may not have the health infrastructure that they need. And we see this. So we see this both in urban areas, but we see this a lot in the rural U.S., which is another area where I think people don't look as much. A lot of rural areas, you don't have major hospitals or you have maybe one or two major hospitals that are shared by a fairly widespread community. So I think the investment — the U.S. investment, the state investment in more health infrastructure, training of more doctors, doctors of color, really investing in that. Also training more nurses and midwives and other hospital support staff, which is less expensive. But also you need more of these people in the hospitals to make them run. So I think those are some things that can happen now. But then the longer term is really investing in health and infrastructure in terms of hospitals and clinics and more staffing.

GILGER: Yeah, alright. That is Donna Patterson. She's the chair of the Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy at Delaware State University and director of Africana Studies there. Donna, thank you so much for joining us on The Show to talk about this.

PATTERSON: Thank you. 

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