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COVID-19 illustrates stark inequality in the US

Publix cashier.jpg
A Publix supermarket cashier. A 2019 Oxfam report shows that raising the minimum wage to $15/hr would benefit 40 million workers and their families. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Enough. Enough with calling Coronavirus “the great equalizer.” Yes, it’s a virus that can access any human body and wreak havoc. But that’s it. There’s nothing “equal” about the impact it’s having on marginalized populations in the US.

The truth is, if you’re a member of nearly any marginalized population, you are at greater risk of contracting the virus—and of dying from it. As the virus marches across the country and disaggregated statistics come out, we’re seeing a stark illustration of inequality in this country.

In New Orleans, now a hotspot for the virus, Oxfam’s Telley Madina, senior policy advisor in Louisiana, has watched as the virus has ripped through the Black community in his city. So far, he has lost six close friends and mentors—all august Black men.

Sadly, this is not a surprise. He notes, simply, “So many Black people have been locked out of health care for so long. They don’t have insurance, they don’t go to the doctor ... when you’re on the fringes of health care like that, you’re often suffering from diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure.” These chronic health conditions are exactly those listed by the Centers for Disease Control as high risk factors.

Madina says the whole system in Louisiana—one of the poorest states in the country—is struggling to cope with a lack of money, people, and resources. They can barely keep up with the rate of death. “In some ways, it’s like [Hurricane] Katrina,” he notes. “They just brought in more freezers to deal with the bodies. Funeral homes would prefer cremation.”

When the famed musician (and patriarch of the legendary jazz family) Ellis Marsalis died from complications of the virus in March, the funeral was limited to ten people. Madina notes that in normal times, there would have been a massive turnout on the streets to salute Marsalis and his family.

Further, he says there may well be an undercount of the virus’s toll. “We don’t even know if all the people who are dying will be classified as COVID-19. It’s a moving target—people may have fevers or runny eyes or problems breathing; we just don’t know. And they don’t know if it’s safe to do autopsies.”

Poverty compels people to face an impossible choice: “It’s pretty simple for a lot of people. You’re either going to die from the virus, or you’re going to die from necessity—of food or water or shelter.”

Revealing the face of hardship

You want to see the real face of victims of the pandemic? Ride the bus. There you will see the people who are compelled to encounter it, as they go to work or to the store. And what you will see? Faces of color, mostly—and also faces of poverty, of age, of illness.

The cold reality is that the virus is having a greatly unequal impact on communities. As it hovers over a place, it lands where the weakest spots are—ripping into those that have marked social vulnerability factors, burrowing deep in pockets that are less resilient. And those weaknesses are dreadfully predictable.

Poverty. Race. Gender. Immigration status. Frontline, low-wage occupations. Poor housing stock. Underlying health conditions. Special needs. Extreme geographies (rural and urban).

More than ever, our history has led us to a moment where social vulnerability factors are all cascading together, creating enormous risk factors for people who fall into more than one category. Simply put, it’s decimating marginalized populations.

African Americans are dying in vastly disproportionate numbers. In Louisiana, 32% of the population is Black, but they make up 70% of the people who have died from coronavirus. In Mississippi, where 38% of the population is Black, they account for 72% of the deaths. In Michigan, it’s 13.6% versus more than 40% of the deaths. In New York City, Black and Latinx people are twice as likely to die of the virus as white people.

But race alone is not a risk factor. What makes these populations vulnerable is a long history of poverty, substandard healthcare, chronic health conditions, poor nutrition, substandard housing, pollution—in short, of marginalization in a country that is flush with wealth and resources for many others.

In some of the most distressed areas of the country, we’re hearing directly from people who are bearing the full force of the pandemic.


The Deep South has more Blacks than other parts of the country—along with more poverty (especially deep poverty). It also has many people working for poverty wages, with scant benefits such as health care and paid time off. All of which makes them vulnerable to illness and, now, hunger.

Ms. Diane, who worked as a server for 43 years until March of this year, says, “We are devastated. Many of us are always one paycheck away from being evicted, being in the street, not having food.”

Joi Owens, Oxfam senior policy advisor in Mississippi, notes that Blacks in poor rural areas of the Delta are especially ill-prepared to deal with a pandemic. “While we’re an extremely poor state, there are degrees of poverty. Lots of people in the Delta don’t have phones or Internet, or cars. And there’s no public transportation, so they walk into town, to the one store, for their food.”

If someone needs emergency care, it would take hours for an ambulance to make the trip from Jackson and back. Mississippi, which has one of the highest uninsured rates in the country, is also one of 14 states that chose not to expand Medicaid, forgoing about $1 billion from the federal government each year since 2012 when the Affordable Care Act offered states the opportunity to expand care.

North Carolina

Just as immigrants came to work in agricultural fields, they came to work in poultry processing plants. As essential food workers, they’re now compelled to show up, no matter the risk. These workers come from Central America, but also from Nepal, China, Laos, and the Marshall Islands.

The Western North Carolina Workers’ Center has been hearing from many of the workers at the local poultry plants that the companies are responding to the virus in the way that it increases demand. They’re speeding up the line, not following health and safety regulations, not providing enough masks and gloves.

“Workers are frustrated, scared, and their hands are tied. We can’t tell workers you don’t have to go; they have no option but to report to work,” says Magaly Urdiales, of the workers’ center.

Increasingly, we’re hearing word of poultry workers who have contracted, and died from, the virus.

How do we put it back together?

Finally—and we need to be shouting this from the rooftops now and in the months to come—the virus has the potential to be the Great Unequalizer. It has made a fundamental break in our systems, and as we go to put the pieces back together, we can build a stronger and more equitable system—or we can let power and wealth shift even further.

We have two paths before us: We can pursue swift, aggressive public policymaking that puts people before corporations; health (individual and societal) ahead of profits; and equity ahead of a power grab.

The path we choose will not only define our degrees of inequality, it will determine the health of our social and political body. The weaker we are, the more likely to be devastated by any shock. The healthier we are, the better our chances of resisting, recuperating, and bouncing back stronger.

How do we proceed?

Oxfam’s two-pronged approach is about poverty and about power. One is to fund programs on the ground that offer direct, immediate relief to people in need. The other is to examine the power structure and find the pressure points where we can push for big, sweeping actions that will change the balance of power and raise up the voices of the most marginalized.

Emergency Grants

We’ve provided emergency grants to organizations in Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, California, Massachusetts, and Illinois. These organizations work with a variety of populations, especially people of color, and immigrants and refugees.

They’re providing direct cash assistance, education and training, and material things like Chromebooks for students.

In Puerto Rico, we’ve issued a number of emergency grants, which cover reproductive health, advocacy and awareness around gender-based violence, legal services, and a mutual aid network.


In March, we focused on congressional advocacy and worked to ensure the coronavirus aid packages went to the right people and places. Now that Congress is in recess, we’ve been focusing on state legislatures and private companies.

We just launched a petition to pressure big grocery chains to:

  • Provide paid sick leave and hazard pay for all their workers.
  • Ensure social distancing in stores, and that all workers have proper protective equipment and training in order to stay safe.
  • Talk to their workers to develop the best solutions.

This is so vital right now, with the recent news of infections and deaths in some stores. Please join us in amplifying this message—show your support, and share on social media.

Protect grocery store workers.

Sign the petition

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