In the midst of a global pandemic, we are being flooded with information about how we should all be social distancing to minimize contact and slow the spread of COVID-19. And while social distancing is effective in flattening the curve, it is a luxury that so many cannot afford.
As more reports come out surrounding race, poverty, and the coronavirus, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are dramatic disparities in those affected by the virus. As the New York Times reports, in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, 81% of deaths from the coronavirus were African Americans, despite only making up 26% of the population in that county. This isn’t unique to Milwaukee. Similar statistics have been reported in major cities, such as Chicago and Detroit, as well. As New York Times journalist Charles M. Blow boldly states, “The idea that this virus is an equal-opportunity killer must itself be killed.”
A March report by the Economic Policy Institute details that “less than one in five black workers and roughly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home.“ This comes from the deep entanglement of race and socioeconomic status. The report also points out “Only 9.2% of workers in the lowest quartile of wage distribution can telework, compared with 61.5% of workers in the highest quartile.“ Many low income workers are in jobs that require face-to-face contact. Grocery store cashiers, construction workers, delivery drivers, servers in restaurants, and more all work in positions that cannot be done from home.
Social distancing is a privilege. People are forced to make the choice between risking illness by going to work, or quitting and risking foreclosure or not being able to care for them and their families.
Other than work, there are many other obstacles low-income people around the nation face in response to social distancing. The ability to buy food in bulk is one that not everyone can manage while also trying to pay the bills. This challenge is even more difficult in food deserts across the nation. As Lauri Andress, West Virginia University School of Public Health, details, “It is particularly hard for low-wealth communities in food deserts in West Virginia to get food on a regular basis. They have to contend with transportation problems and income problems, relying on family and friends to get to sources of nutritious, affordable food.”
In times of crisis, our lowest-income communities are always the ones that are impacted the most. While those who can should be staying at home, we all need to understand that social distancing is not accessible to everyone.. We should not be looking at this situation from an ivory tower.