Health care and education disparities. Lack of affordable housing. Racism and police abuse. Job loss. These are just a few of the inequity gaps — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — that face low-income communities of color. Professionals who work with them directly say closing those gaps will require a complicated healing process.
“We know COVID is the disease that has revealed our illness as a society: the valleys of inequality that pre-existed COVID have been flooded with the tsunami of the disease,” said Manuel Pastor, University of Southern California Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity and Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society and Social Change, speaking at a May 7 briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services.
Many mixed-status families that included undocumented immigrants were locked out of federal assistance until the March 2021 passage of the American Rescue Act, Pastor said. Now they are “kind of reluctant to tap in, because they’re worried that may count against them if there’s eventually a route to legalization in the future.”
Two-thirds of California’s undocumented immigrants have been in the country for more than a decade and are waiting for Congress to work out their path to citizenship. COVID has affected them like no other population because lack of insurance, mistrust and fear have prevented them from accessing health services.
“Every state relief program should try to think about what it can do to be fully accessible to undocumented Californians,” said Pastor, who also sits on the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Last summer, the California Healthy Places Index indicated that the virus was going to devastate Blacks, Latinos and Asians, but the state did not bring COVID tests to those communities. Without data on positivity rates, counties couldn’t determine how safe it would be to reopen.
California decided to allocate 40% of vaccines to the 25% of communities that scoring worst on this index. Local mobile clinics receive doses, mobilize trusted messengers and run campaigns to encourage vaccination.
Still, the initial vaccine rollout was “a recipe for racial inequality,” added Pastor. Doses were available to anyone of a certain age category or occupation, but the older populations are overwhelmingly white while younger populations belong to communities of color.
“It could be argued that everyone in that age category had an equal shot at getting the vaccine, as long as they had a computer (to make the appointment), high-speed Internet, a job where they could take three hours off in the middle of the day to chase down a vaccine, and access to a car, rather than mass transit,” said Pastor.
Education is another gap area for communities of color. They’ve experienced a tremendous loss in learning and, despite the reopening of schools, are the most reluctant to come back. Black and brown families who suffered from the virus in their homes are afraid to send their children to places where they may be infected, and the digital divide has accentuated students’ difficulties in keeping up with their homework.
In Los Angeles County, 13% of K through 12 white children lacked a computer with high-speed Internet, but for black and Latino children, the figure was around 40%, Pastor said.
He added that the pandemic also has disproportionately affected the incomes of communities of color. While it has not caused a 2008-like recession, which hit the economy evenly, we’re facing a “micro recession.” Stock markets and property are up, so the wallets of people with annual incomes of more than $100,000 are unaffected, but those at the bottom of the labor market have lost income, employment and wages.
Mental health is yet another area of disparity, Pastor said. “The level of mental health trauma is high and we need to have culturally sensitive mental health resources available. We need to destigmatize the issue, make it be seen as something that is social and at the community level, not just your individual failing, so people feel confident accessing those resources.”
The Community Coalition, founded in South Los Angeles by Congresswoman Karen Bass, is one example of fostering post-pandemic healing by having multiracial, multigenerational communities generate the solutions they need.
Leslie Johnson, Vice President of Organizational Development at Community Coalition, told the briefing that it launched a website in English and Spanish that allows residents to check on their emotional health, instituted a teletherapy program with licensed therapists of color, and held healing circles in local parks to address “the devastating impact (of COVID) all around on physical, financial and mental health.”
She added that targeted funding and having elected officials understand these kinds of interventions are essential: “Racism is the true pandemic that we are fighting against.
COVID-19 has exacerbated a lot of pre-existing conditions in our community that are fostered by institutional racism and white supremacy. We must call for solutions that are bold, not just at the individual level but at the systems level.”
Community Coalition has raised funds to buy personal protective equipment, made direct cash payments to families to help cover rent and utilities, provided laptops and hardware to students and installed Internet hotspots. It also offered Pfizer vaccinations in a local park, including nighttime appointments so people wouldn’t have to miss work.
Los Angeles will receive about $1.3 billion from the federal government from the American Rescue Plan. With its share of those resources, The Community Coalition will make loans to women business owners, help people with rent and mortgage payments and utilities, and increase youth employment opportunities.
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