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COVID-19 Pandemic Disproportionately Affecting Women and People of Color

By: Claire Armstrong

We all know that during the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers are shouldering more than their share of the burden to protect our people and keep our country running. What we often neglect to discuss, however, is that women, immigrants, and minorities make up the majority of workers on the frontlines. According to the New York Times, “one in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential,” and women of color are even more likely to be essential workers. Under the umbrella of “essential workers” are social workers, healthcare workers, critical retail workers, medical supplies distributors, food processing workers, delivery and warehousing workers, and more. A study by the New York Times states that over 75% of social workers and healthcare workers performing essential work are women, and over 50% of critical retail essential workers are women. Overall, the study found that 52% of essential workers are women. AP News reported that “in New York City, more than 76% of healthcare workers are people of color.” And healthcare is not the only essential work sector made up of a majority of people of color. AP News also noted that “More than 60% of warehouse and delivery workers in most cities are people of color,” nearly 60% of grocery store workers in most cities are nonwhite, and 74% of janitors in most cities are people of color. This is only a small sampling of essential work industries in which people of color are taking on the majority of the work.

An article in The Guardian found that female healthcare professionals on the frontlines are in greater danger than male healthcare professionals because personal protective equipment, or PPE, is designed for men, meaning that it is too large for many female healthcare professionals. The article quotes Dr Helen Fidler, the deputy chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) UK consultants committee, as saying, “Women’s lives are absolutely being put at risk because of ill-fitting PPE. We know that properly fitted PPE works, but masks are designed for a male template, with the irony being that 75% of workers in the NHS [United Kingdom National Healthcare Service] are female.” As a result, many female healthcare professionals are forced to interact with the virus on a daily basis without proper PPE. This is likely the reason that, according to the CDC (as reported by Kaiser Health News), 73% of healthcare workers infected with coronavirus are women.

In an article for The Atlantic, Helen Lewis discusses another burden that women are disproportionately shouldering during the pandemic: childcare. Lewis writes that the pressure to become a new and improved version of yourself while stuck at home during the pandemic is unrealistic for the people caring for children. And, overwhelmingly, those people are women. Lewis also points out that as an economic recession seems more and more inevitable, childcare professionals become less and less likely to find paid work. “school closures and household isolation,” she writes, “are moving the work of caring for children from the paid economy—nurseries, schools, babysitters—to the unpaid one.” 

Not surprisingly, in families where both partners work remotely, unequal patterns around childcare and managing the household have become more pronounced. In April of 2020 scientists decided to study these conditions. They found that just as women had carried the majority of the childcare burden before the onset of the pandemic, it has become even more unequal since. Adding homeschooling to the already long list of tasks necessary to care for children and maintain a home exacerbates this burden. In addition, the “mental load” is carried by the female parent almost exclusively and includes providing emotional support, distractions and stimulation for children, as well as meal planning, organizing social connections, and all of the myriad mental tasks that are part of parenting. Women have always been the default go-to parents, and although more male parents may be working from home, that default status has only become more pronounced.

The world has always been a place where those with less political and financial capital have been forced, out of economic necessity, to take on jobs others do not want, whether because they are dangerous, distasteful, low-paying, or all of these. During the current pandemic, many women and minorities are working outside of the home and at jobs that are, while “essential,” not highly paid or rich in benefits and in which they cannot obtain adequate personal protection to keep them from getting sick. Meanwhile, women who are working from their homes are finding themselves juggling their professional obligations with the mental load of organizing, planning and caring for the family, and even providing home schooling. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate gender and racial inequalities, despite the fact that women and people of color are doing the majority of the work to serve communities on the frontlines of the pandemic.

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Dear Andrew Yang: I Voted. Why Are People Still Racist?

By: Christina Lee

This year marked an exciting milestone for me: it was the first year that I was able to vote! Imagine my excitement upon finally exercising my right as an American citizen in a democratic process that I know I must not take for granted. So, I voted, and it was great. But why did I still feel uneasy about walking around in public several weeks afterward, right before the enforcement of California’s shelter-in-place order?

My uneasiness felt eerily familiar, like that first day of kindergarten when I looked around the classroom and noticed that no one else looked like me. Or that unforgettably awkward time in middle school when my teacher confused me for the only other Asian girl in the class.

Sure, these are not blatant experiences of extreme racism, but they’re the foundational roots of little things that give rise to larger issues. The ignorance, the discomfort, the establishment of “otherness” and foreignness.

So when former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang wrote in his controversial op-ed for The Washington Post that he “felt self-conscious—even a bit ashamed—of being Asian” after receiving looks of distaste in public since the coronavirus outbreak, I felt that. We all did.

In fact, we were all on board when he spoke candidly about the country’s state of insecurity and fear following the pandemic. It’s not surprising that, in the words of Yang, “people are looking for someone to blame.” It’s human nature. It was bound to happen.

And then, things start to go downhill from there.

Yang writes in an almost humorously unnecessary and flippant manner: I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. (Thank you for your insight, Yang!) Still, here’s the best part: But saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” won’t work.

I’m afraid that even Yang himself doesn’t realize what he is implying.

If we start to adopt an attitude of believing that “not being racist can’t stop racism,” it is only symbolic of our giving up. If we truly begin to submit to the meek way of thinking that we must find other ways around combatting racism besides speaking up against it, it simply distracts us from our main goal and the glaring issue: saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” should, in fact, work.

Yang tells me, my family, my friends, and the rest of the Asians in America to start showing some love for Uncle Sam to battle racism. “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” he writes. “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red-white-and-blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.”

Maybe the Asian Americans making headlines for becoming victims of coronavirus-related hate crimes—being stabbed, being spat on, being cursed out—should have been wearing red, white, and blue. They should have known better!

Let’s be honest: if my wardrobe was the key to solving racism, I would have changed it years ago. Yang thinks sporting patriotic colors is the solution, so how will he explain the fact that people will inevitably notice my gold skin, monolid eyes, and dark hair?

Yang then suggests in an example of “patriotism” and poor taste that Japanese Americans during World War II “volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans,” dismissing the hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans who couldn’t do so because they were busy being held in internment camps under a xenophobic government that justified their racism out of “military necessity.” In other words, they were trying to protect the other Americans from an “enemy,” the enemy being Japanese Americans. Or like today, the “enemy” is us.

In essence, Yang argues that we must forgo our Asian heritage because it is something shameful, dangerous, and suggesting of malintent in times of crises. He claims that we must try to blend in, that we must try to prove something that doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be proven, that we, Asian Americans, are the problem.

With a current president referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese virus,” our social and political atmosphere scares me. I’m afraid that we are not progressing as a society, that we are embodying the echoes of a scarred past, that Asian Americans and fellow minorities are giving in. I’m scared because the first Asian American political figure I’ve ever seen doesn’t quite understand the problem. Or perhaps he’s doing just that—giving in.

Let’s not let our fear make judgments for us. Let’s not give up our identity and roots to make others feel more comfortable with their ignorance. Let’s not allow ourselves to think that we are the problem, that we must accommodate. Fear is a powerful thing, but what’s even more powerful is that we can control it.

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What America Can Learn

By: Sai Siddhaye

The United States of America is not prepared for this pandemic. The healthcare system, welfare system, and the belligerent American spirit are not strong enough to work under the strain the world is under right now. Much of the world is in isolation at the moment, which is effectively slowing the spread of the virus, but like the United States, many countries are not equipped for full lockdown. Other countries are not crumbling under pressure and have strategies to fight this crisis. This comes down to infrastructure as well as culture as a whole. 

Many of the countries that seem well-equipped for handling this virus have strong systems prepared, and this is most effective in countries that have dealt with epidemics before. Singapore–which was hit by the SARS epidemic in 2003–was extremely proactive in its response to COVID-19, banning travelers from high-risk places in January, weeks before other countries began to enforce travel bans. Testing is free, efficient, and abundant, and as of late April, Singapore has only reported 12 deaths. Similarly, Senegal–which dealt with the Ebola outbreak in 2014–has implemented large-scale rapid testing, which takes only 4 hours to diagnose patients. The Pasteur Institute, a prominent research lab in Senegal, is working on a test kit that will diagnose patients in 10 minutes. So far, Senegal has reported only 6 deaths nationwide. South Korea was  hit hard by the novel coronavirus, but, by utilizing fast and widespread testing, has been able to slow its spread efficiently. One huge common denominator here is the cultural response to this pandemic; not only do the people of these countries seem to be following the safety measures that have been implemented, but they also seem to understand why they are necessary. Past experience with epidemics undoubtedly plays a big role in this response, and being able to trust the government and scientists’ advice on this matter goes a long way in protecting oneself and others, which has a lot to do with the transparency shown by the government. 

However, this cultural response cannot be universally replicated. India, for example, issued a shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of the virus. But India’s enormous wealth disparity means that a universal preventative measure does not affect the working class and impoverished population the same way as it affects the wealthy population. India has about 100 million seasonal migrant workers who travel to urban areas to work and send money home to their rural families. However, since the lockdown in late March, these workers have been left wageless, unhoused, and in a dearth of sanitation facilities. This is dangerous enough in a place as densely populated as Mumbai or Delhi, for example, but the closure of public transit has left these millions of people with no means to return to their families. This has left many of these workers with no option but to walk all the way to their rural homes, which can be hundreds of miles in many cases. Though quarantine is undoubtedly an effective way of slowing the spread of coronavirus, countries with so much heterogeneity must ensure that there is a strong system that will protect the most vulnerable people as well as the privileged. 

The United States is, of course, one of these heterogeneous countries. The racial diversity in America is coupled with racial disparity, which is leaving BIPOC communities incredibly vulnerable. Though COVID-19 is being called the ‘Great Equalizer’, this label is of course incredibly false; wealth, able-bodiedness, and race matter a great deal in determining how much danger one will have to put themselves in in order to survive this pandemic. One of the hardest hit communities, as with most health crises, is the Black community. A long history of institutional racism–redlining, residential segregation, incarceration, the list goes on–has prevented Black people from having access to critical resources. The disproportionately large number of Black folks that live in food deserts means that many people need to travel several miles simply for groceries, and the huge amount of pre existing health conditions in Black communities, largely caused by weathering and environmental racism, means that they are especially vulnerable to this highly contagious virus.  Homeownership is a crucial resource that has been withheld from Black folks for centuries, which is still a very visible issue today. About 7% of the Black population in Milwaukee owns their home, compared to over 80% of the white population. Without this piece of generational wealth, sheltering-in-place becomes a more complicated issue. These layers of historical and contemporary racism mean that the federal government is at fault for the vulnerability of BIPOC communities, and therefore cannot adequately protect them from the new dangers of COVID-19 without major changes.

Because of the unique history behind the racial disparities we see in the United States, it is difficult to implement the same measures that other countries have done, but there are many things that we can learn from the different responses to the novel coronavirus worldwide. The first is that in order to protect its citizens from this pandemic, the federal and state governments need to put people’s lives above the economy. This means that UBI and universal healthcare, at the very least, are necessities, and a one-time stimulus package as a band-aid will not solve the problem. The second is that transparency is essential in order for progress to happen, and the government cannot be actively fighting the health officials who are trying to inform people. If accurate information about the spread of the virus, the severity of the outbreak, and how to protect oneself is not effectively distributed by government officials, then it will be difficult for Americans to trust that safety measures are adequate and necessary. Until the most vulnerable members of our communities are being protected, the underpreparedness of the United States will continue to cause the deaths of thousands of people.