The Color and Gender of COVID-19: Essential Workers, Not Disposable People


In the sequel to her piece “Color of COVID,” Professor Catherine Powell examines color and gender not only in the health pandemic but also in poverty, protests, and policy.

What has become clear in this season of pandemic—and protest over police violence—is that the COVID-19 crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. The United States also suffers from a pandemic of failed leadership and a pandemic of poverty. More than 42 million unemployment claims have been filed since early March. As New York Times contributor, Roxanne Gay wrote recently, doctors may soon develop a coronavirus vaccine, Black people “will continue to wait for a cure for racism.”

Women of color sit at the intersection of race, gender, and economic disparities. Not surprisingly, these women are important leaders in both national organizations and grassroots movements, including Black Lives Matter (whose founders include three Black women). Therefore, they must be placed at the center of policy solutions.

Within this new ecosystem, a “racial justice paradox” has emerged: Blacks and Latinxs are more likely to be unemployed due to the impacts of the pandemic on the labor market, but they are also overrepresented among essential workers who must stay in their jobs, particularly lower-skilled positions, where they are at greater risk of exposure to the virus. Further, in New York City, data by zip code reveals that race and income are the strongest determinants of death rates from COVID-19, even when controlling for age. Smartphone location data further suggests that residents of the richest neighborhoods fled the city—to vacation homes and elsewhere. Native Americans across the country have experienced similar effects: given crowded living conditions in part resulting from poverty, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on their health. It has also profoundly affected their livelihoods, as the tribal businesses many depend on for income have come to a complete halt.

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