The coronavirus pandemic is a public health and economic crisis without precedent in our lifetimes. Over one million Americans have been infected with the virus, and tragically over 60,000 Americans have died because of it. My home state of New Jersey has been particularly hard hit — over one million New Jerseyans have contracted the virus and over 6,000 have sadly lost their lives. More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs, while small businesses that have long been the lifeblood of so many communities have been forced to close, unsure when — and even if — they will be able to reopen.
In so many ways this virus is a source of collective pain and grief, and simultaneously uniquely isolating. This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, but it also brings a familiar pain and trauma for those communities that are disproportionately impacted by this crisis, just as they have been for so many others before it.
About a week ago, after the urging of Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, the Congressional Black Caucus and myself, the Centers for Disease Control finally released national data confirming what we have seen across the country over the past month: people of color are disproportionately contracting and dying of COVID-19. The data from the CDC show that Latinx Americans make up 24.5 percent of COVID-19 cases, despite being only 18 percent of the population, while Black Americans make up 30 percent of COVID-19 cases nationally despite being only 14 percent of the population. According to the Associated Press, using data that has been released by states and localities, a whopping one-third of all Coronavirus deaths in the United States have occurred among Black Americans. Meanwhile, Native American communities have been particularly hard hit, with the Navajo Nation reporting the third highest infection rate in the country, behind only New York and my home state of New Jersey.
It is abundantly clear that this virus has not only exposed, but also exacerbated, the deep, structural racial inequalities that have been taking the lives and livelihoods of people of color and Black Americans in particular for centuries.
We know that this virus is particularly dangerous for people with pre-existing respiratory and cardiac conditions. Centuries of policy that disinvested in communities of color and federal housing policy that redlined neighborhoods and carved up entire cities have created a reality where communities of color, and especially Black Americans, have higher rates of respiratory diseases and illnesses because of where they live. A 2016 study found that a person’s race is the single biggest factor of whether they live near a toxic waste site.
Black Americans also disproportionately lack access to quality, affordable health coverage and care, and when they do receive care they are still often subject to racial biases that affect their health outcomes. Black women, in particular, are failed by a health system that minimizes and ignores their pain.
In mid-March, a 30-year-old Black woman and beloved public school teacher named Rana Zoe Mungin had shown symptoms of COVID-19 — shortness of breath, fever and headache and had visited the hospital twice for care. Both times she was sent home without being tested. After finally being admitted to the hospital, she was intubated and placed on a ventilator just a few days later. By the time she was finally admitted to the hospital, just a few days later she had to be intubated and placed on a ventilator. Ms. Mungin was hospitalized for over a month, but tragically passed away earlier this week.
This virus is invisible but it has made visible for so many much of the reality we must confront: even without a virus plaguing us, our country is weaker due to the frailties and inequalities that persist in everything from our environment to our economy, from our health care system to our housing policy.
We have so much work to do to help our country and all of our communities fight and recover from this virus. But as we tackle this virus and plan for the future, we cannot afford to go back to what was accepted by so many as “normal” four months ago.
Because there is nothing normal about a country where millions of people still don’t have access to quality, affordable health coverage and where the quality of care someone receives too often depends on the color of their skin. There is nothing normal about an economy where someone can work a full-time job and still have to live in poverty. There is nothing normal about children being poisoned by toxic air, toxic water and toxic soil because of where they live and how much money their parents make.
We cannot go back to that normal. So we must work to build a new normal.
In the short term, that means directing resources where they are needed most.
That means ramping up testing across the board and also making sure that tests go to the hardest-hit states, like my home state of New Jersey. We can’t stop there. We need to make sure that tests go to the hardest-hit areas, often communities disproportionately comprised of people of color. We must also design testing systems in a way that is responsive to the communities that need them– we know for example that drive through testing centers are good for those who have cars — but that doesn’t do much to increase accessibility or safety for folks who don’t have cars. We need to make sure that we expand testing across the country to places and communities with the most need, and in a way that is informed by those communities.
We also need to take steps to guarantee that every person, regardless of income or immigration status, can access the care they need during this crisis. We need to reopen enrollment to the federal health marketplace for those who do not currently have coverage and also guarantee cost-free coronavirus-related care for everyone.
Workers of color, including immigrants, are disproportionately employed in “essential” jobs or jobs where they are less likely to be able to telework or work from home. So we need to ensure that we are properly paying, training and protecting workers on the front lines fighting this virus and those working to provide the essential supplies and services for Americans during these unprecedented times. Essential workers are not expendable — and they deserve hazard pay and adequate protections.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 44 percent of Black and 61 percent of Hispanic adults say they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a pay cut due to COVID-19. This is why we must also protect and enhance our social safety net programs right now. We need to provide rental assistance and a national moratorium on eviction, and increase SNAP benefits, known more widely as food stamps. We also need to enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit to support low-income families.
And we need to protect people whose lives are directly in the hands of our government — including people who are being held in immigrant detention facilities and who are currently serving time in prison and jail. People incarcerated in federal prisons who pose no public safety risk should be placed in community supervision and states should be incentivized to do the same. Immigrants currently being detained by federal authorities who pose no public safety or flight risk should also be placed in community supervision, starting with those who are most vulnerable.
In the long term, we have so much work to do to purposefully reverse the systemic disinvestment and outright discrimination that brought us to this point. The inequalities and injustices that persist in our criminal justice system, our economy, in access to healthcare, housing and a healthy environment demand our urgent attention and our action.
At points in our history, national tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 that killed 146 garment workers and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham where four little girls were murdered, have exposed the deep seated injustices we must confront.
Today, our frailties as a country have been exposed and have nowhere to hide. To beat this virus and to rebuild a country that is stronger than it was before, we must start fighting right now for the future we want.
In a speech in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25th, 1965, after having just finished leading a 51 mile march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights, Dr. King offered a warning about what it means to return to normal in the wake of a crisis. He said,
“It is normalcy all over our country, which leaves the Negro perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of vast ocean of material prosperity.
It is normalcy all over Alabama that prevents the Negro from becoming a registered voter.
No, we will not allow Alabama to return to normalcy.”
To recover, and to heal, we must work to build a new normal, starting right away.