From police brutality to COVID-19: racism's deadly toll
Breonna Taylor was an essential worker. She was an emergency room technician and first responder whose job was literally to save lives. Her job in health care was demanding, yet she described it as "so rewarding" because she felt she was making a difference in the lives of others. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic Taylor worked two jobs; every time she saved someone else's life she put her own at risk.
Then on March 13, while sleeping in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, Taylor, 26, was fatally shot by police who were executing a no-knock warrant that should have never taken place since officers had already located their main suspect. Reports now show that for up to six minutes after she was shot, Taylor may have been alive but officers did nothing to try to save her.
As she lay dying, Taylor was not extended the same help that she had provided others. So far, no charges have been brought against any of the officers involved in her killing.
In many ways, Taylor's life and death encapsulates what it's like to be a Black person in America. A Black woman in America. It means you can be considered essential during a pandemic that's disproportionately killing your people, but still be shot down by the police in your own home and have no one charged in your death. In America, it does not matter how hard you work or how many lives you save: If you are Black, you are still deemed disposable. The reality is that racism, in all its forms, is deadly. It is a pandemic that has plagued this nation for over 400 years and a public health crisis demanding a reckoning.
As part of that reckoning, workers from across the country participated in the July 20 #StrikeForBlackLIves to draw the connections between police violence and economic violence. Workers walked off their jobs in cities across the country. In some places like Durham, North Carolina, marchers also participated in an 8 minute and 46 second moment of silence, a brutal reminder of the length of time former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck as Floyd slowly lost consciousness before he died, all over an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill.
Front-line workers described the strike as "a movement to withhold our most valuable asset — our labor — in support of dismantling racism and white supremacy to bring about fundamental changes in our society, economy and workplaces."
These workers decided to go on strike amid a global pandemic and related economic crisis because they know that racism kills. Sometimes its violence looks like an officer pressing his knee upon a Black man's neck until he can no longer breathe. But much more often it looks like corporations that claim to believe #BlackLivesMatter not paying a livable wage to their disproportionately Black, Brown, and women workers, and not providing them with paid sick leave, personal protective equipment, and safe working conditions.
These poor working conditions have put workers and their families at risk during this pandemic and have been one of the driving forces of its racial inequities. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 43% of Black and Latino workers — compared to just 25% of white workers — have been deemed "essential" during the pandemic. Due to low wages and lack of affordable housing options, many of these same workers reside in racially segregated neighborhoods that have experienced decades of disinvestment. Structural factors in these communities such as overcrowded housing further increase exposure and transmission. The impact of increased exposure is then compounded by limited access to quality health care, which creates barriers to testing and follow-up treatment. Discrimination within the health care system makes it more likely for Black people to be turned away from seeking medical care — even though a wide array of factors such as environmental pollution, chronic stress, and limited access to healthy foods leads Black people to disproportionately develop underlying chronic conditions that make COVID-19 more deadly. At the same time, Black women bear a disproportionate burden of caregiving for children and elderly adults, which further puts them at risk for contracting the illness and economic hardship.
Thus, while the United States as a whole has become the global epicenter of COVID-19 due to a reckless and uncoordinated federal response, the pain of the virus is not being evenly felt. Black and Brown people are being disproportionately exposed and impacted — particularly in the South, which is the nation's Blackest and poorest region, and which has historically been hostile toward workers. When the country prematurely reopened in May, these Black and Brown workers were disproportionately forced to go back to work on front-line jobs. Many of these workers also lack health care because some states, most of them in the South, refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Shortly after Breonna Taylor's death, an analysis found that there were over 420,000 essential workers in the state of Kentucky alone. The analysis also found that, like Taylor, 66% of these front-line workers were women and a disproportionate number were Black. Though just 8% of all workers in Kentucky are Black, they are disproportionately represented among cleaning service workers and child care workers — two of the lowest-paying jobs. And only 3 in 10 of Kentucky's lowest-paid workers have access to sick days. Consequently, though less than 9% of the state's population is Black, 12% of Kentuckians who have died from COVID-19 are Black.
Early reports of disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 cases among Black Americans often failed to explain why Black people were being impacted so harshly. We now know that part of the reason is because Black people were being disproportionately exposed to the virus because of the work they do. This exposure doesn't get the same kind of attention as police brutality but is no less deadly.
As Dr. Camara Jones, an epidemiologist, family doctor, and former president of the American Public Health Association noted in a widely circulated article, "Race doesn't put you at higher risk, racism puts you at higher risk." This is true for police brutality, COVID-19, and for so many health outcomes. It is time that we treat racism like the deadly public health crisis that it is.
Sharrelle Barber, Sc.D., is a social epidemiologist whose research examines the link between structural racism and racial health inequities in the Southern United States and Brazil. During the pandemic she has served as advisor and coordinator of the COVID-19 Health Justice Advisory Committee for the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She has also provided expert commentary on the disparate impact of COVID-19 in Black communities for the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Lancet Infectious Disease. Dr.