As the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic slowly loosen, I find myself pensive, reflecting upon the collective trauma we all suffered in the past year and what awaits us in the “new normal.” I hope more of our families, neighbors, peers, and communities now understand that equity for all Americans—particularly Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities of color—is critical to our collective health, safety, and survival, but that lesson continues to come at an incredible cost.
The news over the course of this crisis has been almost too much to bear. Infections and the death toll continue to rise, we have high rates of long-term unemployment, and as a result, more people are facing hunger and homelessness. On top of all of that, anxiety and depression are at an all-time high across the nation. The horrors and anxieties resulting from the pandemic eventually made its way into my daily life: a person within my social circle died from the coronavirus, I was asked to grocery shop for my parents after they witnessed a xenophobic attack against a Korean American senior at a store in Los Angeles, and countless “For Rent” signs and shuttered storefronts turned my once-vibrant neighborhood into a ghost town. I am mentally exhausted, and every decision I make must be assessed against the risk it poses.
All the more damning is the knowledge that the very people who bear the brunt of this virus and the multiple crises it’s exacerbated are low-income communities of color already struggling with inequitable systems that provide limited access to critical health and economic support. Latinx and Black Americans are getting sick and dying at a higher rate from COVID-19 because of a crisis embedded in the very structure of our economy. The Centers for Disease Control’s race data from December 2020 in 14 states showed that COVID-19 mortality among American Indians and Alaska natives was 1.8 times higher than white people. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities have been the most adversely affected by COVID-19, with case and death rates higher than any other race or ethnicity.
Moreover, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting the working poor. Structural racism has led to an overrepresentation of workers of color in low-wage jobs. Because many essential workers are unable to properly social distance from people at work, many of them continue to risk their health and the health of their families in order to earn a paycheck. Black workers have suffered a record numbers of job losses and are disproportionately found among front-line workers in the economy today. Notably, while Filipino Americans are 4% of nurses in the U.S., they account for 32% of nurse COVID-19 deaths.
In March, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act as part of the third round of federal stimulus packages. Through the American Rescue Plan, millions of people across the country received stimulus checks of up to $1,400, individuals received earned income tax credits and child tax credit expansions, SNAP benefits were temporarily increased, health insurance marketplace subsidies were expanded, and much more. And yet, all I can see are the folks who have been left out and continuously excluded from federal relief and key basic needs programs designed to help the most vulnerable emerge safely from the pandemic. In each of the latest stimulus provisions, immigrants and their families have been denied assistance in some form. With 44.8 million immigrants living in the U.S.—of which nearly 11 million are undocumented—that means far too many people are still insecure when it comes to housing, food, and finances.
Advocates and impacted community members have to fight tooth and nail to ensure these packages are accessible to all Americans. While we have won some fights, we’ve also lost many. As a result, low-income immigrants and BIPOC communities continue to suffer while working on the front lines for long hours with little to no access to protection. One in six Latinx people, one in five Black people, and one in five Native Americans are food-insecure.
The wealth gap in America was appalling before the pandemic, but the inequities of marginalized people have now been laid bare in a new way. After 13 months of pandemic misery where millions have lost their jobs, health, and savings, the total U.S. billionaire wealth increased $1.3 trillion, an increase of 44%. The country’s 664 billionaires now have a combined wealth of $4.3 trillion—more than two-thirds higher than the $2.4 trillion in total wealth held by the bottom half of the U.S. population, including 165 million Americans.
While California, New York, Washington, and other states and cities have tried to meet and address these inequities and gaps in federal aid, they barely scratch the surface. We still need greater access to the direct stimulus payments and tax credits for low-income working Americans because they’re some of the most effective mechanisms for maintaining financial security. Everyone regardless of immigration status should also have equal access to food and health care, both of which were already severely lacking before the pandemic hit.
Most importantly, what people need are good paying jobs. Lack of sustained public investment in a 21st century care infrastructure has left individuals and families struggling to balance caregiving obligations with work to afford basic necessities like food, housing, and utilities. These competing needs hamper labor force participation, particularly for women. It is a tragedy that the communities bearing the double deadly brunt of systemic racism and COVID-19 are the ones being denied the basic needs their neighbors are granted.
If there’s anything the pandemic has taught me, it’s that our lives are intricately intertwined. We can either rise or sink together. Our elected officials in all levels of government must support forward-facing measures that acknowledge the inequities in our systems and policies and address the needs of the most vulnerable among us, which sets all Americans up for long-term success. This is the country we need—a place for everyone that recognizes the dignity and humanity of each member of our community. And I believe it’s a country we can create as we build back anew.
The twin crises of COVID-19 and structural racism have created another moment of reckoning, and we must fix the systemic exclusions that brought us here instead of returning to complacency with a “normal” that was only beneficial for some. We need fundamental change that ensures our most vulnerable do not merely survive this crisis, but thrive hereafter.