They say that in an unjust society, a pandemic is perhaps the one thing that doesn’t discriminate. A virus, they say, doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, male or female, young or old. A pathogen doesn’t differentiate between white or black, brown, or red.
It infects without prejudice. It kills indiscriminately.
But of the many devastating realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the one that we least expected is the way that it would throw such a glaring spotlight on the appalling racial injustice that continues to contaminate American society today. Studies increasingly show that it is persons of color who are at disproportionate risk not only of contracting the virus but also dying from it.
And that injustice links to and derives from another one, one that is much older and more pervasive: the lack of economic opportunity that people of color must confront on a daily basis.
On the front lines
When the full force of the COVID-19 threat became apparent, it seems as if the entire country, if not the whole world, mobilized to contain the enemy. The sweeping lockdowns that were imposed from coast-to-coast were unexpected, not to mention unprecedented, in our national history.
They were also drawn along sharp socioeconomic lines. Most everyone who could work at home was ordered to do so, both for their own safety and for the safety of others. Only “essential” workers remained on the front lines, leaving the refuge of their homes out of public need or, more often than not, out of financial necessity.
But it was not just the healthcare workers and public officials charged with caring for the sick or fighting to protect the public health. It was also the working class, those whose jobs could not be converted to at-home work, those without the financial resources to miss weeks’ worth of income to avoid exposure to the virus.
The reality is that some of our most important workers, those who keep our modern lives going, are also the most underpaid. And, from paramedics to food service workers, they are the ones who continue to serve, even in the face of the pandemic, often because their incomes leave them little choice.
The color barrier
The issue isn’t just one of socioeconomic status, though. Because the income divide is also, in the vast majority of cases, a color divide as well. Studies show that the majority of those working in the “essential industries,” from food service to truck drivers to grocery store clerks, are persons of color.
This means that persons of color are disproportionately working in jobs that simply cannot be done from home. This leaves the virtually impossible choice between working, and risking your own life and the life of your family, or giving up your job entirely.
Unlike blue-collar jobs, white-collar jobs, those that can be more readily transitioned to telework, are disproportionately filled by men, often Caucasian men. This is particularly true at the managerial levels and above, where men not only occupy the majority of leadership positions but also earn higher wages than women and minorities in equivalent roles.
If there is any good news in all this darkness, however. It may be that the bright spotlight that is now shining on inequities in employment may revitalize the demand for increased opportunities for minorities and women in leadership positions.
The virus’s devastating impact on minority communities isn’t just about the fact that persons of color find themselves more often in high-risk jobs, or that their incomes don’t afford them the luxury of sheltering at home. It’s also due to the fact that minority communities often lack access to basic healthcare, and that can lead potential victims of the virus to delay seeking treatment until it’s too late.
One of the most frightening aspects of the coronavirus is that it can be difficult to distinguish from the typical flu or even from seasonal allergies, at least at first. If you don’t have health insurance, or simply can’t take time off from work, you’re probably going to discount your symptoms — until you can’t.
What makes coronavirus so lethal is the speed with which it goes from being an annoyance to being life-threatening. Far too often, by the time a victim sees a doctor, not only has the disease completely infiltrated and shredded the lungs, but it has also potentially infected everyone the victim has come into contact with. Thus the wildfire-like spread through black and brown communities and the massive death toll that has resulted from it.
The opportunity to improve
As debilitating as this virus has been in minority communities, there is a ray of hope. Frontline and essential workers are now uniting for more protections and great equity in pay and benefits. Likewise, hiring managers are looking to recruit and develop their remote teams, despite the challenges of finding and onboarding talent remotely. This can be a remarkable chance for minority job-seekers who, due to age, location, disability, or family circumstances, are looking to build a more stable and safer career working from home.
Of all the stark lessons the coronavirus has taught us, perhaps the most devastating is the fact that illness does, indeed, discriminate. Minority communities have been by far the hardest hit in America. And as infection rates and death tolls rise, so too does that overwhelming awareness that economic and health injustice continues to infect minority communities with as much pain, violence, and destructiveness as the coronavirus itself. HR and talent acquisition professionals have the ability and the influence to help improve the lives of thousands of essential workers even when all of this is behind us. By joining their call-to-action and fighting for their equal pay and healthcare rights, HR can find more ways to help fight the impact.
About the Author:
Jori Hamilton is a writer from the Pacific Northwest who has a particular interest in social justice, politics, education, healthcare, technology, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @ HamiltonJori.