COVID-19 and an Outbreak of Civil Unrest


Anne Zimmerman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Cultural Health Care Health Disparities Health Regulation & Law Justice Politics Social Justice

by Anne Zimmerman, JD, candidate MS (Bioethics)

At first it seemed like violence in the US had subsided during the pandemic. Outrage over police violence against unarmed black men was shelved while COVID-19 news took over the internet and cable news. The current civil outrage is evidence that violence against unarmed black men carries on concurrently with COVID-19’s economic and physical devastation that hurts the poor and the darker-skinned disproportionately. The causes are the same: The economic and physical effects of COVID-19 and police violence are caused by structural inequality.

The social determinants of health feed the most common comorbidities that make COVID-19 more severe: high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease. 9 percent of white people and 22 percent of black people live in poverty in the US. In several states, the poverty rate for people who are black is over 30 percent (Wisconsin, Mississippi, Iowa, and Arkansas). Forty-one percent of those in poverty in the US are black or Hispanic. An additional 24 percent are Native American; 11 percent are Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. The COVID-19 mortality rate for black people in the US is 2.5 times that of white people. “If they had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as White Americans, about 13,000 Black Americans, 1,300 Latino Americans and 300 Asian Americans would still be alive.” In a country that is comprised of 12 to 14 percent people that identify as black, depending on the definition, the COVID-19 mortality represents structural inequality. According to APM Research Labs:

  • 1 in 1,850 Black Americans has died (or 54.6 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 4,000 Latino Americans has died (or 24.9 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 4,200 Asian Americans has died (or 24.3 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 4,400 White Americans has died (or 22.7 deaths per 100,000)

Minority groups have an increased likelihood of exposure to COVID-19: Many are in essential work that cannot be performed at home. Thirty percent of nurses are black; 53 percent of agricultural workers are Hispanic. Black Americans are now more likely to suffer a more severe illness due to comorbidities that could be prevented structurally, more likely to die, more likely to need to go to work and risk exposure to the virus, more likely to use public transportation where risk increases, more likely to lose their savings as collectively they started with less, more likely to fall into poverty because many live closer to the poverty line, and more likely to be killed by a police officer.

COVID-19 is tough on health; so is having a police officer block an airway.

Racism and poor outcomes show that an inegalitarian hierarchy always had a contributing role. Rather than viewing the US as on a historical trajectory to improve both freedom and equality as views on race modernized, a detrimental social hierarchy fed law and policy, created barriers to success, and then blamed people for not achieving educational or professional success. Underlying public policy is a belief that hard work pays off. The hard work philosophy is a competing societal belief that some people deserve less. The economic mission to be certain that no person is a free rider or gets more than a fair share was born of ascriptive Americanism rather than liberalism. The hard work philosophy feeds racism by giving the racist an excuse to label a group less worthy when the group lacked the resources and public goods that foster equality. Police violence stems from ingrained racism that grew out of ascriptive Americanism and the role of social hierarchies and power. Declaration of a meritocracy is not the definition of one.

The change sought by protesters—hiring and retraining police so that the bravest are attracted to the profession rather than the nervous, jumpy, or trigger happy, and first-degree murder convictions—are not enough.

Racism should be addressed structurally through equal representation at all levels of state and local government and within police forces. In certain areas, the black population is very large yet its representation is often undermined by gerrymandering. Public education should not be just equal, it should strive to help people catch up if they did not have access to appropriate education in early childhood. Among public schools in wealthy and poor areas, uniformity in class size, access to computers and other technology, and a system for ensuring learning are imperative to lift the quality of inner city underperforming overcrowded schools. Representation shapes the structure of society, how police are used, whether the military will be imposed on US citizens, who polices parks and public spaces and how, gun laws, nutrition assistance, public housing, and education. The issues merge into each other: people without housing have trouble securing reliable food sources or educational opportunities; people who are poorly educated have trouble with financial upward mobility; health outcomes diverge.

The American dream used the bodies of poor black people and immigrants as steps a predominantly white elite climbed for success. In the US, over half of COVID-19 deaths were of black people (over 54,000 of the first 100,000 deaths); half of police killings of the unarmed are of unarmed black men, and of total killings by police, there is a two to one ratio of white to black, far from the ratio of white to black in the population. The problems are not unrelated. Today on Instagram there were pictures of big-bellied white men wearing T-shirts saying, “I can breathe.” We cannot change everyone’s behavior, racism, or bad judgment but we can change the structures that create policy and determine health, safety, and success for black Americans.

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