Hand reaching out
By Larry Ortiz (Professor of Social Work and Social Ecology) - May 6, 2020

While COVID-19 victims reflect a wide swath of Americans irrespective of social position, the most vulnerable are marginalized populations, who are most inclined to encounter health disparities. So what appears as a health crisis for some is also a social justice question for society, as the toll of the disease unfolds, disproportionally impacting historically underserved populations.

As has been reported by multiple news outlets and the PEW Research Center, African Americans, younger Latinos, and Native Americans in particular have been the hardest hit segments of our society. Poverty, poor living conditions, limited access to health care, and historic distrust have led to underlying chronic conditions in underserved populations that are now exacerbated during this pandemic. Speaking on C-SPAN, Dr. Anthony Fauci states: "Health disparities have always existed for the African American community, but here again with the crisis … it's shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is ... when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately." (April 7, 2020)

None of this should be a surprise to any of us, because even though the disease does not discriminate and impacts all people equally it nonetheless follows a path carved by social injustices that are at the root of health disparities, resulting in inequitable health outcomes for the most vulnerable. Besides poor health outcomes, the impact of this virus will likely be long lasting, again more painfully experienced by the marginalized. A few examples:

  • The Department of Education is prohibiting colleges and universities from providing any congressional authorized emergency relief to university students studying under federal protection, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), thus causing a greater hardship for these vulnerable students known as "dreamers" (NY Times, April 22, 2020).
  • Tax-paying immigrants without work because of the shutdown are not eligible for unemployment compensation or government stimulus checks (LA Times, April, 21, 2020) leading to increased vulnerability to homelessness and longer term poverty.
  • African American and Latino children in underserved areas are not able to continue their education as their classes have been moved online and many do not have computers in the home and/or internet access. A study by USC's Annenberg School (April 16, 2020) found that this predicament describes at least 25% of the students in the LAUSD, thus placing these children in the position of lagging behind academically.
  • Reports of domestic violence have skyrocketed in all areas of the world (NY Times, April, 6, 2020), increasing the likelihood of violence to the most vulnerable.
  • Farmworkers as essential workers, most of whom are immigrants, are at exceedingly high risk of contracting the virus working with only minimal personal protective equipment and in close quarters (CNN, April 11, 2020) and should they become ill will be sent back to their countries without proper medical treatment.

Moments like these lay wide open the underbelly of social injustices that are ingrained in our society. What we find is that the impact of these are long lasting, extending to younger generations, and that they ultimately threaten all of society. No longer can we afford to think of health disparities as belonging to one group or another. This is our collective problem to solve because injustices affect us all, demanding an intentional response. This is well summed up by Dr. Fauci: "When all this is over, there will still be health disparities, which we really do need to address."

Pandemics have historically been cruel schoolmasters, teaching the world many hard lessons. One lesson now, I suspect, is that the threat of a common enemy can only be successfully waged with collective action. Our collective strength in combatting this foe is only as strong as the most vulnerable among us. Successfully defeating this public health crisis requires building a strong community wherein disparities created by social injustices are far less severe than they are now and, going forward, deemed totally unacceptable.