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The COVID-19 pandemic: The mythical equalizer for inequality in society

COVID mythic equalizer

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to plague our communities, the legal community has been working tirelessly and desperately to meet the unrelenting demand to mitigate legal issues within the public health, environmental, and economic spheres.

The pandemic has affected everyone, forcing people to remain in their homes and to remain socially-distant from family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and classmates. The public health, environmental and economic impact has been historic and will forever change societal constructs.

It has even been said that the pandemic has served as an equalizer because it does not discriminate as to who it infects—and it affects us all. But, is this an accurate statement? Is the pandemic truly acting as an equalizer?

Unfortunately, what does not get discussed and highlighted is the fact that the pandemic has exasperated the public health, environmental and economic disparities within marginalized groups, such as Black, brown, immigrant, indigenous, disabled persons, the elderly, and LGBTQIA+ communities. Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to see higher death rates within the Black community due to underlying conditions including obesity, diabetes, cardiac disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and high blood pressure. These underlying conditions are the result of structural inequities that promote non-inclusive laws and policies.

The American Public Media Research Lab reported last month that Black Americans continue to experience the highest actual COVID -19 mortality rates nationwide—more than twice as high as whites and Asians, who have the lowest actual rates. It also reports that adjusting the rate for age differences in race groups widens the gap in the overall mortality rates between all groups and whites, who again have the lowest rate. Compared with whites, the latest U.S. age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rates are:

  • Blacks, 3.6 times as high
  • Indigenious people, 3.4 times as high
  • Latinos, 3.2 times as high
  • Pacific Islanders, 3.0 times as high, and
  • Asians, 1.3 times as high.

Additionally, the LGBTQIA+, Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and its elder community, who experience barriers to care, make them less likely to have access to medical care, thereby increasing the health disparity paradigm. The LGBTQIA+ community has higher rates of HIV and cancer, making them more susceptible to dying from COVID-19 due to weakened immune systems. Not to mention they have higher rates than their heterosexual cisgender counterparts when it comes to respiratory illness, heightening their risk to contracting the virus.

Unfortunately, discriminatory laws and policies pre-pandemic have deterred individuals within this group from seeking the care they need. This deterrence has only increased during the pandemic.

The math is simple, and the data tells an indisputable story of minority groups being at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying. The increased risk can be attributed to many factors, such as structural inequities that include, but are not limited to:

  • lack of income
  • lack of wealth
  • substandard housing
  • subpar education
  • higher-risk occupations
  • lack of access to healthcare
  • and discrimination.

COVID-19 and the increased economic crisis exacerbated these inequalities.

The simple math: money = power.

Conversely, the lack of money equals the lack of power—the power needed to advocate for the proper resources and regulation that protect the viability of high-risk, minority communities.

Mx. Mikekena B. Richardson is a civil engineer who has worked professionally over the last 10 years examining and combating structural and oppressive disparities within underserved communities—particularly structural, socioeconomic, and environmental racism juxtaposed with public health matters such as COVID-19 and mental health. She points to data from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that illustrate this connection.

It is vital to understand and take action regarding how this oppressive system, which is the foundation of the U.S. in particular, impacts those underserved communities at an alarming rate. The ASCE assesses of the state of 16 major infrastructure categories in its 2017 ASCE Infrastructure Report Card. Only four categories scored higher than D+ grades, and more than half of the categories have shown a decline from when grading began in 1988.

These D-list categories include:

  • Hazardous waste
  • Drinking water
  • Schools
  • Wastewater
  • Roads
  • Energy
  • Transit

The states most affected by these drawbacks are Missouri, Texas, Vermont, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi.

Unfortunately, these states with the lowest infrastructure ratings in several categories also have high poverty rates and underserved communities. In Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future, the ASCE projects an estimated $3.9 trillion in losses to the U.S. GDP, another $7 trillion in lost business sales, and 2.5 million in lost American jobs by 2025.

Additionally, COVID-19 compounds and exacerbates the economic, environmental, and public health disparities for marginalized, minority communities and particularly LGBTQIA+ BIPOC, especially Trans BIPOC.

Mx. Richardson adds, “COVID-19 diminishes the economic revenue needed to contribute to fix the infrastructure financial gap even further for the projected 2025 year. The greatest infrastructure deficiencies will be felt with our schools, parks, and water structures, further decreasing our quality of life, i.e. mental and public health.

“How can we combat this devastating future and decrease the catastrophic, inevitable effects if we fail to take preventative measures?” Mx. Richardson asks. “The answer: take measures now to improve and increase the quality of life for all. This will require stakeholder buy-in. In this case, our stakeholders are each and every human being. We need investment in research, targeted at smart, innovative, environmentally conscious, sustainable designs that are equitable for all individuals and communities.”

So then, as legal pioneers, how do we work diligently and fairly to meet the unrelenting demand to mitigate legal issues caused by the effects of COVID-19?

We accomplish this by leveraging our legal tool kits. We advocate for the equitable enforcement of existing legislation and its legal protections for all people. We aggressively push forward laws and policies that were put on the backburner and bring them to the forefront while the call for reform in the wake of civil unrest is here. We help to create new laws and policies that reduce disparities in the public health, environmental and economic sphere. Once these are created, we ensure that they are equitably enforced across the board by holding one another accountable and leading with integrity.

In essence, we do our part.

We have the power of advocacy and access as law students of the ABA to connect with leaders within the legal community by joining an ABA Law Student Division committee or becoming an active member of your Student Bar Association. Reach out to organizations within your community that are focused on eliminating disparities within marginalized groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Human Rights Campaign, or the Immigration Justice Campaign. Each organization has virtual volunteer opportunities that allow you to advocate and advance critical initiatives during the pandemic.

We are legal pioneers. And we have the tools to mitigate legal issues within the public health, environmental, and economic spheres by combating the effects of COVID-19—the mythical equalizer.

Lannette M. Richarson Lannette M. Richarson is a 3L at Southern University Law Center. She has a B.A in Spanish and an M.B.A in Gaming Management. She serves as the ABA Law Student Division’s Chair for 2021-2022, and will serve in that role in 2022-2023. She also previously served as the National Director of Programming & Events for the National Black Law Students Association