The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Black Workers Under Attack from COVID-19 and Institutional Racism

Apr 20, 2020

The COVID-19 virus is infecting Black Americans and causing their deaths at an enormously high rate, out of all proportion to the total population figures. In states like Michigan and Ohio, where black people make up around 14 or 15% of the state populations, over 30% of those infected are black. Death rates are even higher. Over 40% of those that die are black, in both states. These numbers represent only a part of the real number of infections and deaths among black people as there are no consistent reporting methods nationwide. But we see similar infection levels and numbers of deaths out of all proportion to population figures in states across the U.S. In Louisiana, 70% of COVID-19 deaths are black deaths. Blacks make up only 32% of the population.

While right-leaning authorities and newscasters are blaming black people for their own high illness and death rates, Trump’s Surgeon General is quietly doing the same. He is asking black people to drop “unhealthy habits” like smoking and drinking and drugs, as if catching the virus and dying were a problem of individual habits. All manner of explanations are being put forward—all but a real accounting for the legacy of racism that has paved the way for this killing field.

But the only two preventative measures put forward by the government have been “social distancing” and masks (long after the epidemic had spread). And by their own admission, the masks only protect others from the virus (partially) while social distancing works only for those who don’t work or live in close proximity to others, as many workers do.

Their stated intent was to keep hospitals from being overrun—hospitals that were unprepared, understaffed and undersupplied. Their stated purpose was to slow the surge of the virus, not to stop it.

Continuing Work with No Protection

There was no intervention in daily work life or habits to stop the spread of the virus. Finally, only mandating businesses to halt certain operations. But what about all the work that continued—the socially necessary work of feeding the population, or providing transportation or trucking services? What about the healthcare workers?

The black population, in its majority, is working class. Systemic discrimination in hiring has resulted in black workers being predominately employed in high density work; they are disproportionately employed in the service sector and the public sector, with resulting high levels of public exposure. Few have private offices or work from home—most work side by side in offices, in restaurants, on production lines, in hospitals to name a few. It is human contact that spreads the virus.

Institutional discrimination in housing, a history that includes decades of outright laws banning ownership of homes (like in Detroit) and redlining to exclude and devalue black ownership, left many in higher density areas. Economic discrimination, lower wages and benefits, have left next generations unable to leave and living under the same roof.

Finally, in cities like Detroit, a rotten public transportation system is often the only means of transportation.

Set Up for High Levels of Death

Why did so many black people have to die and in large proportion? Why are they still dying in high numbers daily?

Hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease, dementia and arterial fibrillation—these are conditions that put persons in a high-risk category. And no population suffers in more disproportionately high levels from these conditions than the black population in this country.

Unsafe, difficult, repetitive, dirty, work in factories, stressful work in the public sector, homes in less safe, less desirable neighborhoods, lower paid, less benefit-paying work and finally, being less able to afford health care would be enough. But what about closed or severely cut back hospitals? How about no regular care, little maternal care? What about a life expectancy rate of 62 instead of in the 80s?

The history of institutional racism in health care is well documented. Of course, other groups of workers suffer from these same problems, but not in equal numbers.

During these past two months, experts have documented inequalities in treatment of COVID-19 black patients. The possibility of being taken off a ventilator to give it to a white patient was a regular fear. Worse care in over-run city hospitals.

So no, “we are not all in this together”, a favorite slogan of the bosses’ spokespersons.

The black population is being disproportionately sickened and killed, not by the virus, but by the virus aided by the damage done by decades of racism.

Authorities avoid responsibility by saying “after it’s all over, we will understand better….”

Bull! They understand it now, and it’s their system that sustained it.

This system, which they chose to keep in place, will bury us all.

All workers are being sucked into the whirlwind of healthcare and economic collapse. None of us are coming out of this war whole and happy.

The working class has the power to slap the capitalists back; to join its ranks and fight not to be pulled backward, not to lose what little we may have. But to do what it needs to unite around its sections whenever and wherever it is attacked. And that means refusing to accept the lies about the virus that are blaming the victims while making us all victims.