COVID-19 & Race: Commentary

Advancing Water Equity for the Nation’s Recovery and Renewal [Issue 7]

This week’s COVID-19 and Race Commentary looks at water equity in the pandemic era, skyrocketing unemployment among Latinx workers, and why slavery lies at the root of COVID-19 deaths in Black America.

Issue No 7. May 27, 2020


Advancing Water Equity for the Nation’s Recovery and Renewal

By Ronda Lee Chapman

COVID-19 is a never-ending lesson in the history, legacy, and reality of structural racism in America. We see it everywhere the pandemic forces us to look: in infection rates, unemployment, housing insecurity, and the loss of life. It’s also glaring in an area that has not gotten enough attention: lack of access to safe, affordable water.

It is no coincidence that many of the current COVID-19 “hot spots” are in cities and communities with majority-Black or Indigenous populations — places where residents have been fighting for years for reliable, affordable access to safe water. Medical experts exhort the public to wash our hands and sanitize our surroundings, but that advice is hollow in communities plagued by tainted water, crumbling sanitation systems or none at all, or unaffordable water bills and service shutoffs. COVID-19 exposes the dangers and immorality of decades of underinvestment, unjust policies at all levels of government, and society’s disregard for the well-being of millions of low-income people and people of color.

Nearly a quarter of the US population, 77 million people, are served by drinking water systems with known Safe Drinking Water Act violations. As local  and state governments increasingly shoulder the expense of maintaining and repairing old, fraying systems, the costs are passed down to consumers, though they are not responsible for the problems and in many cases they cannot afford higher rates. Before the pandemic, an estimated 15 million people, mostly people of color struggling with poverty and unemployment, experienced water shutoffs when they couldn’t pay their bills.

When COVID-19 struck Detroit, for example, an estimated 2,800 homes were experiencing water shutoffs. More than 100,000 Detroit homes have had their water turned off at some point since 2014. We the People of Detroit co-founder Monica Lewis-Patrick has worked tirelessly to put bottled water into the hands of residents. In the face of the pandemic, they had to choose between hydration and hand washing. African Americans make up close to 14 percent of the population in Michigan, but around 40 percent of the state’s 1,076 coronavirus deaths as of April 9. Water is by no means the only factor behind these devastating statistics, but access to clean water is the most fundamental element of infection control, and it’s critical to good health.

In Navajo Nation, an estimated 30 percent of people do not have running water and must haul barrels to meet their needs, according to the 2019 report Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States. Many also lack access to wastewater systems, and some households rely on unregulated wells, springs, or livestock troughs for water, which can be unsafe because groundwater is contaminated by abandoned uranium mines. These conditions are rooted in a history of US government violations of tribal water rights. The well-documented health impacts of poor water access in Navajo Nation include higher rates of diabetes and other conditions that make people especially vulnerable to COVID-19. As of May 25, Navajo Nation had 4,794 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the highest infection rate in the United States.

In this public health crisis, some government leaders are taking action. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide COVID-19 moratorium on water shutoffs in homes with unpaid bills and ordered service restored to homes that had been disconnected from water supplies. Michigan Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell have introduced the Emergency Water is a Human Rights Act, which would prohibit water shutoffs and require reconnections nationally during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill put forward by the House of Representatives, has two key provisions that would advance water equity and other environmental justice issues: (1) $50 million in grants to investigate or address the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic in environmental justice communities; and (2) $1.5 billion in grants to states and tribes to subsidize water costs for households at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, and to keep or restore water access.

This moment of disruption creates a unique opportunity to rework our inadequate and inequitable water systems and reconceive how we value and manage them, bending the arc toward structural change. The US Water Alliance and more than 200 organizations have put forward a set of guiding principles that call on local, state, and federal governments to ensure that water is reliable and affordable for everyone, strengthen water utilities of all sizes, close the water access gap, and fuel economic recovery by investing in water systems.
Indigenous communities rightly refer to water as a relative, reminding us that we are deeply connected to water and should treat it with respect, care, and humility. Water is life giving, life sustaining, and lifesaving. COVID-19 should spur the nation to rethink policies and practices that treat water as a commodity — an increasingly unaffordable one — and reimagine it as an essential resource that must be available to all.
Ronda Lee Chapman is a Senior Associate at PolicyLink.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated From Around the Web

For the first time on record, Latinx people have the nation’s highest unemployment rate: 18.9 percent, up from 6 percent in March. Julyssa Lopez at, examines  the complex and overlapping reasons, including over-representation in the hardest-hit industries — especially leisure and hospitality, which has borne nearly 40 percent of the 7.7 million jobs lost — and structural barriers to opportunity. 

But the collapse of employment has spared no racial or ethnic group. From March to April, unemployment increased from 4 to 14.2 percent among White workers, 4.1 to 14.5 percent among Asian American workers, and 6.7 to 16.7 percent among Black workers, PBS NewsHour reports. Although past economic crises had their biggest impact on male-dominated sectors like manufacturing and mining, this time is different. The unemployment rate for women has reached 16.2 percent, compared with 13.5 percent for men. Minnesota reports that more women than men have filed for unemployment every week since mid-March.

Much has been written about the failure of federal relief to reach many low-income people and small business owners of color. Meanwhile, the March economic stimulus package quietly gave $135 billion to wealthy real estate developers — a provision that may benefit President Trump and his family, the New York Times reports. Overall, the pandemic has been a bonanza for the richest Americans, finds an analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness: from March 18 — roughly the beginning of widespread shutdowns — to May 19, the total net worth of the 600-plus US billionaires jumped by $434 billion, or 15 percent. A provision in the HEROES Act, passed by the House, would repeal a tax break for millionaires and billionaires,  generating $246 billion that could be spent on pandemic relief.

A Washington Post poll and a Pew survey show that laid-off workers are more likely than those still employed to support continued lockdowns, and they worry about states reopening too fast. So who’s beyond the frenzied push to restart the economy? Large employers, Labor Notes writes. In this video, Robert Reich argues that the rush to reopen will force working people back into harm’s way while the affluent safely work from home and the rich continue to profit from the crisis. “We are all weathering the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.”

With data showing the pandemic is devastating communities of color, the notion that it is “not our problem” is an undercurrent in the largely White reopen-America protests, Michele Norris writes in the Washington Post. She quotes MIT political scientist Evan Lieberman, who has raised concerns that disaggregated racial data could have harmful consequences for Black people. “It is not difficult to imagine that if COVID-19 comes to be understood as a ‘Black epidemic,’ this will create false impressions for many White Americans — in the United States’ racially polarized and effectively segregated society — that the virus is ‘not our problem,’ leading to decreased demand for and compliance with public health directives,” he wrote. Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen saw this dynamic in action when she visited a newly reopened upscale area of shops and restaurants in Alpharetta, Georgia, and found tightly packed crowds of unmasked people merrily eating and drinking. “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I’m not worried,” one man told her.

Reactions like this, coupled with the recent killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, are more intolerable evidence of “the unmattering of Black lives,” Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw writes in The New Republic. “This involuntary sacrifice of a predictably vulnerable population does more than shore up a grossly inequitable economy and distribution of power. It has to be squarely confronted for what it is: one more chapter in the annals of American racial power, in which the bodies of some are sacrificed en masse for the privilege and convenience of others.” On his blog, Phillip Picardi describes “the empathy crisis” of White America. “We are merely modern-day spectators to the deaths of Black people ...Even with our supposed raising of consciousness, our hearts have yet to catch up to our minds.”

Asian Americans have been targeted with racist slurs and physical attacks since the beginning of the pandemic, and doctors on the COVID-19 front lines are not immune. Several physicians recount the hostility and threats they have faced in this Washington Post video.

Safely reopening the economy requires a comprehensive and targeted strategy for testing and contact tracing, responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable people. A national group of community health workers and health equity scholars has developed community-based workforce principles for contact tracing. These call for a racial equity framework in recruiting tracers; investment in trusted community organizations; local hiring and training; and investments in community infrastructure and financing.

Restarting the economy also requires solid information and nuanced understanding of infection trends, especially among the hardest-hit groups. As meatpacking plants reopen after a series of severe outbreaks, companies are withholding data on infections, with tacit approval from local officials, so it is impossible to know if contagion has been controlled, the New York Times reports. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 5,000 workers had been infected by the end of  April, but the nonprofit Food & Environment Reporting Network puts the number at more than 17,000, including 66 deaths.

While most states have released some data on the racial makeup of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the figures are often incomplete. Of the 1.1 million cases reported to the CDC, race is unknown in more than half, The Hill reports. “The bottom line is, if we are going to recover successfully, if we are going to make sure those most impacted have resources they need to recover and thrive, this data is essential,” Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, told the publication. 

A New York Times analysis reveals a stark racial divide in nursing home deaths: more than 60 percent of facilities where at least a quarter of residents are Black or Latinx have reported at least one coronavirus case, which often leads to a major outbreak. That’s double the rate for nursing homes where Black and Latinx people make up less than 5 percent of residents.

And data gathered by the Marshall Project finds that 29,000 incarcerated people have contracted the coronavirus and 415 have died, the Washington Post reports. More inmates have died in Ohio than in any other state, but after briefly halting admissions, Ohio prisons are resuming normal operations. Lawmakers around the country have urged the release of people locked up for low-level offenses and parole violations. The New Yorker explores whether the pandemic will make us rethink mass incarceration.

A report from Data for Black Lives calls for data integrity, accountability, ethics, and justice in the collection and use of COVID-19 data “by those in power including federal and local government, health agencies and other decision-makers who literally hold the power in deciding whether our communities will come out of this alive.” The group says the data must be used for the abolition of the structures, systems, policies, and narratives that have made Black people so vulnerable to the disease. The data should not be used to police, surveil, control, or target Black communities or to reinforce the narrative that race, rather than racism, is a risk factor.

When asked in a roomful of White people why so many Black Americans are dying of COVID-19, Sabrina Strings, a Black sociologist, answered, “Slavery,” she writes in a New York Times op-ed. “The era of slavery was when white Americans determined that Black Americans needed only the bare necessities, not enough to keep them optimally safe and healthy. It set in motion Black people’s diminished access to healthy foods, safe working conditions, medical treatment, and a host of other social inequities that negatively impact health.” 

Black health writer Linda Villarosa talks with the podcast The Daily about COVID-19 deaths in Black America and the concept of “weathering’’ — the accumulated effects of environmental inequality compounded by the physiological consequences of living in an atmosphere of bias and discrimination. ProPublica investigates one glaring example of how these forces play out to compromise health: not only do Black people have higher rates of diabetes, a risk factor for severe COVID-19 complications— they also have astronomical rates of amputations,  “by one measure, the most preventable surgery in America.”  

Long before COVID-19, young adults who aged out of the foster care system without adequate support struggled to find stable housing, jobs, and health care. The insecurity and risks to health and safety have increased as the pandemic has shut down businesses, closed campuses, and forced some young adults to go unsheltered or shelter with abusive people, The Nation writes. While the percentage of Black youth in foster care has decreased in recent years, they along with Latinx youth are over-represented in the system. California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Ohio, and Rhode Island have extended the aging-out guideline past the age of 21, at least temporarily. 

With school buildings closed, children’s learning is suffering and the challenge is most acute for low-income children with unequal access to online education, NPR reports. New research suggests that children are making a third less progress in reading and half as much progress in math than they would have made in a typical school year. In this episode of the podcast In the Thick, hosts Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela explore how school districts have adapted to quarantine teaching and the gaps for students of color.

Colleges, especially Southeastern Conference and Big 12 Conference schools, are clamoring for a return to football — “a revered tradition of extracting the value of primarily Black labor for the benefit of the few and mostly white,”  writes Ted Tatos in The American Prospect. He argues that a premature return to the field will irresponsibly sacrifice the health of young athletes.

Migrant youth are also facing extraordinary burdens and mistreatment, as the Trump administration uses the pandemic to deport hundreds of children and teens with no opportunity to meet with a social worker, plead for asylum, or even in some cases to talk with their parents, the New York Times reports. The policy abandons safeguards that have been in place under Republican and Democratic administrations for decades.

The pandemic continues to put the spotlight on the nation’s enormous, and growing, housing insecurity. Evictions are expected to skyrocket in Texas, where the state Supreme Court lifted a moratorium and unemployment has hit historic levels, NPR reports. While some cities have acted to protect renters, Houston has become the largest city in the nation where evictions can resume. A rental assistance program there ran out of cash in 90 minutes.

With record-high unemployment, an unemployment insurance system that can’t keep up with demand, and the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, many New Yorkers can’t make rent, The New Yorker writes. The problem in the city — where two-thirds of households, 5.4 million people, live in rental units — is exacerbated by years of rent deregulation and landlord maneuvers to overcharge for rent-stabilized apartments.

A federal judge ruled that Los Angeles County must provide housing or shelter space for as many as 4,000 people living along freeways, NextCity writes. In the face of the pandemic, California legislators are rethinking their sweeping plans to address the state’s housing crisis, according to CalMatters. “My sense is that there’s a real desire to see the market help fix our problems, and I think that’s kind of fundamentally at odds with our perspective,” Chione Flegal, a managing director at PolicyLink, told the news site. “Although there’s certainly a role for the market, the last two decades have shown that the market is not working to build supply for people at the bottom of the income spectrum — and it’s never worked for communities of color.” 

As the nation cheers and makes signs of gratitude for essential workers, activists and philanthropies are offering better ways to say thanks: give low-wage workers more money and support their well-being. The Ford Foundation and a diverse group of philanthropies that don’t normally work together have started the Families and Workers Fund, Business Insider reports. In addition to providing cash relief through organizations such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance and National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the fund advocates for policies that ensure an inclusive, just economic recovery.

A grassroots group in Tulsa is trying to raise $5 million to support 10,000 undocumented families, the New York Times reports. “Within a week of beginning to place calls, we had private donors, nonprofits, activists and faith leaders raise their hands to help,” said Cynthia Jasso, co-founder of Tulsa Immigrant Relief Fund.

In Oxnard, California, health promoters, or promotoras, provide vital information on free and low-cost health services in various Native languages, including Mixteco and Zapoteco, Jacqueline Garcia writes for the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. An estimated 20,000 people in the community, mainly agricultural workers from Mexico, primarily speak an Indigenous language.

As the pandemic rips through the Navajo Nation, young people have felt called to action to protect their elders, Stat reports. A 30-year-old screenwriter who recently returned from Los Angeles created a social media campaign, Protect the Sacred, to encourage young people to follow social-distancing precautions and support their loved ones to do the same. A brother and sister team launched a relief effort that has helped hundreds of families. Inspired by the energy and commitment of a new generation, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has started #NavajoStrong, a campaign to raise desperately needed funds and recruit doctors and nurses.

PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:

  • Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
  • Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
  • Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns. 

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We hope you find the COVID-19 and Race Series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.