Opinion: Pandemic tells painful story of inequality

Rory Gamble

This global pandemic is a worldwide tragedy on so many levels for so many people, and the full impact is still an unknown. But what is not unknown is one undeniable, shameful story of inequality, of lost opportunity, of wasted minds and hearts, and of unnecessary pain and suffering.

We need only to look at the statistics: COVID-19, while devastating families across the nation with illness and deaths, is hitting communities of color especially hard. The reasons for this have been in front of us for years. Coronavirus has emphasized a lack of equal access to work, health care and a safe environment. 

In cities across the nation, the numbers tell the story of environmental, economic and health issues that have disproportionately made the impact of COVID a crisis for African American and Hispanic communities. 

Consider these numbers:

► African Americans account for more than half of those who have tested positive and 72% of virus-related fatalities in Chicago, even though they make up a little less than a third of the population. 

► In Michigan, African Americans account for a third of positive tests and represent 40% of deaths even though they make up 14% of the population.

► In Louisiana, about 70% of the people who have died are black, though only a third of that state’s population are African American.

► The story is similar in Wisconsin, where African Americans number 

nearly half of the 941 cases in Milwaukee County and 81% of its 27 deaths, while the population is 6% African American.

Raymoan Autrey, 48, of Detroit puts on the mask given to him by the bus driver before he got on the 17 bus in Detroit on May 18, 2020. To protect the health and safety of our customers and employees, DDOT is temporarily suspending fare collection for all trips and requesting that customers limit non-essential bus travel until further notice.

When governors across the nation issued stay-at-home orders to stem the spread of this virus, a disproportionate number of African Americans and other minority populations did not have this option. Only 19.7% of African American workers and 16.2% of Latino workers surveyed said they could work from home. 

Another factor contributing to the disproportionate impact of the virus is that COVID-19 spreads faster in locations with higher density. Black Americans are more likely to live in urban counties than suburban or rural ones, according to a Pew analysis. And within those areas, black Americans are more likely to have lower incomes, which may press them into crowded living situations. 

Existing health conditions also add to the risk. Black Americans have more existing medical issues, yet less access to health care. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said, “People with underlying conditions are more affected by COVID-19, and in the United States, black people are more likely to have underlying health issues like diabetes, heart disease and lung disease.”

Hygiene and cleanliness are necessary to combat the virus, and yet we have communities like Flint — whose water quality has been deficient for years — as well as water shutoffs in Detroit. This goes against the best defense from COVID-19.

As we look to conquering this virus, and reopening our communities and our country, we need to remember how COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the economic and health care disparities that clearly exist. We must start now to work diligently to ensure these factors are changed and improved. 

It has long been the goal of the UAW to fight for our brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities, and that goal has never been more top of mind than now.

Rory Gamble is president of the UAW.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.