Harvard Kennedy School Professor Cornell Brooks says America’s legacy of racial discrimination means communities of color are being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic on everything from health to economics to political disenfranchisement. Brooks says historic systemic discrimination, lack of access to healthcare and healthy food, housing and employment disparities, and other issues have left communities of color uniquely vulnerable. Brooks also says the pandemic is also causing widespread disruption in the current election season, and that it has the potential to exacerbate the current trend toward minority disenfranchisement, both purposeful and unanticipated.
First there was the shock of realizing that the COVID-19 pandemic would be widespread and lengthy. Now issues of race, equity, and the coronavirus are quickly coming to the fore, as data pours in showing how the virus is hitting minority communities the hardest.
Harvard Kennedy School Professor Cornell Brooks says historic systemic discrimination, lack of access to healthcare and healthy food, housing and employment disparities, and other issues have left communities of color uniquely vulnerable.
Discrimination means people in communities of color can’t follow many recommended individual actions for the pandemic including staying at home, working from home, stocking up on groceries, drive-through testing, and social distancing. Low-income “essential” workers, he says, have effectively become human buffers against the coronavirus for people with higher incomes.
There are also moral implications to unequal distribution of risk, including the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and in jails where people accused of crimes are waiting to be tried. A pandemic spreading in these “petri dish” situations means exposing potentially-innocent people to what amounts to a death sentence, he says, not to mention the exposure facing correctional officers and staff.
Brooks also says the pandemic is also causing widespread disruption in the current election season, and that it has the potential to exacerbate the current trend toward minority disenfranchisement, both purposeful and unanticipated. He says the recent election debacle in Wisconsin, where more than 90% of polling places in some cities were closed and voters were forced to break social distancing in order to participate in the democratic process, was a warning to the country about how the pandemic endangers both democracy and lives.
“We are ill-prepared for November,” he says. “It's not enough for us to say we are in the midst of a pandemic and we can only concern ourselves with face masks and ventilators. We also have to be concerned about ballot boxes and polling places.”
After the pandemic is over and life starts returning to normal, Brooks says American will need to learn from the experience and make long-overdue societal shifts to keep the impact of events like this from being so severe and unevenly distributed the next time.
Cornell Brooks is the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice. is also Director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the School’s Center for Public Leadership
PolicyCast is hosted by Harvard Kennedy School Associate Dean for Communications and Public Affairs Thoko Moyo. It is produced by Ralph Ranalli and Susan Hughes.