The COVID-19 crisis is a powerful, tragic moment in the history of our state and country. Throughout this time, it has become clear: we must learn from this moment and work diligently to reshape the future of our society. If we can fight fatigue from the stress of our current situation, it is possible to provide dignity and safety for essential workers now, while making choices that create real and lasting change for those being hit hardest: Black communities.
Right now, addressing this crisis means coordinating the logistics of providing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators to save lives, but decision-makers must not stop there. Our society can both walk and chew gum. We must simultaneously redefine the concept of a frontline worker.
For so many communities, that term first brings to mind healthcare workers: physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, scientists or other allied health workers. However, we implore the media and influencers to keep centering on those who are equally heroes but not always deemed so: the grocery store workers, sanitation workers and health facility cleaning staff, for instance, all those making sacrifices despite having the least in disposable income and emergency funding, and slim access to health insurance and paid leave benefits.
The news has highlighted the racial disparities emerging from the crisis, tied to the comorbidity factors of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. As a collective, we need to understand that the ills of the broader system are responsible for the devastating outcomes of COVID-19 in our communities.
Confounding factors have worked for generations to destroy Black communities. And may it not be lost on us all that those very factors have led people to live, work, and breathe in areas relegated to doom. Neither lifestyle choices nor individual responsibility can explain away the widespread loss we are seeing in south Louisiana’s Black community, where earlier this month African Americans made up over 70 percent of COVID-19 fatalities despite being only 32 percent of the population.
We have allowed the human rights violation of racism to go on for too long, and with it we have removed the dignity of decent pay for hard work. We have dismantled workers’ unions and protections under the law, reserving the luxuries of paid time off, hazard pay, and basic accommodations needed for survival for those deemed worthy. We have forgotten that all human beings are indeed worthy, just by being.
Every one of us is a hero at this moment. For many of us, the choice to stay home is a privilege unto itself — and every person doing so is saving lives. Every person still at work, in whatever capacity, is performing an act of courage.
Yet, as a collective, we have let down the working class, the backbone of our communities that has kept the rest of us standing. We must not let them succumb to the virus, its impacts on their bodies, or to the trauma of just getting by in these conditions, of barely making it day after day.
If you care about the COVID-19 crisis — if this moment reveals to you our innate, human interconnectedness — then help elevate Black people now. When there are so many deadly threats in our midst, including institutional racism and centuries of degradation, no amount of shaming, blaming, or deflecting can rectify our collective misdeed.
Instead of seeking an explanation for why we should not act, envision Black people in our community with their beautiful faces and hard-working spirit. Embrace the fight we must now take up for them: the fight to preserve human rights for all, through and beyond this crisis here in Louisiana.
Our first steps can be simple:
- Demand that Governor Edwards use his emergency powers to either provide statewide paid sick leave or give local governments the ability to enact local paid family and sick leave policies.
- Expand access to unemployment insurance so that workers can receive the maximum benefits under Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC)
- Raise the state minimum wage and/or give local government the freedom to raise local wage floors so more workers will be able to save money to take care of themselves and their families in times of crisis.
- Follow all of the other recommendations for the equitable recovery of our housing, education, and criminal legal systems, as outlined by the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice;
- And commit to making public health and economic decisions that don’t commodify or focus on just one piece of the marginalized populations’ experience, but rather addresses the plethora of legal and societal decisions that have exacerbated this moment of crisis.
Angelle Bradford is a doctoral student in physiology and medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine, living in New Orleans. She has been a member and leader of various efforts and campaigns with Step Up Louisiana, the host organization for Unleash Local: a movement that works to achieve the passage and implementation of workers’ rights policies at the local level across Louisiana.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.