We are in a crisis. There is no denying this — these are unprecedented times, as we face a global Coronavirus pandemic that is threatening the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of people. This is not normal, or routine.
But even though this crisis that we are confronting is clearly unparalleled in its scope, we need to realize that most Americans routinely face equally devastating crises. We are perpetually facing over-policing crises, racist incarceration crises, xenophobic rampant detention crises, and healthcare crises. The pandemic is shaking loose our delusions regarding these crises and revealing the fundamental flaws of our systems. It is not just now that our government and economy are failing us. In fact, it is far rarer that these systems do right by marginalized communities.
We are seeing the failures of our systems more clearly than ever before. Over-incarcerated prisons are hotbeds for the spreading of disease, as are overfilled detention facilities. Black folks and people of color and indigenous communities are contracting COVID-19 and dying from it at much higher rates. It is not the fault of the pandemic that leaves minority groups more vulnerable to contraction and mortality, but America’s racist institutions. The inequalities exposed during Coronavirus are ones that have always existed.
Black individuals make up 12% of the United States population. But they comprise 18% of the COVID-19 death rate. In New York alone, Black New Yorkers are dying at twice the rate of White New Yorkers (and Latinx at one and a half times the rate). And there are three times the infections in minority counties. And this is only from the information that we know: only 40 states are reporting race data on the virus at all, and only 18 states are reporting it comprehensively. In a press briefing, President Trump claimed that the administration did not have the evidence for why this disparity is so chasmic. “We want to find the reasons [for] it,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Well, Mr. President, we do know the reasons. Institutionalized systems of racism and oppression are native to the American identity and are of course at the forefront of this pandemic. A deeply unequal society that enters into a pandemic will see disproportionate impacts. Communities of color are set-up to be more vulnerable. They disproportionately fill the essential jobs and low wage jobs that put them at higher levels of risk. They face higher rates of preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable. Many minority communities live closer to environmental hazards as well, especially from factory pollutants exposing them to higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and other respiratory illnesses. They are also less likely to have access to quality healthcare. Many hospitals release patients of color hastily without providing adequate care.
Black and Brown communities are also over-criminalized and over-policed, which means that they are overrepresented in prisons. And the overcrowding of prisons is becoming a death sentence for many incarcerated individuals during the pandemic. There are over seven hundred confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Rikers Island prison. The growth of coronavirus in jails and prisons drastically outpaces the rest of the country. America’s over-incarceration means that prisons are hotbeds of disease spread. The high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 in prisons is not an isolated problem; what happens to those incarcerated affects us all. Prisons are not isolated from the communities in which they reside, as staff and workers have to travel to and from home.
But it is not just now that over-incarceration is a problem. The pandemic is not a glitch in our system that creates new issues, but a result of fundamental flaws in that system. America notoriously incarcerates at a much higher rate than any other country in the world. Our criminal legal system often becomes a tool to relegate people of color to silence and cages (re: disproportionate representation of Black and POC individuals in the prison system and the school-to-prison pipeline, and over-policing in Black and Brown communities, among others). Many of the individuals that comprise the American incarcerated population should not be in the system in the first place. This problem predates Coronavirus. The pandemic merely brings it to light.
Our country’s habit of over-incarcerating does not end with the criminal legal system. ICE fills migrant detention facilities beyond capacity, often because of civil violations. The Department of Homeland Security endangers all detained immigrants by holding them in crowded facilities that are not equipped to handle health concerns. The number of confirmed cases in detention facilities continues to grow exponentially, and at a faster pace than outside of the facilities. There are quarantine measures in place — some centers are claiming to have isolated COVID-19 positive individuals from the rest of the facilities. Regardless of vacuous promises, though, healthcare officials in these facilities do not have access to enough tests to even ensure that non-quarantined migrants are COVID-19-free, nor are they scaling up hygiene accessibility.
Detention facilities have never adequately cared for the inmates. Prior to the pandemic, there were 10 confirmed deaths in U.S. detention due to insufficient healthcare. Many centers are also notorious for not providing access to basic hygiene, including necessities like soap and running water. ICE regularly commits human rights abuses by not awarding detained immigrants essential resources. And these centers are often for-profit and owned by people who benefit from the maltreatment and oppression of the detainees. The flaws in this system transcend the current pandemic.
The Navajo Nation is also facing high rates of contraction and mortality due to Covid-19. In fact, after New York and New Jersey, the Navajo Nation is the place with the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country. There are “tracers” in the tribe, who are doing their best to implement contact tracing, but this is a difficult process on the reservation due to lack of telecommunication (not everyone has a phone) and vast geography (it takes hours to drive to some homes).
This pattern of high infection rates among Indigenous populations like the Navajo Nation only sheds light on more deeply entrenched issues. Health inequities and disparities have existed between Native and colonizing demographics since Europeans began to colonize the Americas. The American government is notorious for broken promises and broken treaties with Indigenous communities, leading to woeful and chronic underfunding of many aspects of reservation necessities, including healthcare access on reservations (like the Indian Health Service). Death rates in tribal areas are always higher, even with a basic flu or other curable illnesses. The American government’s relationship with these Indigenous communities is shameful at best, and fatal at worst.
These issues predate the pandemic. The American government and legislators always fail the most marginalized communities and communities of color. The crisis provides us with a chance to examine the flaws native to the American system, and present us with an opportunity to change course. This crisis can mobilize us and imbue action into a body that too often relies on passive inaction.
Will this crisis give us the opportunity to decarcerate and end mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow? Will we head toward a more just future that acknowledges its past handholding with institutional racism? Will we recognize the inherent flaws of our system that seek to lock people of color up rather than provide equitable access to basic necessities? We do not have the answers to these questions, but we have the opportunity to find them. Along with the struggles to reach the end of this crisis with COVID-19, let us take a look at all of the others.
We are seeing the failures of our systems more clearly than ever before.