In response to the dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has released a number of guidelines and restrictions for safe social interaction. These guidelines have forced us to ask ourselves:
Is an elbow bump okay?
Stay six feet away from everyone?
Will this scarf work as a face mask?
We’re not exactly used to them yet, but the guidelines are pretty simple. However, for many ethnic minority communities in the United States, these questions might look a little different:
Will I be safe if I wear a mask in public?
Is it even possible for me to social distance, and what will happen if I can’t?
The CDC states in its mission that it “saves lives and protects people from health threats.” However, CDC guidelines surrounding COVID-19 have failed to live up to its promise of inclusivity in protecting all United States citizens. Due to systemic issues such as disparities in access to healthcare, substandard living conditions, and disproportional representation in essential workers, minorities face a far greater challenge of abiding by these guidelines and protecting themselves during COVID-19.
By providing universal guidelines, the CDC neglects to recognize systemic injustices of public health that prevent some minorities from protecting themselves. In fact, many restrictions have even been harmful to these groups.
The CDC’s overreliance on guidelines surrounding personal hygiene, social distancing, and the wearing of masks makes for an administration that avoids system-level responsibilities in combating the pandemic, allowing marginalized communities to yet again fall to the wayside.
Relying on individual responsibility instead of productive government action isn’t something new to COVID-19. Natalia Molina points out, in the American Journal of Public Health, that the minor outbreak of typhus fever in 1916 was characterized by “hygiene, sanitation, and education campaigns, all aimed exclusively at Mexicans.” These actions, she explains, were substituted for policies that would address the underlying issues that allowed for disease spread. It is widely acknowledged that disease spreads more readily in conditions of overcrowding, and where facilities for hygiene are lacking. However, rather than addressing these conditions as responsible for the spread of the fever, the U.S. government distributed “list[s] of regulations” to Mexican communities dealing only with individual personal hygiene.
This emphasis on individual responsibility over government action remains apparent today during the outbreak of COVID-19, where marginalized groups are suffering at greater numbers because of similar problems of overcrowding and less access to healthcare. The Brookings Institution reports that “Blacks in about every state with racial data available have higher contraction rates and higher death rates of COVID-19.” In Louisiana, Black people represent around one-third of the overall population; however, they account for 70% of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
Relative to white people, Black people are “more likely to live in densely populated areas,” and “are also less likely to have equitable healthcare access.” These inequities apply to other ethnic minorities across the United States as well, with members of racial and ethnic minorities more likely to receive lower-quality care.
These systemic inequalities starkly resemble the ones facing Mexican laborers in the early 1900s, and the response from the U.S. government in health policy remains the same. Rather than enacting policies to combat the conditions that allow for disease to spread more readily in populations of people of color, the United States government has prioritized encouraging personal hygiene, as seen in another CDC message to “Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily,” a task considerably more difficult in densely populated areas, and areas unable to afford sufficient amounts of disinfectant.
While personal hygiene is undoubtedly an effective way to prevent disease spread, it should never be used to undermine or replace action combatting the systemic inequalities in public health.
It is worth acknowledging that other initiatives, besides CDC guidelines, have been employed by the government in response to the virus. Government stimulus checks have been distributed to curb financial hardship among citizens. The actual execution of the payouts, however, favor wealthier people and businesses over those most burdened by the pandemic. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that hospitals serving higher-income patients received far more funding than hospitals serving lower-income patients. The New York Times explains this discrepancy as a result of the government’s calculation of bailout distribution based on revenue, rather than financial need.
Under the IRS CARES Act, banks are allowed to withhold payments from citizens with existing debt, leaving many low-income people with no support during a time of extreme financial distress. People of color, who are far more likely to be under the poverty line relative to white people, are impacted the most by these disparities.
Even more concerning than the social and economic stratification resulting from the government bailouts is the fact that the U.S. government once again fails to address systemic inequalities that intensify the already drastic effects of the crisis. These stimulus checks only put a bandage on the deep wounds inflicted by a lack of access to proper healthcare, insufficient worker protections, and financial instability. Instead, the current Administration relies on superficial action and the expectation that citizens will take responsibility for their own safety. The CDC allows this by failing to address the inequalities that must be dealt with before guidelines can take effect.
It is the responsibility of the CDC to bring attention to issues of public health, which include systemic racism and wealth inequality. Frighteningly, CDC guidelines, such as the requirement for individuals to wear masks, even have the potential to jeopardize people of color.
Aaron Thomas shares his own reservations towards wearing a mask in public, explaining that Black men are often seen as threatening in normal circumstances and that wearing a mask in public may increase the risk of him being perceived as “an armed robber or assailant.” Other ethnic minorities have also expressed fear towards wearing masks, such as some Asian-Americans who are fearful that masks will automatically distinguish them as carriers of COVID-19. Additionally, the requirement to wear masks has enabled over-policing in Black communities, where police brutality is justified on the basis of enforcing CDC guidelines. On the other hand, other wealthier communities are allowed to continue daily activities without masks, with police even handing out masks to citizens in public areas. The CDC guidelines, therefore, allow for the current Administration to justify a lack of action towards combating police brutality, a systemic issue that adds to a long list of pre-existing inequalities.
What the CDC gets wrong about personal hygiene, social distancing, and requiring masks is that they neglect the most prominent, systemic issues that allow for the spread of COVID-19, and they certainly don’t address the ways in which people of color may be threatened by these guidelines. The mission of the CDC pledges that it “provides health information that protects our nation.” But until powerful departments like the CDC finally direct government attention to the problems of lack of healthcare and economic inequality facing people of color in our society, relying on individual responsibility during a global pandemic will just not be enough.
This article was written by Mia Barkenaes based in Portland, Oregon. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: from Canva.com stock photo