Talking About COVID-19: A Call for Racial, Economic, and Health Equity

March 9, 2020 Elizabeth Johnsen

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

As the devastating coronavirus sweeps the United States, we have become conscious of public health recommendations: wash your hands, keep 6 feet apart, wear a mask. Equally important, however, is stepping up our advocacy for communities and individuals most vulnerable – not just those with underlying health conditions, but communities of color, immigrant communities, incarcerated communities, and low-income communities.

As many have said before: We are all only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk. This means working together to demand that local and state governments adopt policies that can protect marginalized communities and individuals. It also means being conscious about our language and messaging.

Organizations such as Race Forward, America’s Voice, and Family Values @ Work, have already pointed out that communities of color, low-wage workers, and incarcerated and detained populations are at disproportionate risk of being affected both by the coronavirus and the response to its spread. For these populations, the health and economic ramifications could be severe.

Many low-wage workers, for example, do not have Paid Sick Leave or Paid Family and Medical Leave and therefore cannot afford to stay home if they should become sick or if they need to care for a sick loved one. We can change this by urging Congress to immediately pass the Healthy Families Act, which has a provision for public health emergencies that would provide all workers with paid sick time and ensure employers keep their jobs open for the duration of any virus-related time missed from work.

That is just one of several short-term solutions. We also need to recognize and push for long-term solutions, which means Paid Sick Leave and Paid Family and Medical Leave for all, so that working people never have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of themselves or a sick loved one, particularly during a public health crisis. The Opportunity Agenda's public opinion research shows that despite significant public support for Paid Family and Medical Leave, political will to pass legislation that ensures paid leave for all needs galvanizing.

We also need to step up our allyship with communities of color. As Race Forward stated: “Implicit and explicit racism has often historically driven government responses to urgent health situations…The Trump administration has used this crisis to stem travel from unaffected regions, including halting asylum seekers at the Southern border. Hate-filled and racist rhetoric has stigmatized people of color as “infected,” threats to public safety, and burdens to the health care system.”

Asian people, in particular, have been the target of racist ire and discrimination – so much so that Asian businesses and restaurants have already suffered a significant blow.

Being an ally for communities of color starts in our language and messaging. We must avoid slipping into the mindset of “othering” when talking about this pandemic or any other public health crisis.

America is currently grappling with its long legacy of racism and othering. This comes through in our messaging around COVID by allowing implicit and explicit bias to influence our thinking and language, whether it be the example of blaming specific races for the virus and its spread or referring to the virus using derogatory terms. Instead, we should work together to actively dispel xenophobic myths and racist misinformation – and hold our elected officials and the media to doing the same. Addressing implicit bias and racism is not always easy, but it is imperative, which is why The Opportunity Agenda developed a messaging tool to help advance these conversations.

Other forms of harmful bias have also surfaced during this pandemic. For example, we should think twice before stating that the virus “only gravely affects those who are old or those with an underlying condition,” an ableist statement that inherently places greater value on the young and healthy. Instead, let’s direct our conversation around how we can work together to protect those most likely to be affected. After all, few of us know the invisible health conditions of those around us, and we all have someone we love who struggles with physical or mental health.

What perhaps makes the COVID-19 pandemic unique is that we are literally all in this together – across boundaries illusory and recognized, across nations, oceans, and the globe. Therefore, we have a unique opportunity at hand. While the economic and racial disparities in how this epidemic could be handled are clear, now is the time to call for greater and more equal health justice. Now is the time to join communities of color in their demands for racial equity. Now is the time to protest the scapegoating of immigrants. We must push back against the language of fear and adopt language of inclusion, empowerment, and justice. Together, we can rise to the challenge.

Talking Coronavirus: Centering Language around Inclusion, Empowerment, and Justice