Disease Does Discriminate: Race, Space and COVID-19
Back in the early months of 2020, as the United States began to understand the magnitude of COVID-19, one of the most daunting aspects of the virus was that it knew no boundaries — it's deaths "didn't discriminate." However, now that we are nearing the half-year mark of COVID-19 devastation, we've come to see serious disparity between rate and severity of infection clustered by race and thus socio-economic status.
The data speaks for itself: disproportionately, counties in the United States with a large black population account for nearly 60% of deaths from COVID-19 in the country, despite representing only 22% of counties, as reported by The Washington Post. Not only does this mean that there's a disproportionate number of cases within BIPOC communities but studies have also shown that these patients are less likely to be able to obtain a COVID-19 test in a number of major US cities. In Boston alone, a city of many neighborhoods, we can see stark differences, as we can see in this geographic distribution of COVID-19, courtesy of the Boston Public Health Commission.
The neighborhoods to the South East of the city — Dorchester, East Boston, Roslindale, Mattapan, Hyde Park, etc. — are made up of lower-income white and POC families and had already been subject to the negative impacts of spatial inequity for years, pre COVID-19, known as a food desert with inadequate public transportation connection and a high level of incarceration.
Well, they should all be wearing masks, you say? Most of them do, if they can find some, despite the serious shortage of appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) and affordable testing sites. Mayor Marty Walsh has tried to address the crisis increasing testing in the aforementioned neighborhoods. WGBH reported that Boston city health officials, along with personnel from Massachusetts General Hospital, tested 750 residents and early 10 percent of residents in those areas tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies and 2.6 percent tested positive for the virus itself. Mayor Walsh's response was that "since we saw differences in numbers in different neighborhoods, that's an indication of how localized the spread can be, and how targeted our response needs to be." For the purpose of fighting this virus, I would agree. However, as an urban planner might say, these spatial inequities need to be addressed and dismantled before future crises devastate certain populations because they are clustered spatially due to their race and class.
After all, many BIPOC might feel hesitant to wear a mask into a store for fear of being profiled as dangerous or combative and most likely subjugated to police brutality. The murder of George Floyd and the protests that swept the country in response to his death were magnified versions of the same fundamental issue — inequity and thus diminished livelihood of peoples because of their race. In fact, we've seen a decrease in protective actions (going out without masks, gathering without maintaining 6 ft. difference, etc.) in more affluent, white communities once they misinterpreted the former data to mean that "this wasn't about them."
In reality, the United States of America, as we know it is a country built upon systemic racisms, the effects of which continue to plague its wellbeing. The fact that indigenous reservations, predominantly Black and Latinx affordable housing units, and factories staffed by low-income laborers are some of the most impacted and infected sites speaks volumes. Yes, the country is facing a serious health pandemic which requires the utmost attention and focus. However, if our energy is directed towards saving and protecting certain parts of our population over others, then what type of future are we making for ourselves?