Governors’ Coronavirus Decisions Put People of Color In Harm’s Way
As the country reopens, we can’t quickly forget these failures of government, which have disproportionately harmed Black, Latinx, and Native people.
This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
At points in April, more people died each day in the U.S. from COVID-19 than typically die from heart disease or cancer, the usual leading causes of death for Americans. That month, the U.S. overtook all other countries in recorded COVID-19 deaths. Black Americans are disproportionately represented. According to an NPR analysis, “nationally, African-American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population. In four states, the rate is three or more times greater.”
Of course, President Trump’s denials and inaction in the early days of the pandemic, and the lack of a coordinated national response, put the U.S. at a disadvantage from the start. But over the course of the pandemic, governors and other local officials have also missed clear opportunities to save lives. Now, as most states have loosened restrictions and people across the country protest police killings—including that of George Floyd, who, in a cruel twist of fate, had contracted and most likely recovered from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 before he was suffocated—we can’t quickly forget these failures of government, which have disproportionately harmed Black, Latinx, and Native people.
In the early days of the pandemic, governors largely failed to heed calls from advocates and health experts to reduce jail and prison populations, which would remove people from an environment where it’s nearly impossible to socially distance and frequently wash your hands. Seven of the 10 largest outbreaks in the country are now at correctional institutions. Before Trump issued an executive order to keep the country’s meat processing plants open, some governors pushed to send workers back to plants that had closed because of outbreaks. Now two of those 10 largest outbreaks are at meat processing facilities. And in April, while infections and deaths were still climbing in many states, governors rushed to reopen businesses, without doing enough to support the communities bearing the burden on the front lines.
As petri dishes with a history of infectious disease, overcrowding, and abuse, prisons and jails have become hot spots for COVID-19. Cases exploded at Cook County Jail in Chicago, Rikers Island in New York, and eight Florida prisons. In Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, 96 percent of 3,300 prisoners testing positive were asymptomatic. The Ohio prison system accounts for nearly one in five coronavirus cases in the state, with 4,498 prisoners and 571 staff members testing positive. Further, 80 percent of prisoners at Marion and Pickaway Correctional Institutions have tested positive, and 60 have died. Prisoners have filed a federal class action suit calling for the release of more than 15,000 prisoners from the Ohio correctional system because of the outbreak.
A Kansas prison uprising highlights the gravity of COVID-19 behind bars. In April, dozens of prisoners at Lansing correctional facility protested overcrowded prison conditions and demanded protection from coronavirus. Two Lansing employees have since died.
But relatively few jurisdictions followed the World Health Organization’s advice to save lives through mass releases. The consequences of that inaction disproportionately fell on Black Americans, who make up 40 percent of the country’s incarcerated population despite representing only 13 percent of its residents.
Now protesters, responding to the inaction of government officials on police brutality, are fighting the pandemic of institutional racism. There has been little documented outdoor transmission of the novel coronavirus, and protesters taking to the streets alone may not have led to spikes in infections. But the use of tear gas, which makes people cough and yell, increases that risk, as does the mass jailing of protesters. Across the U.S., over 11,000 protesters have been arrested. Meanwhile, 23 states, particularly in the South and West, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are experiencing an increase in coronavirus cases. Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Congress that the protests, the largest of which have been in D.C. and Minnesota, could become seeding events that result in more outbreaks.
Alongside jails and prisons, meat processing plants are also hot spots for COVID-19. The coronavirus has spread at double the rate in counties with meat processing plants. Across the country, at least 24,000 workers in the meatpacking industry have been infected with COVID-19, and 51 have died. At least 8,000 workers across 15 states at the poultry giant Tyson have contracted coronavirus. More than 370 workers at a Triumph Foods pork processing plant in Buchanan County, Missouri—17 percent of workers there—tested positive for coronavirus in early May, all of them asymptomatic.
A majority of workers in the industry are Latinx, Black, and immigrants who typically do not have paid sick leave. Officials have blamed workers for their own illness, attributing spread of the disease to their lifestyle and communal living.
Particularly in the Midwest, governors have made efforts to keep the plants open despite the spread of the disease in these facilities, in which workers operate in close quarters. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds ordered her state’s meatpacking plants to remain open despite hundreds of workers falling ill, on the grounds that a shutdown would destroy farmers and the food supply.
In Nebraska, where over 1,000 meat workers have tested positive, Governor Pete Ricketts never issued a stay-at-home order and has stopped reporting the number of coronavirus cases in meat processing plants, saying the data is unreliable because some of those infected lied about where they worked. Although public health officials wanted the JBS beef packing plant in Grand Island closed because of the numerous workers testing positive for COVID-19, Ricketts refused to shut down the plant, which produces nearly a billion pounds of beef annually. Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota sought the opening of a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls that accounts for 5 percent of the national pork supply, calling the closure “devastating” for suppliers in the state.
The coronavirus has also hit Natives hard, and gaps in keeping demographic data mean we don’t know the full extent of the toll on Native communities. In May, the Navajo Nation, located in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, emerged with the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in the nation, surpassing New York and New Jersey. Possible causes include lack of running water, generations living under one roof, and food deserts, which cause people to congregate at the few stores available to purchase groceries. Although the Navajo Nation has strict stay-at-home policies to contain the spread of the coronavirus, other Native communities have faced resistance to their containment efforts. Noem told the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes to eliminate their traffic checkpoints along state and federal highways, threatening legal action and seeking help from the White House.
And governors have put more lives at risk by rushing for a broader reopening of businesses in their states.
In the absence of a coordinated national response and with mixed messages from Washington—and with the White House urging governors to reopen for business—states varied widely in when and how to reopen their economies. While some local officials are assuming a more measured and reasoned stance based on science and saving lives, others are winging it. Some Republican governors and judges guided by politics and economics, rather than public health, have resisted calls for their states’ residents to remain at home, resulting in deadly outbreaks.
With its high poverty, lack of healthcare resources and high rate of people with pre-existing conditions, Mississippi is one of the states that stands to lose the most to coronavirus. Eager to reopen after a monthlong shutdown despite the mounting coronavirus cases, Governor Tate Reeves initially announced a plan to open dine-in restaurants, salons, barbershops and gyms, then backtracked after 20 people died and 397 people tested positive for COVID-19 in one day. Reeves, who once made light of the disease, placed restrictions on seven counties deemed hot spots because of transmission related to workers—many of them immigrants—working in poultry processing plants.
Two weeks after ending a stay-at-home mandate and readying an expansion of business openings, Texas suffered a record high of 58 coronavirus deaths in a single day. While Texas Governor Greg Abbott has the second-lowest approval rating among large-state governors for his handling of the pandemic, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick came under fire for saying old people should sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy and “there are more important things than living and that’s saving this country.”
And in Wisconsin, the Republican-majority state Supreme Court struck down Democratic Governor Tony Evers’s stay-at-home order. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack attributed the coronavirus flareup in one county to the meatpacking industry as opposed to “just the regular folks.”
Of course, it would not have been viable for states to remain completely shut down for the entire duration of the pandemic. “No one ever expected this society to close forever,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. The goal of lockdowns has been to “contain the virus as best we could,” he said, but there are tradeoffs—people also lose their jobs and slide into poverty, itself a major determinant in health.
The goal now is to figure out how to reopen without overwhelming hospitals or having large spikes in infections. The country is “moving from more of a prevention phase to a risk-reduction phase,” he said.
While some reopening states experienced spikes in cases, others have enjoyed a stroke of luck. With a relatively flat curve of new cases, Florida was spared the worst so far, perhaps because residents stayed home on their own in March, despite missteps by Governor Ron DeSantis—who opened beaches for spring break during a coronavirus spike and once considered reopening schools based on the false belief that COVID-19 does not affect children.
But as states reopen, they’re not doing enough to support vulnerable communities.
Georgia was among the last states to enforce stay-in-place orders and the first to reverse them, allowing barbershops, nail salons, gyms and massage businesses to open, followed by restaurants and movie theaters. Governor Brian Kemp—who opened Georgia on April 24 even against White House guidelines and the advice of public health experts—had claimed weeks earlier he had just learned asymptomatic people can spread coronavirus. This, despite the January announcement from the CDC, which is based in Atlanta, that people without symptoms spread the disease.
In a callous “experiment in human sacrifice,” Georgia stands to flatten its curve of unemployment benefits even as the virus rages, and people who refuse to return to work are denied unemployment compensation. Following the state reopening, Georgia experienced an uptick in coronavirus cases, including 579 new cases in a 24-hour period. Projections from the CDC suggest daily deaths in the state will double from 32 in May to 63 in August due to the relaxation of social distancing, giving Georgia one of the highest death rates in the Southeast.
Experts say it’s too early to gauge the effect of the reopening, and the state has been criticized for presenting its numbers in a misleading way. Current CDC projections suggest coronavirus deaths in Georgia will continue to rise.
Communities of color—who were the targets of Kemp’s voter purges when he was Georgia’s secretary of state—have a higher proportion of essential workers, and stand to suffer most from the rushed reopening. Fulton County, which encompasses Atlanta, accounts for the most COVID-19 cases in the state, and hot spots such as Gainesville (in Hall County) has a large Latinx population. After backlash—faced with the most dismal gubernatorial ratings in America over his coronavirus response—Kemp has increased contract tracing and some restrictions, ordering bars, nightclubs, and live performance spaces to remain closed, while allowing summer day camps to open.
Society needs to address the conditions that created such disparate health outcomes. “There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that racism, not race or socioeconomic status, is the root cause of all inequities in poor health and premature death, including from COVID-19,” said Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, assistant professor of epidemiology at The Ohio State University College of Public Health, and principal investigator and leader of the Social Epidemiology to Eliminate Disparities Lab. She sees COVID-19 as an “accelerant to a fire that has been burning, and killing people for a long time.”
The lack of testing in communities of color remains an important issue. “I’m worried about a second wave, but I’m more worried about the compounding of disadvantage for communities that have a history of and currently experience marginalization in our society,” she said. “That’s the issue we’re not talking enough about.”
David A. Love is a Philadelphia-based writer, commentator, and journalism and media studies professor. He writes for CNN, Al Jazeera, Atlanta Black Star, theGrio, and other publications.