Coronavirus and 'Race'
Updated: May 7
Why the ones most harshly affected by COVID-19 worldwide are disproportionately black and brown
by Susheela Mahendran, Mugo Muna and Eleonora Roldán Mendívil
COVID-19 is raging throughout the entire globe, and all politicians of the bourgeois establishment are effectively telling us: “we are all affected,” “stay calm,” and “we have it under control.” There are obvious differences between the authoritarian answers, of governments like the Kenyan, Indian and Peruvian; and the liberal answers of countries like Germany; or the massive downplaying by the US government.
However, there is one thing all countries have in common: the global Corona-pandemic hit immigrant populations, the poor, and Black and Brown people the hardest.
Coronavirus: “the great equalizer”?
As one of the richest and most powerful countries in the history of the world, the United States had ample time and resources, after its first officially confirmed case on January 21st, to structure a response to the virus. But by April 12th, the United States became the country with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths globally.
As the virus spread, the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, called the coronavirus “the great equalizer.” However, this fantasy - a virus equally affecting people regardless of class, ‘race’, or immigration status - has not been the reality of the pandemic in the United States.
If the coronavirus was going to be “the great equalizer,” one would expect to see a widespread pattern of devastation in NYC, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States. But, this is not at all the case. Data from the New York City health department showed that “the death rate from COVID-19 for Black and Latino New Yorkers is roughly twice that of white New Yorkers.”
Of course some are quick to blame the death rate in certain communities on the “lifestyle” of the people living there. But as Democracy Now reported, the “greater number of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, lack of access to testing and healthcare, and poor conditions in public housing” are only helping the coronavirus spread.
Of course, the racial disparities are not only limited to New York City. For example, Richmond, Virgina reports that all of the deaths in the city were of African American citizens, despite the fact that less than 50 percent of city is Black. Or as in the state of Louisiana, where the majority of the deaths were from the African American community when they only make up 32% of the population.
We can’t act surprised that neglected, underfunded, and vilified communities are being ravaged by a public health crisis. The reality of the situation is that this pandemic is just another crisis to add on to the already crippling burden of neoliberal, racist policy throughout the United States. The pandemic has proven to affect some communities more than others and continues to show the consequences of a racist capitalist system that hurts us all.
Innovating out of the crisis or Who gets to stay at home?
Of course one of the starkest divides of the pandemic is seeing who gets to stay home and be bored, versus who has to show up at work despite the risks involved. With an overall ability to work from home of roughly 30% (as in 2018 data ), many workers in the US don’t have the type of work that lets them be on their computer in their pajamas and avoid the virus safely.
The US Bureau of Labor statistics shows that “Thirty-seven percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of whites said they could work remotely. But only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics said they had that ability.” This shows that some of the groups that have faced the most consistent marginalisation in the United States, have no choice but to be physically present at work.
Due to the lockdown and the lack of a comprehensive human-centric economy, the types of layoffs happening tend to impact racial minorities more than other groups in the United States. According to Data for Progress, 45% of African Americans have lost their jobs, lost hours at work, or have been put on leave, as compared to 31% of white respondents. This disparity makes sense when you see that Black and Latino communities are over represented in industries like Transportation, Hotels, Landscaping, and Restaurants.
So the economy has already been staked against minority communities; who were being pushed into precarious jobs. Now the same economies and policies that created these circumstances can’t be expected to protect these very communities.
Of course, the other side of racial disparities is the reclassification of so-called unskilled workers as essential workers. Previously, supermarket workers were people to be pitied, but now we find ourselves dependent on these individuals during the crisis.
In the epicenter of the crisis, 75% of the frontline workers, as defined by the NYC government, are people of colour. Frontline in this case means healthcare, public transit, grocery stores, and building cleaning services.
So not only do Black and Brown essential workers have precarious, badly paying jobs in the first place, but now they are also more likely to bring the virus home to their families. Also, from health workers to all other branches of sectors, essential workers have been dealing with a lack of protective gear, for weeks now. Management, that is more geared toward maximising profit (e.g. most minimal staff possible) per store, generally does not consider workers’ “well-being.”
In addition there are the thousands of individuals picking and packing our food everyday. People who were previously derided for their immigration status, criminalised and terrorised by immigration authorities, are now putting themselves at risk to pack meat, fruit and vegetables for the rest of the country.
While the virus may be affecting certain communities differently, the pandemic makes a strong case of removing the profit motive from healthcare in the US. If the healthcare system was geared toward the best outcome for all people regardless of economic background, then the crisis would not be so deadly for the most vulnerable – in this case working class Black and Latino people.
Better yet, the notion of healthcare should expand beyond just when people walk into the door of a hospital. If we thought of creating a health system that helps people achieve the best for them nutritionally, medically, with sufficient pay, and adequate living conditions then maybe we could actually be prepared when things start to fall apart.
The German model
Germany is widely considered a stable, welfare state with open arms for refugees. Ever since chancellor Angela Merkel did not close Germany’s borders in the summer of 2015, the world has hailed her for her “anti-racism.”
In reality the conservative politician of the Christian Democratic Party only decided to keep the borders open to avoid the likely scenario of German police officers shooting at refugee children and their families. These families were seeking refuge from war and poverty from places previously equipped with weapons from the German war industry (like Syria, Afghanistan or Kurdistan). Dead refugee children at the border would not have been helpful for Germany’s PR, although politicians of Germany’s far-right AfD party publicly saluted that idea.
With the first positive case of Coronavirus in the southern state of Bavaria on January 27th, Germany has slowly taken lockdown measures that can be understood as quite liberal. With cases jumping to over 1300 confirmed cases on March 10th, the local governments started taking some measures, like closing cultural establishments. By March 14th in most federal states, schools and day care centres were closed. Employers were asked to close down their businesses and allow workers to work from home, if possible.
Since Germany is a federal state, all so called health and security measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 were quite different from state to state. In Berlin, people are allowed to leave their homes for individual exercise or to go for a walk. Restrictions are set for the number of people that can gather in public (2 at a time with 2m distance), who do not live under one roof (and being able to prove this via the address on their ID).
Additionally, the German government has offered a variety of loans for big and small businesses and direct cash payments for freelancers who have been previously registered as such. So for German white-collar workers, the Coronavirus pandemic has not had a major impact on their lives. But for all other workers, Coronavirus is having a devastating impact economically and psychologically.
Immigrants most affected – also in Germany
Just as in other parts of the globe, in Germany as well - the sectors doing all essential work toils under precarious working conditions. Immigrants in Germany and their children and grandchildren (about ¼ of Germany’s population) make up a disproportionate amount of the essential worker sectors.
Of those legally employed workers with a foreign nationality, 31.9% work in building cleaning, 31.7 % in food production and processing, and 31.1% in the meat industry and agriculture. Ramsis Kilani recently pointed this out, in one of the few articles in German on the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on migrant communities in Germany. And this does not take into account non-white German citizens, as the category ‘race’ is not asked by polls.
Further, immigrants earn on average, down to a half of what Germans earn in the same job, despite equal qualifications. The risk of living in poverty is twice as high for immigrants and their descendants in Germany as for people without a migration history in their immediate family.
This risk of poverty, increases for those in the Coronavirus high-risk group of people over 64 years of age. In this age group, 31.4% of people with a so-called migration background are affected by poverty. Kilani concludes:
“By comparison, the figure for non-migrant Germans is 11.5%. In 2016, more than a third of the homeless people recorded had a migration background. Almost half of the unemployed have a migration background and because they are self-employed more often than average, the Coronavirus crisis has made many migrants unemployed virtually overnight.”
And of course, the detention centre system for refugees in Germany is unsafe. Those seeking protection are forced to live with up to 12 people in one room for months and years under conditions unfit for human life – even before Coronavirus times. These have become one of the hotspots for COVID-19 to spread rapidly amongst the most vulnerable layers of the population in Germany.
Guarded by private security companies, and at times dozens of police officers, quarantine measures have been forced upon whole detention centres across the country. Without any due healthcare, or social distance measures for the refugees inside.
The hazard of being a migrant worker
Poor migrant workers from the Global South, or the European periphery (like Eastern Europe) are some of the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. In India for example there are more than 40 million migrant labourers out of its population of 1.3 billion people, who move from small villages to find work and a livelihood to the bigger cities.
Mostly they work in the essential sectors such as construction, domestic work, textiles, transportation, mines, or agriculture. Indian capital relies heavily on this mobile, rural labour force. Thus migrant workers contribute enormously to the national income.
These jobs which are seen as undignified and that have been referred to lower caste people for centuries, are essential and the very fundament for capitalist mega cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. These migrant workers mostly toil under very harsh working and health conditions, where they face discrimination, racism and human rights abuses on a daily basis.
Little is done, in return, to ensure health or work security for them. During the COVID-19 crisis, migrant workers in India are especially vulnerable, suffering immensely during the repressive lockdown since March 24th. People lost their income, cannot pay rent, and go hungry.
Thousands are walking thousands of kilometres on foot back to their villages of origin, since all public transport has been suspended. Scenes of rural migrants forming caravans from the cities to head back to rural areas, amidst the fear of starvation, have multiplied all over the world, like in Peru.
In Germany, immigrant workers are disproportionately found among the poor, as explained above. In the agriculture sector, 95% of the 300 000 seasonal workers are foreign nationals. Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European labourers work in the German health sector and in the construction sector. The majority of the care workers are employed in home care, but are not statistically recorded – many working without a legal contract.
As an article in the German language 'Lower Class Magazine' from April 12th stated:
“The Federal Statistical Office has calculated that in 2017,[immigrant workers will make up] over 30% of cleaning staff, almost 30% in food production, over 20% in warehousing, building construction and delivery, and almost 40% in system catering... compared to slightly over 4 % in journalism, 3.7% in the justice system, and around 3 and 2% respectively in finance and administration.”
With the official border closures, the German healthcare, construction, and agriculture sectors face a massive shortage of cheap workers with low unionisation rate (those who capitalism likes the most). But the establishment politicians and the lobby of the agriculture industry in Germany have found ways to satisfy the needs of German capital, by flying in Romanian workers, who are considered “healthy” and not in the risk group of COVID-19.
On April 26th the national television channel ZDF aired a piece, showing how agriculture industrialists are willing to violate workers rights, put workers’ health at risk by cramming them up in crowded bunk-bed facilities, and keeping their passports to avoid the workers from leaving their workplace.
Poor migrant workers worldwide, from Eastern European workers in Germany, to Indian or Peruvian rural migrant workers, indeed do have different realities. But their jobs are all physically demanding, mentally exhausting and, poorly paid. Their workday is characterised by discrimination and disrespect from their co-workers, bosses, and clients.
Because migrant workers are particularly difficult to unionise (due to language barriers and the often informality of their working conditions), there is a lack of a strong lobby or a perspective of collective resistance. Thus, this strata of the working class can be easily put under pressure, and if needed replaced in no time.
Because these people are at the frontline, they are most likely to get infected by the virus as well. Since they have to expose themselves to larger gatherings of people and need to keep working even under lockdown conditions.
Racism on the rise worldwide
The Global North is reacting with xenophobia and racism to the pandemic. Traditionally the West has treated epidemics and natural catastrophes as problems caused by “the others” - by Black, Brown and/or queer people in “exotic,” far away and under-developed countries. For example in the 1980, when HIV/AIDS was ravaging though the United States, the virus was perceived as a disease of homosexual, queer, Brown and Black folk.
Also, the Ebola epidemic has been connected to anti-Black hate crimes in Western countries. First confirmed in 1976 simultaneously in two places (in Nzara, a town in South Sudan and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo), Ebola outbreaks have occurred intermittently in tropical regions of sub-Saharan Africa until 2013. In total till 2013 there has been 24 outbreaks.
Another example is the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) Virus (SARS-CoV) outbreak in 2003 with more than 8000 cases, first discovered 2002 in Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. The SARS epidemic affected 26 countries, including Canada, Singapore and Vietnam. But it was East Asian people and countries in general, which were primarily associated with the virus again.
Scapegoating racial minorities is a strategy in a postcolonial, imperialist world. In world history, we have seen this phenomena quite often, for example after 9/11, where the whole Muslim world was held accountable for Islamic terrorism.
Now during the current pandemic, it was first East Asians and people appearing East Asian who bore the brunt of racist media coverage, discrimination (like, not being allowed to step into a doctor’s office), verbal and physical abuse. All over February and March reports from countries like Germany, France, Australia, Great Britain and the US have shown a steep rise in anti-Asian racism worldwide.
But soon after, also other racial minorities have been targeted, for example racist slurs being combined with “Corona” when attacks on Black and Brown folk have happened. Now that China is reopening its own economic and civil life, it is Black people in China – migrant workers, residents and students – who have been arbitrarily targeted by their landlords, the local government and their neighbours.
Also, in colonial tradition, two French doctors have discussed publicly on French TV testing COVID-19 vaccines on African people first, igniting a huge shitstorm on social media by Africans, the Africans Diaporas in Europe and anti-racist groups all around the globe.
What do we learn?
A global pandemic doesn’t create inequality and racism. It only enhances it on a massive and brutal scale. The current situation could be a wake-up call for workers in all of these crucial sectors, to understanding their position as an essential labour force – as the multiple health worker and teacher strikes all over the world in the past months and years have argued for over and over again.
It is the people in the key sectors of the economy, who create essential parts of societies’ wealth and can thus, by withholding their labour power, force the capitalist production to its knees. If the world economy is critically based on cheap, dirty and physically exhaustive labour, then it is the same workers who have a powerful collective potential and opportunity to actually destroy this system.
The ugly bases of capitalism like racism, sexism, violence and exploitation will keep existing after the Coronavirus crisis; and poor (migrant) workers will keep on being over-exploited and over-represented amongst the most precarious and most vulnerable strata of society.
Now, more than ever, it becomes clear that the privatisation of resources, companies, hospitals etc. is lethal. The socialisation of hospitals, healthcare systems, pharmacy industries and big companies needs to be one of the first steps to counteract this crisis.
Demands of worker-controlled healthcare branches, as well as the stopping of all deportations and the legalisation of all people, wherever they happen to live - are key demands pointing to a socialist society; where a democratic planned economy – not the deadly “free market” – will be able to provide everyone with all their basic health, educational and cultural needs, no matter what status.
None of this is to reduce the problems of racist discrimination and over-exploitation to just these particular issues. But we must recognise that past structural decisions that forced people into certain industries, closed hospitals and stigmatised skin colours, have very real material consequences.
These disparities will only lead to a deeper and more profound crisis than we would otherwise have, in countries where the economy was ordered towards the corporations and not people. The outcome of this crisis must be a society centered around and working to the benefit of the people who build it and support it every single day.
For now, as socialists and revolutionaries – of all cultural and geographical backgrounds – we need to spread reliable information about the situation of working class people and peasants worldwide, offering each other solidarity and support.
Seeing similar patterns of exploitation in different realities of the capitalist mode of production, we encourage formulating collective internationalist demands towards the ruling governments. At the same time we need to plan for massive worker strikes in key sectors as well as mass protests – as students, feminists, migrants etc. – during and after the crisis.
The harsh experiences that working class people are facing during this crisis in comparison to the ruling elites are now in accentuated contrast (see for example celebrities all over the world video-messaging the globe on their “jail-like” conditions). This contrast can be one of the key indicators for mobilising and organising as working class people worldwide. Susheela Mahendran is a political scientist, artist and free journalist based in Kolkata, India. She has been a regular contributor to Lower Class Magazine, Klasse gegen Klasse and Die Freiheitsliebe. She co-organised Berlin’s inaugural Anti-Colonial Month in 2019 and is active in internationalist, socialist-feminist spaces. Mugo Muna is a Kenyan American data analyst by day and a 2D animator by night. He is one of many activists who helped to organise Berlin’s inaugural Anti-Colonial Month in 2019. He has given talks on the relationship between surveillance and colonialism.
Eleonora Roldán Mendívil is an activist, scholar and educator working on racism, gender issues and capitalism from a Marxist point of analysis. She has published in Junge Welt, Neues Deutschland, Analyse & Kritik, Lower Class Magazine, Klasse gegen Klasse and Revista Crisis amongst others. She co-organised Berlin’s inaugural Anti-Colonial Month in 2019, has been active with the International Women’s Strike and is now helping to build up an internationalist, socialist-feminist organisation in Berlin/Munich.
This article first appeared in Karibu! Online. Reproduced with the authors' permission.