Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

COVID-19 relief policies ignore the most vulnerable; an intersectional approach can help.

By Alicia DuranPublished May 15, 2020

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Racial and ethnic minorities face multidimensional inequities, which make them more susceptible to the effects of the pandemic. An intersectional approach would prioritize legislation that supports all people instead of privileging the treatment of some inequities while exacerbating others.

Since its global impact, COVID-19 has been hailed as a “great equalizer,” but the stark reality says otherwise. In the United States, early data suggests that racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in Michigan, Blacks accounted for 33% of confirmed cases and 41% of deaths, but only make up 14% of the total population. In Navajo Nation—a US Indian Reservation spanning three states—the COVID-19 infection rate is the third highest after New York and New Jersey. Furthermore, Latinos are more likely to see COVID-19 as a major threat to health and finances than other Americans. Federal legislation has been implemented to help alleviate the burden of the pandemic and contain the virus’ spread. However, these policies lack an awareness of the multidimensional inequities faced by racial and ethnic minorities, which make them more susceptible to the effects of the pandemic. Therefore, in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 and limit its negative effects on racial and ethnic communities, and subsequently in the United States, an intersectional response toward the pandemic is vital. 

Firstly, communities of color are likely to experience difficulty accessing COVID-19 testing and treatment because they have a higher risk of being uninsured. In fact, among the non-elderly population, Hispanics and Blacks have higher uninsured rates (19% and 11%, respectively) than Whites (8%). American Indian and Alaska Natives have the highest uninsured rate (22%). Uninsured people are less likely to receive preventative care and services for major health conditions than insured people. Because of this fact, uninsured individuals are more likely to forego testing and treatment for COVID-19 due to high out-of-pocket costs.

Furthermore, racial and ethnic minorities face increased financial and health risks due to their economic and social circumstances. While only 16% of Whites are employed through the service industry, about a quarter (24%) of Blacks and Hispanics are. Because of this fact, Blacks and Hispanics are at an increased risk of job loss or reduced income during the pandemic due to social distancing measures. Those that maintain employment during the pandemic are at an increased risk of contracting the virus. Even still, service industry workers are the least likely to have paid sick leave, possibly exacerbating the likelihood that individuals will work while sick. Additionally, compared to 16% of Whites, over a quarter of Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives are low wage workers, making groups of color more likely to report financial concerns. 

Although federal legislation has been passed to offer relief to Americans during the pandemic, the policies fail to address the unique challenges faced by racial and ethnic communities. For example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act reduces barriers to COVID-19 testing, but does not mandate treatment coverage for the virus. Although this provision will increase testing among the uninsured, there is no legislation mandating coverage of COVID-19 treatment. Because of this, individuals who become sick may forego care in fear of large hospital bills. In the context of the pandemic, decisions to forego care by racial and ethnic minorities can have devastating consequences on their communities. Furthermore, the act does include a provision for short-term paid sick leave, but it is in no way universal—exclusions include workers employed by businesses with less than 50 employees and healthcare workers. Additionally, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provides Economic Impact Payments to American families, but may dismiss some of the most vulnerable. Immigrants, mixed status families, and low-income individuals who do not file tax returns may have difficulty qualifying for these economic relief payments. This can have devastating consequences, not only on their livelihoods, but also their health. 

Although federal legislation has brought relief to many Americans, some of the hardest hit communities continue to suffer. The challenges faced by racial and ethnic communities discussed present health and financial hardships. Rarely is it the case that individuals only face one of these challenges, however. The multidimensional disadvantages faced by these individuals compound underlying health and economic disparities. In the time of a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, these disparities become starkly apparent in higher infection and mortality rates among these groups. Therefore, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, the spread must be slowed in racial and ethnic communities also. To successfully do so, an intersectional approach toward the pandemic is vital. 

An intersectional approach takes an in-depth look at research to discern the groups that may be disproportionately affected and targets tailored legislation toward them. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, an intersectional approach would tailor legislation to the communities hardest hit by the virus. For example, economic funds should be prioritized to hard hit areas—such as the Bronx that has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in New York City—to fund treatment and testing for uninsured individuals. Additionally, an intersectional approach examines how social characteristics interact to form unique situations. In the context of the pandemic, an intersectional approach would prioritize legislation that supports all people instead of privileging the treatment of some inequities while exacerbating others. For example, legislation should provide economic relief payments to those that may be in unique circumstances—like immigrants and low-income people who did not file a tax return—and not just those that come readily to mind. Further, legislation should grant universal sick leave to benefit those that may be in the most need of it—like service workers who have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 

The challenges racial and ethnic minorities face are not simply additive. They compound to create multiple dimensions of advantage and disadvantage experienced differently by all people. An intersectional approach acknowledges these differences by informing policy that privileges the voices typically excluded from policy expert roles. As discussed, current legislation lacks this perspective and it is critical to change if the COVID-19 pandemic is to be curbed.