The CARES Act Risks Becoming a Caste Act. Here's How We Change That | Opinion

Black people are over three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than other racial groups. They are more likely to contract the virus, less likely to receive adequate healthcare related to the virus, and more likely to die from the virus. Yet, the inequitable ramifications of COVID-19 extend well beyond health care. COVID-19 impacts employment, small businesses, and voting. The most vulnerable and marginalized among us, including the elderly and incarcerated, have received a disproportionate brunt of the pandemic.

While everyone in America is facing hardships, these hardships collide on the bodies of Black Americans in ways that are more substantial and longer lasting. Structural conditions undergird Black people's exposure to deleterious health outcomes. Predominately Black neighborhoods, compared to predominately White neighborhoods, are less likely to have access to hospitals, urgent care clinics, and stocked pharmacies. Due to the historical legacy of redlining, these neighborhoods are often devoid of grocery stores with healthy food options, fruits, and vegetables, and more likely to have fast food restaurants. Black neighborhoods are also less likely to have parks, recreational spaces, and proper lighting.

Furthermore, Black people live in denser neighborhoods. They are overrepresented among the "new essential workers," many of whom rely on public transportation. Public transit is operating on a reduced schedule in many cities. This well-intended policy decision to encourage stay-at-home orders may be contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in communities where the structure of people's everyday lives makes social distancing a farce.

Collectively, these structural conditions manifest in troubling and unacceptable racial disparities related to COVID-19. The social engineering of the twentieth-century is now the population control of the twenty-first-century.

Black people represent roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for nearly 30 percent of all deaths related to COVID-19. In Michigan, they account for nearly 50 percent of the state's COVID-19 deaths. Black people in Wisconsin represent 8 percent of the state but nearly 40 percent of deaths. In South Carolina, they represent 66 percent of COVID-19 deaths but less than 40 percent of the state population. States home to the most affluent Black counties—Maryland and Georgia—show similar gaps. In Maryland, Black people represent about 30 percent of the state population but about 50 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In Georgia, they represent 56 percent of COVID-19 deaths and about 30 percent of the state population.

With states, such as Georgia, reopening, people are being further exposed to the deleterious effects of COVID-19. This moment has many people wondering whether health experts would be front and center of a Stacie Abrams' administration in Georgia if voter suppression tactics in the 2018 Gubernatorial election did not alter the outcome.

Consequently, COVID-19 may have a troubling and long lasting impact on elections. Not just because it may be a public health hazard for people to physically get the polls, but because COVID-19 is literally killing off Black voting blocs.

The national death rate for Black Americans per 100,000 has increased 60 percent over recent weeks. With such small margins of victory in key battleground states, COVID-19 could be a determining factor in who wins the 2020 Presidential election. In Michigan, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump by 11,612 votes in the 2016 Presidential election. In North Carolina where Black people make-up 22 percent of the overall state voting percentage and 40 percent of Democratic voters, Clinton lost by 2.6 percent in 2016. President Obama won North Carolina in 2008. In Georgia, Black people represented 31 percent of the states' voting populous and 60 percent of Democratic voters in 2016. While Georgia normally goes to the Republican Presidential candidate, there are local and state elections that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are vying for.

COVID-19 has also exposed inequalities in small business lending. States in the south and on the east coast where Black-owned businesses are more likely to be located were less likely to receive the $349 billion in funding for the small business Paycheck Protection Program. This is troubling considering that Black-owned businesses are some of the fastest growing small businesses in the country and generate over $100 billion annually with one-sixth of this revenue accrued through the healthcare and social services sectors. Yet, phase one of the CARES Act confirmed what many already knew—redlining in America is still a routine practice. Big banks get paid to lend to customers who enjoy preferential status. And, as the numbers show, some big businesses with strong balance sheets received PPP funding, while small businesses in predominately Black areas received bank apologies.

Researchers note that social networks and discrimination may be key factors in the lack of ability for Black small businesses to obtain capital. The House of Representatives Committee on Small Business recently held a hearing on ways to make the ability to obtain inventions and patents more equitable. The CARES Act is another missed opportunity to do so.

Another factor is that the Small Business Administration excluded people convicted of a felony in the past five years and on probation or on parole. This disproportionately impacts the Black community, particularly returning citizens who are most likely to employ other formally incarcerated people.

Relatedly, the incarcerated population is being hard hit by COVID-19. A state prison in Ohio has about 2,000 cases. Troublingly, 20 percent of Ohio's COVID-19 diagnoses can be traced to the prison. In Arkansas, about 40 percent of the state's COVID-19 diagnoses are located in a maximum-security prison. The infection rate in the Washington DC jail population is 14 times higher than the general population of the city. In federal prisons, .45 percent of incarcerated people and employees have contracted COVID-19. This may seem minuscule, but it is nearly double the percentage of COVID-19 diagnoses in the general population. If the COVID-19 diagnosis rate in the general population matched the prison population, over 660,000 more Americans would be diagnosed with the virus and an additional 30,000 would be dead.

Robin Grubbs, a prison worker in Atlanta, recently died due to COVID-19. Her death illuminates reports coming out of prisons about the lack of adequate healthcare that incarcerated people receive. Grubbs, a Black woman, was an Army veteran and experienced failure of the country she served. Organizations such as Rainbow Push Coalition and the Justice Policy Institute as well as companies like Flikshop are advocating for the immediate release of people with short prison sentences and people coming up for parole. Lawmakers such as Maryland State Delegate Jazz Lewis have urged for the release of juveniles and non-violent offenders. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has responded to these proposals and issued an executive order to expedite the release of hundreds of incarcerated people. Other states should follow suit.

Similar to the awakening that commenced when the world recognized that Black people were still being sprayed with water hoses and treated as second-class citizens, the world is once again perplexed at the United States and the inequitable ramifications of its healthcare system. To date, the United States has mostly taken a colorblind approach. We argue that federal, state, and local governments should take a health equity approach to deal with COVID-19.

First, states should form a Health Equity Task Force to address the racial gap in COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths. Republican and Democratic Governors such as DeWine of Ohio and Whitmer of Michigan have formed similar task forces. These committees need to establish a testing and triage plan for Black neighborhoods by including Black churches as testing sites to dilute medical mistrust. It is vitally important that experimental drug and vaccine testing is equitably implemented. If a predominately Black area is chosen, a predominately White area should also be chosen. This will create equity and reduce medical mistrust. It is vitally important for policymakers to address this issue domestically and abroad as French doctors want to test on "poor Africans" and China evicts African residents.

Additionally, the committee needs to collect comprehensive data on testing and have social scientists and public health scholars analyze these data. This is important considering that states such as Pennsylvania and Minnesota do not show racial gaps for Black people. Delaware, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts also fair well relatively speaking. What policies have these states implemented relative to others to reduce the racial gap? These policies should be replicated throughout the country. Finally, the committee must establish a long-term plan to build health and economic infrastructure in predominately Black neighborhoods.

Second, federal policymakers should allow returning citizens to apply for CARES Act funding. If not, this decision flies in the face of the White House' highly-touted First Step Act for returning citizens. Third, incarcerated people who are in jails or prison for pre-trial detention, non-violent charges, approaching parole, or over 60 years of age need to be released. In Cook County, Illinois, about 400 jail detainees and nearly 200 correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19. Nationwide, roughly 500,000 people are sitting in jails without being convicted of a crime. They just could not make bail after an arrest.

To date, the United States has spent over $3 trillion on COVID-19 relief. Similar to the end of the Civil War and The Great Depression, the most oppressed and vulnerable Americans—Black Americans—are being cast to the side and used as guinea pigs. The COVID-19 pandemic and the CARES Act is further manufacturing a caste system that falls along racial lines. As Congress voted to add nearly $500 billion to the small business loan program, more must be done to protect Black and Latino communities from further exploitation in the guise of public policy. Simply allocating money to smaller banks is not enough. It is critical that Americans who have shed blood, sweat, and tears for the United States, often without compensation, receive their fair share.

Dr. Rashawn Ray is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution and an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. He is on Twitter @SociologistRay. Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is the President and Founder of the Rainbow Push Coalition. Dr. S. Todd Yeary is the Senior Vice-President of the Rainbow Push Coalition and Senior Pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.​​​​​