COVID-19 is disproportionately killing minorities. Corporate America needs to step up.
When the novel coronavirus emerged at the end of 2019, we were warned not to travel internationally and to avoid those who had. We were warned to stay physically distant and even stay home. We were warned to take special care of the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. We were warned that the virus did not discriminate, and that each of us was at risk.
But we weren’t warned, and weren’t prepared for the reality, that Black people in the U.S. would be exposed, infected, and would ultimately die at rates up to three times higher than other populations.
They’re right: COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. We do.
COVID-19 has unmasked the persistent structural, institutionalized bias that has been an unavoidable element of the experience for communities of color in times of crisis. It has revealed the systemic disparity that, despite our progress toward true equality, continues to have serious negative impacts on minority populations.
We have to do better.
Not just now when the crisis is upon us, but also when this moment is behind us. Because despite the fact that we’re dealing with a “novel” coronavirus, these issues aren’t new. The underlying inequalities that result in communities of color bearing an extra burden of harm have persisted for generations, and unless we step up, they will continue to persist and drive disparity long after COVID-19 is a distant memory.
We must work harder than ever to confront the lack of access and opportunity that puts African-American communities at higher risk for comorbidities that increase the severity or fatality of coronavirus, yet leaves them with diminished access to health benefits and proper medical care. We must extend our efforts to undo the economic barriers that put African-American workers at greater risk for job or income loss in a crisis, even while they are more likely to be on the front lines protecting and providing essential services to those of us fortunate enough to be able to keep our jobs while staying at home.
Corporate citizens, bringing their influence, reach and resources together, can effect more rapid, widespread change in the effort to address the underlying, longer-lived crisis – the deep-rooted racial inequality that is dramatically affecting the impacts of the pandemic on Black communities in America. At Procter & Gamble, I am humbled to lead an initiative called Take On Race: Advancing Racial Equity. Our work is focused on taking meaningful steps toward equity and inclusion for people of color. We know that history will continue to repeat itself unless we make an effort to spark change, and imperfect steps taken now are far more important than a perfect solution that is always out of reach. I’m also inspired by companies like JP Morgan Chase, with its Advancing Black Pathways program, which creates economic opportunity and supports equality for Black Americans by offering assistance to those looking to advance their careers, their education, their businesses or their personal finances.
Important work like this is often overlooked when there isn’t a pandemic in progress or a bubble bursting or a recession underway. In those moments of emergent distress, we focus as a nation on solving the most immediate problem as quickly as possible. We recognize and lament that communities of color have once again borne the brunt of the crisis, and when that issue has passed we move on with our lives without addressing the clear causal factors that lead to disparate disadvantage, struggle and loss for people of color. When the next crisis comes, history repeats.
Race-based bias comes with many costs. In the case of COVID-19, we are paying that cost with human lives. It’s a cost we cannot afford, and one we should not be willing to pay – certainly not over and over with every new calamitous event. So, at the same time as we are maintaining physical distance, we need to be coming together to make sure that what happens when the next new crisis emerges isn’t the same as what’s happening in the current crisis. After all, as Plato said, “the mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face.” At the same time as we are covering our faces to avoid COVID-19, we need to be opening our eyes to what it has unmasked: the severe impacts of institutionalized racism on communities of color. Let’s step up for the future of the communities that need us most.
Barron Witherspoon is an executive at Procter & Gamble where he leads the company’s Corporate Race Initiative. A coalition of like-minded companies have joined P&G in a national effort called Take on Race: Advancing Racial Equity. To learn more about this effort visit www.pg.com/takeonrace.
Submitted by Barron Witherspoon, Sr. Global Vice President Procter & Gamble April 29, 2020