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US Southern States Ease Covid-19 Restrictions, Risking Black Lives

Governors Should Prioritize Workers’ Health and Safety

A worker walks in to the Paris Healthcare Center in Paris, Texas, April 29, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Plans by governors in several southern states in the United States to ease Covid-19 related restrictions and stay-at-home orders are forcing workers to make an impossible choice: earn a living or put their health at risk. Health officials and experts have already warned that lifting the orders too soon may result in increased mortality rates and the possibility of an even deadlier second wave of the virus. Now, a coalition of Black activists, experts, and policymakers is calling attention to the harm these policies will have, especially on Black workers.

The coalition recently launched a petition urging several southern governors to take immediate steps to prioritize the health and safety of workers over profits, including adopting safety plans and allocating resources for personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers, before the orders are lifted.

At least nine states in the south – where the majority of Black people live in the US – have not yet met the conditions public health experts say are needed before they can safely open, but the governors are moving ahead anyway, to the peril of workers’ health.

Black people, especially women, are overrepresented in low-wage jobs that necessitate contact with other people. Those who decide not to return to work due to inadequate protections for their health risk losing their unemployment benefits and any means to make an income.

Already, the available data shows Black people are dying at higher rates from the virus. The disproportionate impact Covid-19 has on the health of Black people has brought attention to systemic racism and structural inequalities in the United States, where they are more likely to have lower incomes, to suffer poor health, including diabetes and hypertension, and now to die from Covid-19.

The coalition is also calling for Medicaid expansion in each state. This would increase healthcare coverage for more low-income adults in southern states. It could also help stem the closure of rural hospitals, safeguarding necessary medical care for communities that have high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes, including many in the south’s Black Belt region.

Policies to open up economies should not force workers to choose between working to survive or jeopardizing their safety. Black people in the south want to work, but they shouldn’t have to die to do so. 

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