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US: Covid-19 Disparities Reflect Structural Racism, Abuses

Human Rights Watch Testimony to US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee

Healthcare workers at Brooklyn's Kings County Hospital show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement during the coronavirus pandemic, New York, June 4, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should take bold steps to end human rights violations and structural racism driving racial disparities in Covid-19 and spurring mass protests across the country, Human Rights Watch said today in written testimony to the Ways and Means Committee of the US House of Representatives. Available data indicates that black and brown people in the United States are more likely to suffer severe illness and die from Covid-19.

Human Rights Watch urged the US government to address the underlying factors driving racial disparities in Covid-19 illness and death rates. These include the US failure to fully protect the human rights of black and brown people as well as government policies that have directly contributed to racial disparities in health, housing, criminal law, and other areas.

“All levels of government in the US are failing to protect black and brown people’s basic rights, in ways that exacerbate their vulnerability to Covid-19,” said Alison Parker, managing US program director at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should adopt concrete, bold measures to ensure the human rights of all people and eliminate the structural racism that permeates many institutions and aspects of life in the United States.”

Human Rights Watch pointed to several failures to protect the human rights of black and brown people that compound each other in ways that increase the risks Covid-19 poses for people of color. These include:

  • Racially discriminatory policing and incarceration, brought again into the spotlight after the police killing of George Floyd, which exposes black and brown people to higher risk of infection from Covid-19 in detention. Studies have shown that discrimination in policing also correlates with stress, anxiety, depleted economic opportunities, and poor health outcomes, which may increase the risk of serious illness from Covid-19.
  • Communities of color in the United States, especially Native Americans living on reservations, are facing Covid-19 without sufficient and affordable access to water, a human right, which is critical to reduce risk of infection.
  • The human right to be free from racial segregation has never been adequately protected in the United States. Research indicates a correlation between high rates of racial segregation and poor health outcomes in the United States, including from Covid-19.  
  • For low-income “essential” workers, the risk they already face from Covid-19 is exacerbated by government failures to protect the rights to a safe and healthy workplace.
  • Failures to protect the right to an adequate standard of living for people of color means that they are more likely to live in close quarters, use public transportation, and be exposed to the virus through work. Due to lower incomes and higher levels of debt, poverty is most acute among blacks and Latinos. About 21 percent of black people and 18 percent of Hispanic people live under the poverty line, compared with 8 percent of white people.
  • Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, childbirth was already more deadly for black women in the United States. Policies implemented by some hospitals in response to Covid-19, such as limiting childbirth support and encouraging early discharge, compound with structural racism in the medical field to increase the risk of adverse health outcomes for black women during the pandemic.

International human rights law obligates governments not only to protect the rights of all people, but also to take affirmative steps to overcome structural discrimination.

Human Rights Watch recommended that the US Congress focus federal Covid-19 aid on those most in need, such as low-income people of color including immigrants; target federal appropriations programs to overcome systemic racial disparities in health, education, and other areas; condition federal aid to press state and local governments to move away from policing as a solution to social problems and invest in communities and rights protections instead; substantially reduce prison and jail populations; and pass House Resolution 40 to collect data and develop proposals on reparations for slavery.

“Protests currently sweeping the nation show people’s righteous anger over the United States’ abject failure to end discriminatory and unnecessary policing and deeply entrenched racism across many systems,” Parker said. “Congress should rise to the moment, with strong investments that meaningfully address the injustices fueling the protests and the racially disproportionate suffering from Covid-19.”

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