With COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations declining, and vaccines becoming more available for Californians, there are signs of hope as we pass the pandemic’s one-year mark.
Still, state leaders must not lose sight of the past year’s immense public health toll, and the data and stories from Californians that repeatedly showed us how communities of color experienced higher rates of illness, death and overall hardship due to the virus. Sadly, many Californians of color won’t see their health and economic well-being improve for years, or perhaps even during their lifetimes.
Long-standing racist policies and practices have determined where and how Californians live, work, receive health care, attend schools and more. For Black Californians, Latinx Californians, and other Californians of color these racist policies block opportunities to be healthy and thrive — in everyday life and when crisis hits.
When the pandemic started, it became abundantly clear that the virus was disproportionately harming communities of color, who are at increased risk of severe illness and even death due to long-standing inequities. It was also immediately clear that Californians of color were the majority of people losing jobs and income. The unemployment rate reached 20 percent for Asian, Black, Latinx and other Californians of color six months into the recession.
Even as COVID-19 cases drop overall, recent data shows disproportionate infection and death rates for Californians of color. We recently completed a report at the California Budget & Policy Center that shows Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander Californians continue to have the highest rate of COVID-19 infections, followed by Latinx Californians, after adjusting for age. Our report also found that Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, Latinx and Black Californians experienced the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths, after adjusting for age, as of early March.
These infection and death rates are especially alarming because many of the racial and ethnic groups most affected by COVID-19, such as Latinx Californians, are younger than other demographic groups.
But there is good news, and a path forward that goes beyond overcoming COVID-19.
California policymakers can boldly declare racism a public health crisis. This is an important first step toward confronting racism and advancing health equity for all Californians. A declaration must be followed by targeted policies and funding directed to communities whose health and economic security have been harmed by racism.
We must also hold state and local leaders accountable for providing strategic investments for communities of color. This includes but is not limited to extending comprehensive health care to all Californians regardless of immigration status, prioritizing funding for affordable housing in communities of color, and removing employment barriers that block Black, Latinx and other Californians of color from stable, high-paying jobs.
California would join leaders in four other states and 25 cities and counties in the state that have declared racism a public health crisis and made a commitment to building healthier communities. States that already have such a declaration include Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin. At the federal level, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Barbara Lee last month reintroduced a bill, the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act of 2021, which recognizes that the federal government doesn’t have the information it needs to adequately confront racial disparities in health.
In California many local and community advocates are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom and state leaders to issue a declaration and establish an Office of Racial Equity.
It’s time for state leaders to heed the call from Californians, especially Californians of color, and invest in what we all need to be healthy and thrive, now and for years to come.
Monica Davalos is a research associate with the California Budget & Policy Center.
Adriana Ramos-Yamamoto is a policy analyst with the California Budget & Policy Center.