2020 | Opinion

Opinion: Renewing progress on racial, economic justice must be priority in new year

Decades of neglect exacerbate suffering in some communities

The COVID-19 pandemic has defined our past year, upending the way we learn, interact with each other, and see our families. None of us is immune to the coronavirus or its impact on our daily lives.

But this pandemic is no equalizer — not in terms of who has gotten sick or who has been hit hardest by its calamitous economic repercussions.

For our state’s communities of color, COVID-19 has proven especially devastating.

In Maryland, the rate of cases among Latino residents, per 100,000 people, is nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts.

Black people make up less than a third of Maryland’s population, compared to 59% who are white. But 37% of the people confirmed to have died from COVID-19 in our state as of Friday were Black, and 48% were white.

Black residents are dying from the virus at a rate of 122 people per 100,000, a rate that’s 33% higher than it is for white Marylanders.

These epidemiological outcomes are not random. They have little to do with any unique biological characteristic of the COVID-19 virus.

Ultimately, the wrenching public health disparities we see today are the consequence of broader entrenched inequality and decades of disinvestment in historically marginalized communities.

In our region, Black, Latino and poor residents are more likely to work critical frontline jobs and rely on public transportation, making social distancing more difficult and contracting the virus more likely. Those same marginalized populations disproportionately face pre-existing conditions tangled up in poverty — like heart disease, asthma and diabetes — that can turn this virus especially lethal.

These disparities in transmission then compound with adjacent conditions of inequality.

The need to transition schooling online has run up against a stark gulf in technology access between students from wealthy and low-income backgrounds. The already-dire achievement gap in our schools is worsening during remote learning.

On average in Montgomery County this academic year, the percentage of Hispanic students in poverty who received failing grades was up 24 points from last year. For Black students in poverty, the increase was 16 points.

Those previously on precarious financial standing have seen the ground disappear beneath them. Food insecurity in our county has exploded, with local food banks unable to meet the demand of newly stretched lines. Unemployment rates, including the number of first-time claims, skyrocketed.

More and more working people, struggling to pay their bills, are reaching into already thin savings.

With the first batch of vaccine doses reaching Montgomery County recently, the beginning of the end of the pandemic is in sight.

But the damage to progress on racial and socioeconomic equity will not vanish on its own. Addressing the inequality exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19 is the primary moral charge of our political leaders in the new year.

Maryland should follow the excellent lead of our county’s council members and invest in targeted African American and Latino health programs. The county’s emphasis on bridging public health gaps in historically marginalized communities through culturally competent resources sets an exemplary standard for the rest of the state.

Our state’s leaders must also give new focus — politically and fiscally — to a heightened achievement gap. New legislation must protect those who have fallen behind on their rent during the pandemic who will face eviction when the state’s moratorium is eventually lifted.

And retroactive financial support must be doled out for our state’s frontline workers, who have done the essential work of keeping our state running but have not been paid an essential wage.

There is an urgent need to extend Maryland’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. Deep investments in rental assistance, food assistance and workforce development will be necessary to give those pushed to the financial brink the freedom to not only survive, but put money away, afford their child’s higher education and invest in new businesses.

Legislative frameworks for addressing structural inequality, like 2019’s still underutilized racial equity law, should be fully implemented to guide this policy work moving forward — with the dual goals of recovering a generation’s worth of progress on racial and socioeconomic equity and forging new ground in making our community a more equal, better place to live.

Last year was devastating. For our state and county leaders, the priority of 2021 must be intentional, justice-driven healing.

Nate Tinbite is a former student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a recent graduate of John F. Kennedy High School. Ananya Tadikonda is a former student member of the board and a graduate of Richard Montgomery High School. Matt Post is a former student member of the board and a graduate of Sherwood High School.

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