Along with the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been an outbreak of new language surrounding the pandemic. It’s hard to remember a time when terms like “social distancing” or “shelter-in-place” weren’t part of our everyday language. Among these new words and phrases is the concept of being an “essential worker.” While, at this point, we all might be well acquainted with what an essential worker is, something we often overlook is who they are.
In addition to doctors, nurses and first responders working on the front lines, essential workers are made up of those working at grocery stores and restaurants, working in transportation, janitors and more. However, due to the makeup of what jobs are deemed to be essential work, a disproportionate number of minorities are required to continue going to work, exposing themselves to the threat of the global pandemic each and every day.
The CDC reports that members of some racial and ethnic minority groups face an increased risk of developing COVID-19 or experiencing more severe symptoms of the virus if contracted. Overall, hospitalization rates for COVID-19 are highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native and non-Hispanic Black persons, followed by Hispanic or Latino persons. The CDC cites “long-standing systemic health and social inequities” as a potential cause of why minorities are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
America’s racial, ethnic and socio-economic disparities have existed for far longer than the coronavirus. The onset of the pandemic, though, has highlighted just how deep these disparities run, particularly with regard to health, both mental and physical.
The “systemic health and social inequities” cited by the CDC manifest in many forms. For instance, being part of the essential workforce and having less access to adequate health care. Jobs that fall into the category of essential work don’t necessarily correlate with the highest paychecks. With a lower income comes more difficulty paying for healthcare.
Working on the front lines in the middle of the pandemic when this is the case poses an issue. For essential workers, paying for healthcare in the midst of a pandemic when they’re risking their lives so other people can go about theirs should be the least of their worries.
When it comes down to it, the people who are at the highest risk of coming into contact with COVID-19 would have the most difficulty paying for the treatments needed if they were to contract the virus.
In an effort to compensate for the increased difficulty of work and account for the increased value of said work, some companies, Target for instance, are offering what is known as “hazard pay” for essential workers. In a free market system, dangerous jobs pay more than their safe counterparts. And if essential work is anything, it’s dangerous.
A two-dollar an hour pay increase hardly combats anything in the midst of a global pandemic, especially when, beginning in May, companies like Amazon and Kroger, began to phase out the pay increase for essential workers. And, to top it off, the 600-dollar stimulus added to unemployment benefits means that unemployed Americans are, on average, making more than some of our essential workforce. Some of our nation’s most important workers, those who put their lives on the line each day, are receiving paychecks that are lower than they would be if these individuals did no work at all.
Someone has to do the work, and because of demographics and systemic inequities, that responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of minorities, even though minorities in America not only have less insurance coverage but less access to care when they need it.
These disparities don’t end with physical health. Mental health is an additional factor.
The pandemic has taken a mental toll on all of us, but essential workers face additional anxieties that others don’t necessarily encounter.
The aforementioned strain of limited finances is just one factor that produces stress for essential workers. In addition to that, constant exposure to the virus can inevitably lead to heightened anxiety with regard to contracting it. And with anxiety over contracting the virus oneself comes anxiety about exposing friends and family to it. Each fear builds upon the last.
To not only combat this anxiety but also to keep the potential spread of the virus contained, many essential workers find themselves self-isolating. While isolation might be a solution to anxiety over those two issues, it presents problems of its own.
Isolation and a resulting inability to see loved ones can lead to the development of other mental health problems, like depression. For those who might have a history of mental illness, it can also lead to relapses. Overall, isolation can serve as a potential trigger for unhealthy coping mechanisms, both new and old.
In minority communities, receiving aid for mental health related issues is especially difficult. Just like with receiving treatment for physical health, money is a factor. But there’s more to the story than that. Inaccessibility, lack of awareness, discrimination and cultural stigma are just some of the barriers that prevent members of minority communities from receiving treatment for mental illnesses.
Not only are these workers essential, and as such, their health and safety is essential as well. Yet the people who need proper health care and treatments, both mental and physical, most have the least access to it.
Especially for workers and especially during a global pandemic, access to healthcare should not be a privilege. It should be a right.