Freedom Rider: COVID-19 and black workers

The gross inequalities and declining standards of life in the US are magnified by the corona crisis, pushing already marginalized populations to the brink.

There is an old saying that if America catches a cold, black people get pneumonia. The communicable disease reference is especially relevant now that the COVID-19 corona virus pandemic has created a crisis in this country. A privatized health care system worsened a medical emergency whose impact could have been mitigated if the United States was as advanced as it claims to be.

Now most of the country is in some form of lockdown, sheltering in place or other euphemism which means that already marginalized populations are more vulnerable than usual. Recently an additional three million unemployment insurance applications were filed in just one week. While those in the managerial class work at home and use teleconferencing to communicate with one another, less than 20% of black workers have this capability.

We see this dichotomy play out as a group of mostly black sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, carried out a one-day work stoppage. They demanded protective clothing and hazard pay for incurring risks of COVID-19 infection while on the job. Whole Food employees and workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, took similar actions, but the Staten Island strike leader was fired. Jeff Bezos didn’t get to be the richest man in the world by respecting workers’ rights.

As higher paid individuals work at home, people who don’t have that luxury risk their lives just getting to their jobs. In New York City subways are largely empty, but not in poorer neighborhoods. Subway travel has dropped 90% overall in recent weeks, but at subway stations in the Bronx, the poorest of the five boroughs, ridership levels are unchanged for people who work as home health aides, grocery store employees and construction workers. Their plight is exacerbated as subway trains now operate less frequently and passengers are crowded together in defiance of all “social distancing” rules required to prevent corona virus infection.

The structures that keep black people persistently at the bottom of every positive measure and at the top of every negative indicator are firmly in place. It is no surprise that as the nation struggles with a preventable crisis that black workers would be adversely impacted. Of course, the remedy supported by the Democratic and Republican parties does nothing to help.

The recently passed $2 trillion stimulus bill is another give away to big business and wealthy individuals. It adds tax cuts for the rich on top of the tax cuts already enacted that have become a customary feature of American politics. The bill provides a measly, one time maximum payment of $1,200 to everyone who filed a tax return in 2018 or 2019. In neighboring Canada the government provides $2,000 per month for four months to assist workers with the COVID economic downturn. $1,200 is chump change for people who are once again treated like chumps.

People who have lost their jobs suffer the final indignity of not even being able to file their unemployment claims. In state after state workers report that phone lines are busy and web sites crash as they attempt to get the money they have earned and are entitled to receive. This situation is one more piece of evidence that the supposedly great nation is just a failed state with a big army and a powerful oligarchy.

But people are in movement. There are calls for more extensive strikes, even for a nationwide general strike. The moment is ripe for agitation and political demands. It is also a presidential election year and Democratic candidate Joe Biden still refuses to consider Medicare for All or some other form of health insurance that is independent of employment status. Black people must not be bum rushed into believing that he must be the nominee or supporting him in November if he continues this attack on their lives.

There should be no turning back to the pre-COVID-19 days of accepting the bipartisan austerity regime. It is dedicated to making life as miserable as possible for the masses of people and actively crushes any efforts made on behalf of even minimal change.

This crisis is an opportunity for honest discussion and for new political activity. Normalcy for black people is nothing that we should return to. A new normal will forge a path for fundamental and transformative change. But terminating an Amazon warehouse employee will be the least of the reaction to a new movement. The billionaires and their political minions won’t give up easily. The people must be equally determined.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well at and she regularly posts on Twitter @freedomrideblog. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)

Comments are closed.