Race, Class, Health: Coronavirus Shines a Light on Preexisting Health Disparities

Contribution by: Dr Anne Kustritz, Assistant Professor in Media and Culture Studies

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A contribution by Dr Anne Kustritz for the Gender, Diversity and COVID-19 platform. The platform offers a series of short blogposts in which we invite different Hub members and researchers to share their findings, insights and reading tips on issues of inclusion and exclusion related to the Corona crisis.

Placing a system under great pressure often reveals its most vulnerable points. Thus, many commentators have noted that the coronavirus crisis has dramatically thrown various countries’ approaches to the social contract into stark relief. There is no more intimate landscape of politics than the body, as disparities in health mirror patterns in how the nation has invested (and disinvested) in the future and safety of its population. By targeting those with preexisting conditions, the coronavirus reminds us which groups have had their health systematically devalued. Thus, it should come as no surprise that, according to the American Centers for Disease Control, African-American and Native American people have died from the coronavirus at five times the rate of white Americans. A long history of medical and sociological literature had already shown strong links between race and health outcomes in America, which the coronavirus exacerbated (Berkman, Kawachi & Glymour, 2014; Feagin & Bennefield, 2014; Phelan & Link, 2015).

Health disparities

America is an extreme case due to the severity of the outbreak and the link between health insurance and employment, resulting in parallel surges in pandemic-related unemployment and the proportion of the uninsured population. By its very nature this system ties health to economic status. Even before the coronavirus, however, health disparities connected to social and political inequalities could also be found across Europe. In the Netherlands, for instance, Marja van Bon-Martens et. al. report that “Life expectancy between the lowest and highest educated groups differs by 7.3 years for men and 6.4 years for women. Differences in healthy life expectancy are even larger, namely 19.2 years for men and 20.6 years for women.”

Mirror of social inequality

Health outcomes thus function as a measure and mirror of social inequality, and as such the coronavirus glaringly outlines the life and death consequences of social and political disinvestment in minorities, the poor, migrants, and other devalued groups. Achille Mbembe uses the term “necropolitics” to describe the politics of neglecting to cultivate the health and lives of certain populations. The coronavirus requires us to examine what it would take to truly organize access to health as a universal human right.