Racism is a public health emergency.

What other conclusion should we draw from the cold hard facts of the COVID-19 epidemic? In the United States, coronavirus strikes Black people and other people of color far more often than it does people who are white. And nowhere is the discrepancy worse than here in Maine.

Black people make up almost 28 percent of the Maine’s known COVID-19 cases, but represent less than 2 percent of the population. Maine’s non-white population makes up less than 6 percent of the population but nearly a third of all COVID cases in which the race of the person is known. Maine has done an excellent job keeping the spread of the disease under control overall – but has performed abysmally with this group. Facing numbers this stark demands a response from state government and people of conscience.

These high rates of infection are not a coincidence. What causes this disparity is also behind disparities in virtually every other measure of health and social wellbeing. As President John F. Kennedy said more than half a century ago, “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” It’s systemic racism.

COVID is spread by a novel virus that was identified for the first time just a few months ago. It does not have racial animus or preferences, but the conditions built throughout our history have made certain that once this virus hit, the damage would not be spread evenly.

At the start of the crisis, the warnings were delivered that everyone should stay home if they could. Non-essential businesses were shut down, and the federal government provided aid to keep people and businesses afloat while we waited for the cases to subside.


But staying home was not an option for people who work in jobs deemed essential. If you worked processing chicken or seafood, if you were a home health aide or a nursing home employee, you were expected to show up for work, even if there wasn’t enough protective gear to keep you safe. People of color are overrepresented in these jobs.

Low-wage jobs make it hard to find affordable housing in Maine, so people of color, including new immigrants, often have to live in cramped conditions where an infection can spread quickly. And if they primarily speak a language other than English, they are less likely to hear public health warnings or respond to contact tracers who are advising them to isolate.

No one had to decide that people of color should suffer. No one had to wave a Confederate flag or use a racial slur. We just had to stand by and allow the machinery built over centuries to operate as it always has.

There are steps for the state to take right away. Representatives of Maine’s immigrant, Indigenous and minority communities called for a meeting with Gov. Mills last week and requested that she release some of the federal Cares Act funds controlled by the state to form partnerships with community organizations that can get the information out. The state is wasting time, immigrant advocates said, trying to reach people who don’t speak English or are suspicious of government without the assistance of “cultural brokers” who can be easily understood.

Those are reasonable requests and should be fulfilled.

What to do in the long term is more complicated. Until we address the deep biases built in to the way we deliver education, health care, housing and other necessities of life, this population will be just as vulnerable when the next pandemic hits. The new Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, created by the Legislature last year, is a good place to continue this work.

The killing of George Floyd by police and the subsequent coast-to-coast protests it inspired have caused Americans of all races to take a hard look at their history to see the way that racial inequality has been a part of it from the beginning. Racism didn’t end with the Civil War, or the signing of the Civil Rights Act, or the election of a Black president.

COVID-19 has exposed the way inequality works through our health care system. Now that we’ve seen it, we should be ready to engage in the hard work of rooting it out, once and for all.

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