COVID-19 Impacts Requires the Integration of Equity in Emergency Management 

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color requires the urgent integration of equity into emergency management. Disasters amplify existing inequities on a larger and more visible scale.  Like a mirror reflecting our imperfections, disasters show us who we really are as people. Disasters present of vivid picture of those who we prioritize and how our most vulnerable are treated. This disaster has once again brought to light the glaring disparities that continue to entrap far too many communities of color in a continuous cycle of tragedy and loss.  Institutional racism serves as the fuel that creates the inequities that combust when disasters strike. Discriminatory economic and social policies are the root cause for the vulnerability faced by marginalized communities. Decades of divestments have created impoverished communities across the country that lack basic necessities including affordable, safe, and adequate housing. Federal and State guidance to “socially distance” to limit the spread of COVID-19 is difficult when systemic racism has confined impoverished families to occupy incredibly small living spaces. Environmental injustices have located toxic facilities in and around communities of color contributing to concentration of black and brown people with the same “underlining conditions” (asthma, cancer, etc) that makes COVID-19 so fatal.

Emergency management officials have a responsibility to integrate equity into preparedness and response to disasters by understanding the unique vulnerabilities and limitations of communities. But preparedness efforts prior to COVID-19’s onslaught in the United States were slow and disjointed. Clear and accurate emergency information regarding the seriousness of the threat was lacking. Black and brown communities have legitimate reasons to distrust government officialsdue to years of racist and inequitable policies. Building trust, especially during an emergency, should start with honest conversations and factual information. Trust of the message and the messenger are vitally important when communicating with communities of color. Instead of partnering with community and faith leaders to “sound the alarm” regarding COVID-19 and provide resources to vulnerable communities, efforts was taken by national leaders to downplay potential impacts. Though the disaster feels like it has lasted numerous months, it was as recent as early March that the senior government officials were projecting COVID-19’s severity and potential death toll to be minimal, at worst. That was a little over 2 months ago, when nationally there were only 500 COVID-19 cases and 22 deaths. The number of U.S. COVID-19 cases hasnow swelled to over 1.25 million cases and caused close to 80,000 deaths with thousand mores expected. Disaster impact data that was finally collected and made publicly available confirms that black and brown communities have once again suffered disproportionate disaster impacts. The number of African-American and Latinx deaths far outpace their overall population percentage. In some cities, 70% to 80% of cases and fatalities are black and brown people. COVID-19 response has exacerbated inequities for people of color, low-income individuals, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable and marginalized groups. 

Many years have passed since Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans resulting in over 3,000 fatalities, mostly within the black community. Since then there are have been other major natural disasters that resulted in disproportionate impacts on communities of color, in terms of both lives lost and economically. Unfortunately these numerous events and lives lost have not prompted a change in existing approaches. But it has become painfully clear that effective disaster management requires a new, tailored approach that understands the unique circumstances of the individuals and communities that are in need. The emergency management failures in recent years have proven ineffective in many cases because false assumptions have been made about the ability of individuals and families who are already suffering before disaster impacts. Societal inequities have made daily living traumatic for marginalized communities. Political leaders, policy-makers, and emergency managers have mostly turned a blind eye to the daily injustices suffered by many, such as unlivable wages, unpaid sick leave, and insufficient or nonexistent healthcare.  

No one should be shocked COVID-19 has resulted in an extremely high numbers of deathswithin poor, communities of color.  The argument for increasing minimum wage, providing healthcare for all and paid sick leave has been occurring for years. The plight of poor people has been known and understood for a long time. These efforts to equitably invest in these communities were intended to improve lives and build resilience in anticipation of disasters. The multiple benefits of equity before, during, and after disasters were known by communities of color and advocates for the poor and marginalized. Apparently, disaster decision-makers have failed to understand that the mistreatment of marginalized groups through federal, state, and local policies has a host of negative repercussions for everyone when disasters occur.  When the most vulnerable are prioritized; disaster outcomes are better for everyone. When decision-makers intentionally prioritize the most vulnerable these investments reap exponential benefits in the reduction of lives lost and reduced disaster costs. Just consider if efforts were taken in February to provide communities of color and other vulnerable groups with personal protective equipment(masks, sanitizer, etc.) and provide high risk individuals with pre-existing conditions with the option to voluntarily relocate to prevent community spread and receive free medical attention. What if businesses were provided with government funding to support paid sick leave so their employees would not come to work sick and infect others? All these initiatives would have cost considerable funding but likely much less than what has been and will be spent. The Nation has already spent billions (if not trillions) of dollars responding to the primary health and secondary economic impacts of COVID-19. Those funds and the lost of thousands of lives will make COVID-19 the most deadly and expensive American disaster in over a century. It would have been prudent if the Nation had learned the lessons of past disasters by anticipating and prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable. 

A great awakening of innovation in equitable disaster management is needed. Political leaders and emergency managers need to re-think disaster preparedness approaches and messages. They must learn how to operationalize and embed equity into disaster preparedness, mitigation, preparedness, and response efforts in order to overcome unconscious bias and ensure greater resources are allocated to support vulnerable populations.  Emergency managers should no longer encourage families who barely have food to eat each day to have a 3-day disaster supply kit that includes an adequate food, water, and other supplies. Or why should flood insurance be marketed to individuals and families that are working poor or living at or near the poverty line? These preparedness messages are intentionally cookie-cutter and disconnected from the reality of the challenges these communities face. These messages appear to indicate that poor, marginalized communities are “on their own” and will not be considered a priority during disasters.  Everyone should be concerned when groups are marginalized, mistreated and maligned by society. Those who are privileged can no longer turn a blind eye to the plight of marginalized communities.  COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that the “essential workforce” who staffs and cleans hospitals, grocery stores, factories, and other critical industries are disproportionately people of color and other low-income individuals from the same poor neighborhoods that are suffering the greatest impacts.  

The individual or family preparedness model that puts an over-reliance on the concept of “purchasing preparedness” is based on a privileged perspective that assumes everyone has equal access to resources. It ignores the decades of widening wealth inequality that has pushed many families and communities to the fringes. Further, it presumes that those who did not purchase preparedness do not deserve to survive disaster impacts, and in fact are responsible for their own demise. In these precarious times, we cannot expect people who are mentally and financially drained to do much more, especially in the face of more extreme disasters.  Government leaders and emergency management agencies need to partner and seamlessly provide resources to community serving non-profit and faith-based organizations that better understand the diverse and unique needs of people in marginalized communities. These organizations are in many ways more trusted by people in the community than government agencies. New rules and processes should be developed to provide additional preparedness and mitigation resources directly to marginalized communities well before the onset of a disaster.

This historic pandemic has demonstrated that America has a chronic disregard for poor and marginalized people.  Covid-19 disproportionate impacts are an indictment against the privileged and self-serving mindset that allows many Americans to live without regard or concern for these vital communities. It is an indictment against our current reactive and slow emergency management practices that do not prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable. COVID-19 devastating impacts on communities of color should be a call to action. A call to integrate equity into emergency management practices and improve the lives of those most at risk before the next disaster strikes. Former Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is credited for saying that leaders should never waste a crisis. He meant that crises provide a window of opportunity to enact beneficial and hopefully lasting changes. The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to provide an opportunity for the nation to finally move away from the current ineffective status quo and towards a nobler approach that leverages innovative equitable practices to support people of color and other vulnerable and marginalized people and communities. Hopefully this disaster prompts these much needed sustainable changes before the next disaster results in thousands of more black and brown lives to be lost.

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