Coronavirus: the undocumented, incarcerated and homeless

Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 5:48pm

.

Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

A new moment in history is being lived in every community, within every country; unlimited to any age, race, socioeconomic class or sex. It has canceled music festivals and rallies, graduations and weddings, a fun taco Tuesday with friends or our beloved Skeeps Saturdays. Within the blink of an eye, life as we knew it was turned upside down. Everything that made months and years feel like seconds disappeared, and space and time have never felt slower. Throughout the semester, prior understandings of community, space, time and history have been challenged and unveiled, having various layers and dimensions. Particularly with time/history, years like 1991 have become more than just a date. 1991 symbolized the new wave of Black migration, the precursor to many of the “hot summer riots,” the death of Latasha Harlins and beating of Rodney King, as well as the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s second album: “The Low End Theory.” Multiple layers come with each year and at times, what is realized is that these layers not only reveal multidimensional plotlines, but could, potentially, serve as a means of distraction from what is inherently at risk and threatened. 

COVID-19 serves as a distraction from the U.S.’s  perception and categorization of race and opportunity. As universal as this virus has been broadcasted to be, there is an inherent racial disparity at play, particularly seen within big cities and places of wealth gaps. The two cities that may help to best understand the relationship between the virus and racial categorization amongst the data are San Francisco and Seattle who were hit early on by the virus and continue to be affected and drastically changed by its presence. Through the analysis of the various measures taken within these two cities, the perception of the virus as a universal phenomenon may dissipate and instead demonstrate another event in time that has been taken as an opportunity to disempower marginalized communities and disguise biases against the same demographics. 

There are two moments of urban crisis that have been acknowledged. The first in the late 60s, following the civil rights movement and joining alongside the Black power movement. The second was during the early 90s with the emergence of riots and political unrest amongst marginalized communities, particularly that of the Black community. Currently, there seems to be another period of urban crisis that some may say is a continuation from that of the 90s, but may also be seen as something new. As time has progressed, marginalized communities have gotten better at adjusting to what society “offers” and extracting what they can from it. In the 60s, it was rights, liberties and more opportunity in the North and West, thus the reason why many families migrated across the country. In the 90s, it was the ability to seek a voice, success and expression through art, politics, sports and science. Currently, it is building upon the successes of previous generations and developing power and legacy to finally emerge out of the cycle of oppression that has lasted for years. 

However, in each time period there has also been a persistent effort to stagnate the successes of minority groups, particularly Black people in America. There are efforts to recreate society to support the majority and “make America great again,” which to many Americans today seems to be the reinstallment of racist attitudes and social disparities headed by our “President” Donald Trump. From first glance it is hard to see how COVID-19 could have a racial dimension to it. The immense devastation and hard-hitting nature of the virus has impacted everyone and the way in which individuals respond to it also affects all involved, worldwide. This is a sickness of a wide nature and incredible impact. Yet, racial data is suggesting something to note. In the article, “What the Racial Data Show” author Ibram X. Kendi writes “Black people, at 46% ... are about twice as likely as white people, at 21%, to view the coronavirus as a major threat to their health.” He follows this statistic by expanding upon the facts and explaining that in places like Michigan, “Black Americans comprise 14.1 percent of the state population, but an ungodly 40 percent of coronavirus deaths.” The next best question would be to understand why this is the case and the answer seems to be rooted back into the figures of social and racial discrimination. People of color make up a significant percentage of the low-wage job population, unemployment figures and undocumented numbers, consequently suggesting that people of color are still struggling to be economically prosperous and sustainable. One of the consequences of this economic struggle is difficulty accessing health care and living in more compromising positions, such as being undocumented or homeless. In a city like San Francisco and Seattle, this is especially noted because of their high rates of diversity within categories like race, socio-economic class and age as well as their higher homeless population. 

Specifically, the undocumented demographic has been rarely talked about along with the COVID-19 pandemic. Kendi makes a point to acknowledge that, “quitting low-wage jobs could mean getting deported. Getting tested could mean getting deported. Getting treated could mean getting deported. And if they are arrested, they could be thrown into ICE’s network of jails and detention centers, where the coronavirus is already spreading.” Now, the threat for undocumented individuals is not only coming from social stances, but one that is completely uncontrollable and health based. Additionally, due to the stringent focus of the government to prevent “illegal immigration,” politicians are not seeing this demographic as an important one to note because, in some ways and as morbid as it may be, the coronavirus solves the problem of deportation. Both San Francisco and Seattle have not made explicit moves to protect their undocumented population or mentioned any specific notions that undocumented people can still get assistance, tests and treatment without consequences, but articles are being written to acknowledge this glanced over fact. Nevertheless, this will continue to be an inherent problem within America’s handling of COVID-19 and another reason as to why COVID-19 poses more of a threat to some rather than others. 

Another aspect that the undocumented population hints at is the conduct and risk of contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated. As mentioned in documentaries such as “Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” and books such as “Writing my Wrongs” by Shaka Senghor, the prison system has become synonymously linked with the Black experience and a great threat for people of color. For many years, law enforcement, specifically police and the laws they “uphold,” have served as a plague within diverse communities; especially for Black people. Families begin to teach their sons and daughters how to manage conflict and to their best ability, avoid confrontations with the law. These efforts are made to prevent cases such as that of Emmett Till, Latasha Harlins and Trayvon Martin from ever happening again. However, regardless of measures taken to battle this imminent threat, society continues to target people of color, particularly Latinos and the Black community, in order to find satisfaction only when these individuals are locked behind bars. Consequently, jail/prison reform and the prison industrial complex debate have risen in order to address this injustice, but true change has to be accepted by those in power in order to create reform, which continues to be a challenge, especially with legislators who do not have this initiative at the forefront of their policies. 

The fight for human rights and equal and fair treatment inside of these institutions continues. However, there have been many difficulties and challenges to successfully implement these changes and, many times, to be merely heard. Thus, a pandemic such as the one experienced now not only emphasizes the vast amount of change that needs to occur, but simultaneously, draws attention away from the incarceration problem. Lauren-Brooke Eisen writes that the “jail and prison health systems in the United States have been designed to be very separate from the rest of the country’s community health systems. The government agencies that are crucial to managing the coronavirus response – like state departments of health, county departments of health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – are essentially absent from jail and prison healthcare and health outcomes.” Thus, the infrastructure and systems that are needed to confront a pandemic as great as this one are not in place in these jails/prisons and consequently, their populations, with a vast majority of its occupants as minorities, greatly suffer from it. 

San Francisco has seemingly been keeping this problem in mind, as seen through the rush of releases for inmates from County Jail. There has been an effort to identify inmates who are close to finishing their sentences and those who may be of the older target age who could be released early. There is acknowledgement that the risk of infection is a question of “when” rather than “if;” but it seems as if San Francisco is taking the available preventative measures to reduce the number affected as onset as possible. Seattle does seem to be taking some measures, as of current, that are directly addressing methods for prevention of COVID-19. On April 6, the first inmate of their Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) tested positive for the virus, which has ignited many worries among inmates and their families. This led MCC to take measures such as making hand sanitizer more available, increasing the cleaning routines throughout the prison (using bleach) and performing “a symptom and temperature check” for all individuals who may have come into contact with an infected inmate. While the measures are being made in a hopeful effort, the risk of infection is inevitable and requires not just daily changes, but systematic development. 

Overall, both San Francisco and Seattle have been keeping this societal impact in mind, but the health risk is as threatening as it is due to the long-lasting influence injustice, discrimination, targeting and profiling has on minorities in America. If the incarcerated get sick, it is essential to consider who what population would be mostly exposed; the majority who would be impacted are people of color, technically around 41.8 percent of the total population (Black people, Asians, Native Americans) with Latinos being intermixed within the 58.6 percent “white” categorization. A study in 2016 found that Black people were incarcerated at a rate of 5.1 times higher than their white counterparts and Latinos, 1.4 times higher in state prisons. Thus, the odds are seemingly not in minorities’ favor; a fact that continues to plague communities. What is more unfortunate is that efforts to challenge this reality are rare due to the continued support from legislation and law enforcement to do just enough for the hierarchy to stay in place. 

Another demographic at high risk to COVID-19 and is at threat in both San Francisco and Seattle is the homeless population. There are approximately 8,000 and 12,000 homeless individuals in San Francisco and Seattle, respectively. Kendi writes that, “no group of Americans may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the incarcerated and the homeless … Homeless people may be the most vulnerable in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles.” Local government in Seattle is making a concentrated effort to “expand housing opportunities for the homeless.” These sites come in the form of quarantine sites and motels that have been recently built and purchased such as the motel in Kent and The White Center. While the construction of these sites may help to distance and keep those who are homeless away from each other as well as the potential exposure from being on the streets, the housing sites aim to target those who have are not necessarily battling the virus already, but attempting to avoid it. Thus, the sites would seek to house individuals who are not already sick, but have a high chance of becoming sick. 

Unfortunately, San Francisco does not appear to be handling the protection of their homeless as well as Seattle is. In fact, many “homeless outreach advocates and local lawmakers are calling a failure in response.” This is mainly due to the delayed plan of action for housing members of the homeless population. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has reportedly announced, “a public health order for the homeless population, with $5 million going towards clean shelters and service centers … expanding shelter hours and meal offerings to encourage homeless residents to remain in shelters, and provide meal delivery services to people isolating at home.” However, many of these changes are not being implemented and the assistance that is being given is late and highly selective. The mayor “promised to open new congregant shelters to ease overcrowding and to procure hotel rooms for the most vulnerable among the homeless population.” Yet the problem that arises from this is, first hand, the tardiness of the response due to the already growing number of infections throughout the homeless community. Additionally, the notion that some lives are more important to save than others is morally problematic. This moral component is something that healthcare providers and hospitals are being confronted with every day, even with decisions as simple as who is able to be tested vs. who is not. Yet, there is something fundamentally disturbing about having the capability to decide who has a better chance of survival and who does not. Hopefully, there will be protective measures in place soon for the San Francisco homeless population and ways to slow the spread among them as well as protect those who are at risk. Nevertheless, it is important to note, the threat of homelessness still exists because of the cycle of poverty and the limited opportunities available for people of color, especially among the Black community. 

Understandings of community, space, time, and history have been challenged all semester. The ability to comprehend what constitutes urban, inner-city and ghetto takes more than a one-dimensional analysis of the vocabulary. One also has to think about their own experiences with the words, society’s conceptualization of them and what systems and structures support them. COVID-19 has revealed that the health system is not only one that is not supported in these areas: urban, inner-city and ghetto, but also not supported for the particular populations that inhabit them. Multiple dimensions come with each year. What has been apparent throughout this semester is that these layers also serve as a means of distraction from what is inherently at risk and threatened. As Kendi writes, “sometimes racial data tells us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.” This knowledge that society seems to know relates to the inherent injustices and inequalities faced by people of color and their communities. 

San Francisco and Seattle help to understand this racial categorization with their handling of the undocumented, incarcerated and homeless communities. While the virus is being broadcasted and experienced as a universal phenomenon, the data and actions seen by these cities demonstrate that this may not be the case. This may be another event in time that is taken as an opportunity to disempower marginalized communities and disguise biases against the same demographics. As time has progressed, marginalized communities have found ways to adjust their communities around what society “offers.” Yet, this pandemic demonstrates the difficulty to adjust and merely stay safe within communities when particular demographics are left out in accordance with an inherently biased system. 

Elliott Brooks can be contacted at ellsibro@umich.edu