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The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a massive civil rights crisis

To address the public health crisis, assistance should be provided to those most in need.

Ramelfo Frometa receives his COVID-19 vaccine Feb. 4 at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center vaccination site at La Colaborativa in Chelsea, one of the communities in Massachusetts hardest hit by the pandemic.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

After a year in its deadly grip, Americans are well aware of the damaging and dangerous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet as we’ve seen, some communities are faring worse than others. A new report we have issued at the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy documents how people of color and low-income families have been hit the hardest in health care, education, employment, food security, environmental safety and housing.

To address the public health crisis, assistance should be provided to those most in need. The nation will not emerge from the pandemic until the people most affected can recover. The Carr Center report and other recent polls show that a large majority of Americans support federal government action to protect the lives, livelihoods, and rights of citizens in the pandemic. A majority of those surveyed believe that equal opportunity and racial equality as well as access to health care, education, and employment are all “essential to being an American today,” and that “events in recent months have made me think differently about the responsibility of government to protect all Americans,” as well as “the responsibility of Americans to our fellow citizens”.


The facts are stark. Black, Latino, and Native Americans have a COVID-19 death rate nearly three times higher than white Americans, and a hospitalization rate nearly four times higher. Predominately minority counties are experiencing far greater COVID-19 death rates than counties with predominately nonminority residents. Communities of color face glaring inequities in access to health insurance, with 28 percent of Native Americans, 25 percent of Latinos, and 14 percent of Black people lacking coverage, compared to 8 percent of white Americans.

In education, students of color have faced severe challenges in educational access and outcomes as a result of pandemic shutdowns. The average learning loss in mathematics for minority students is between six and 12 months, compared to four to eight months for nonminorities. Racial and economic inequality has exacerbated problems of student access to personal and online instruction. Forty percent of Black students and 30 percent of Latino students have received no online instruction during shutdowns, compared to 10 percent of white students. For many minority students, low incomes prevent their families from purchasing the computers needed for online learning.


In employment, job losses disproportionately affect communities of color, with 9.9 percent of Black people and 8.7 percent of Latinos unemployed in the pandemic, compared to 5.8 percent of white people. Loss of employment leads to housing and food insecurity, which are also felt disproportionately by racial minorities. Problems in paying rent are experienced by 36 percent of Black families and 29 percent of Latino families, compared to 12 percent of white families. Food insecurity is reported by 36 percent of Black families, 32 percent of Latino families, and 18 percent of white families.

The “American Rescue Plan” drafted by the Biden administration would address the most devastating aspects of the pandemic, above all its impact on minority and low-income families. The people who have been hit the hardest should benefit the most. In addition to extending emergency relief to all Americans, economists estimate that the plan would help lift over 8 million Black, Latino, Asian, and Native Americans out of pandemic-induced poverty and provide assistance where families of color are most disproportionately impacted, in food and housing security, health care access, and education and child care.


The Biden plan would expand protections for front-line workers, 40 percent of whom are people of color. It would increase and extend unemployment benefits, supporting the 1 in 10 Black workers and 1 in 11 Latino workers who are unemployed, and it would extend critical relief to Native American communities.

Emergency assistance would send direct payments to low-income families, provide paid family and medical leave, and extend housing eviction and foreclosure moratoriums and rental assistance programs. The plan would subsidize health coverage for low-income people, expand health care facilities for underserved communities, and provide supplemental payments for food security. To help low-income parents return to work, the plan would increase the child-care tax credit and emergency assistance to child care providers. To bridge the racial and economic equity gap in student learning caused by the pandemic, the plan would support public health measures to allow safe reopening of schools so that all students can receive equal instruction.

The civil rights crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic needs urgent attention. Passing the American Rescue Plan would be a good start.

John Shattuck is director of the Project on Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States at the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Daniel A. Estupinan is a master in public policy candidate and research assistant at the Carr Center.