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Black Women on The Front Lines of the Coronavirus

Source: Creative Services / iOne Digital

COVID-19 awakened a strange and uncertain hour for our country. But Black communities will undoubtedly stand to fall the hardest as our local and federal governments have proven to be unprepared in the wake of this unprecedented challenge. Black women, who have historically held front-facing and service-based positions, face the greatest challenge as the largest working demographic exposed to the public.

“These are the folks who are working and being exposed to thousands of possibly symptomatic and asymptomatic customers, while many others of us shelter-in-place,” said Astin Wangel-Brown, a 33-year-old licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist based out of Los Angeles.

For this special MadameNoire report, we interviewed 10 Black women across service-based industries to gain perspective on how this real-life pandemic will shape our futures, revising life as we know it for the foreseeable future. 

“This pandemic was a sudden shock to us all, but I know when it is safe for us to become a full service dine in restaurant again the customers will be back & so will I.” – Michelle Johnson, 34, restaurant worker

Since the first wave of African slaves set foot on American soil, Black women paid with their bodies, through sexual and physical abuse, forced into servitude. As the bondage of slavery was lifted, racist policies formed a gap in equity. Opportunities were created based on back-breaking labor in exchange for wages which hardly amounted to the promise and pursuit of “happiness,” scribed in America’s constitution.

According to the Department of Labor, Black women are the largest minority demographic in the labor force, which is expected to extend into 2024. Almost a third of Black women work in service jobs compared to one-fifth of white women. In regards to the food industry, Black people make up more than 13 percent of workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For a majority of those with customer service based jobs, paid sick leave, living wages, food security, and health benefits remain a luxury in the eyes of corporations and billionaire business owners, presenting those who report to work susceptible to exposure with even harsher outcomes. This also applies to self-reliant individuals like small business owners and sex workers.

But even for Black women who broke barriers on the strength of their foremothers to obtain wealth via opening a small-businesses or obtaining an education, there remains leaps and bounds to overcome. As we know, an education doesn’t render a Black woman “safe” when it comes to health disparities or economic stability. Black women who hold positions that require degrees, like nursing, or teaching, will also face high exposure to the coronavirus. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 9.9 percent of nurses are Black women and of the 6.7 percent of Black public school teachers, Black men only make up two percent. Black women, who account for the largest number of college attendees, were accounted amongst the drove of students who were told to leave their campuses. Many of them dependent on consistent housing, food and wellness access at school were left uncared for. These same students now also face job security uncertainty in the throes of a global pandemic.

“It seems everyone has all of a sudden become experts on the management of this crisis through their social media outlets but not all that is seen and shared is credible. I don’t have all the answers myself but the outlets who do are rarely included in the conversation.” – Daphne Opoku, 33, RN-MSN CMSRN PHN at Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles

Small business owners have experienced a decrease in revenue due to the nation-wide stay at home mandate. According to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report, 2.4 million businesses in the U.S. are owned by Black women. Some owners are resorting to innovative measures to create income like promoting the purchase of gift cards to use for later and beefing up their online presence, while others were forced to shutter for an indefinite amount of time. 

While there are no present solutions regarding how to quell the spread of the virus across the globe, let alone in Black communities, the NAACP assembled a panel to discuss the realities of the virus and its effect on the African-American community. One of the benefits of facing this pandemic is that it forces our country to face the gaps in equity, health care, and economic disparities and for us to reckon with. Panelists proposed several solutions in their emergency tele-town hall on COVID-19. Several experts and politicians took the time to advocate for the African-American community during this uncertain time. 

“We want to make sure we’re not looking at another Katrina-like response from the federal government,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said during the call. “This pandemic is stretching our health care system, our economy and it’s causing a lot of concern and grief among folks.”

A proposed stimulus bill in the Senate remains on the floor as Republican members of congress and Democratic members spar over partisan efforts to include aid for the disadvantaged and small minority business owners over bailing out billion dollar corporations.

“We thrive when we are supported and can lean on each other when things get rough. My concern is that the isolation can bring many of us back into a feeling of us against the world and having to balance a lot on our plates.” – Ife Obe, owner, The Fit In: Bed-Stuy

And while many Black women face challenges in the workplace and the threat of exposure, they are often required to pivot and function as the backbone of their families, constantly placing their health behind those of their loved ones. With our challenging history in America, it is not only an exercise that is hard to break, but ingrained within how we are socialized, creating our general makeup.  

As Black women, we’ve traversed deathly terrain on our own a multitude of times before. Historically, our resilience is unmatched. 

“As folks of color, women of color, we can remind ourselves and each other that we have survived some quite harrowing experiences and we already have many tools that benefit us,” Wangel-Brown continued. “Faith, community, art, learning, healing practices and rituals are all parts of our rich culture as Black folks and [are] definitely aids for moving through a time like this.”

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