Black Women On The Front Lines Of The Coronavirus

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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.”

*Melissa Johnson is a 34-year-old restaurant worker in California who was recently laid off due to the coronavirus. 

MN: Over the last few days, government officials have taken drastic, but necessary measures to contain the outbreak. Some of those measures required business owners to lay off their staff. Can you talk about that process—from when you learned you would be laid off, until now. Are you without insurance/ needed resources?

MJ: My employer told us on Monday, March 16, that due to government mandates the restaurant would be moving to a to-go food model only until March 31st. My understanding of this meant that I would no longer be on the schedule [and] therefore would not be paid. Honestly, this did not come as a shock to me, as I had heard that other cities had already implemented this rule to ensure public health. I applaud our state & local leaders for doing what was best to keep the staff and customers safe. While I was working at the restaurant I did have insurance through the end of 2020, now that I am “laid off” I am unsure if I still have access to those benefits. We did get information on unemployment. I signed up on Monday [March 16] [to] file an unemployment insurance claim which can provide partial wage replacement benefit payments to workers who lose their job or have their hours reduced, through no fault of their own. I registered and filed my claimstill waiting to hear back on what will be available to me.

MNWhen it comes to Black families and communities, Black women hold many customer facing positions and are seen as the backbone of the family. What are the concerns you have for Black women in this global health crisis as a collective, and what precautions have you taken to keep yourself safe/healthy?

MJ: My first concern is that Black women will be asked to continue to work in unsafe working conditions [and] increase their chances of catching this virus. Our health [and] the health of our families should be the number one prioritystay home! My second concern is Black women not having the financial support necessary to sustain their livelihood while being out of work due to this pandemic. We will need quick [and] sufficient financial relief from our employers [and] our government to keep us from financial ruin. Another concern I have is state of our healthcare system, we need to make sure our black women have adequate [and] affordable heath care coverage to ensure we are well taken care of if we do contract this virus.

MN: Lastly, is there anything you pledge to do as a community member to help others who may be underserved?

MJ: I pledge to work with my local food banks to donate meals to those who are in need.

*MN used the alias “Melissa Johnson” to ensure privacy.

Astin Wangel-Brown is a 34 year-old licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and psychotherapist based out of California.

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Astin Wangel-Brown / Courtesy of Astin Wangel-Brown

MN: As a Black woman working in the mental health field, what were your initial thoughts when you heard about this virus?

AWB: Initially, I thought it sounded quite awful and scary. I remember I went out to celebrate Chinese New Year with friends and quickly realized, celebrations everywhere would be impacted by this growing concern and that folks read as Chinese were not only going to have to worry about staying safe and well, like the rest of us, but that they would also be discriminated against and even held accountable for the spread of this deadly disease. It turned my stomach how quickly we move to de-humanizing people in protection of ourselves. As a woman of color, I am never settled when I see this happen. It’s just ugly and reminds me that racist ideas and behaviors are just under the surface, at the ready when folks feel threatened.

Black woman across disciplines often rely heavily on the security of their work-life to not only sustain themselves but contribute to their families and communities

MN: Are there specific ways in which this affects communities of color mentally because of the prospect of being out of work/unpaid medical leave, or the financial weight sickness can cause?

AWB: My concern is that as Black folks, especially Black women, many of us carry the narrative that there are “no days off,” “we have been through worse,” and “somebody has to do it” and this unfortunately, puts us more at risk.

Unfortunately many working class folks of color who are relying on each paycheck to cover their expenses, are forced to prioritize the multiple risks they are faced with in a situation like COVID-19. Holding the aforementioned narratives in mind, being at risk for missing rent and subsequently, being at risk for homelessness can take precedent over health concerns. This is especially top of mind for me considering with the extraordinary large homeless population here in Los Angeles.

Lastly, as a Black woman in the mental health field the virus triggers my thoughts about my availability to my clients and my business. Having been very ill myself around this time last year and taken away from my practice, I was concerned about the possibility of this happening again leaving clients and household vulnerable.

MN: Are there specific ways in which this affects communities of color mentallybecause of the prospect of being out of work/unpaid medical leave, or the financial weight sickness can cause?

AWB: Unfortunately many working class folks of color who are relying on each paycheck to cover their expenses, are forced to prioritize the multiple risks they are faced with in a situation like COVID-19. Holding the aforementioned narratives in mind, being at risk for missing rent and subsequently, being at risk for homelessness can take precedent over health concerns. This is especially top of mind for me considering with the extraordinary large homeless population here in Los Angeles.

Callay Coleman is an 18-year-old freshman at SUNY Brockport who had to go home for the semester due to COVID-19.

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Callay Coleman / Courtesy of Callay Coleman

MN: How were you notified to leave campus?

CC: At the beginning of March, we were told to leave campus. With my SUNY, at first, there was no definite decision. They were telling us not to worry about it and a couple of days before spring break they were like the governor has made their decision and SUNY’s will close and partake in online classes, 

MN: Were you surprised when you were told to vacate?

CC: I didn’t want to come back home, like I said I was getting the hang of things. I’m also a nursing major and we have classes where we have labs and they are sending us emails about how it would work. It was disappointing.

MN: Are you taking online courses?

CC: I haven’t started yet but they might be difficult just because they’re online and professors will probably overload them more. Some of the classes are fine but the main classes like science and classes that are hands on or lectures, we had to teach ourselves. At the same time the labs are very useful and we have one lab a week and they basically sum up what we learn in one week in a lab and it helps more than listening to lectures, so we get more of a feel of the material. 

Daphne Opoku is a 33-year-old RN-MSN CMSRN PHN, at Cedars-Sinai Los Angeles and a professor at West Coast University in California.

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Daphne Opoku / Courtesy of Daphne Opoku

MN: Over the last few days, government officials have taken drastic, but necessary measures to contain the outbreak. What are the measures being taken at your hospital to keep staff safe/alert?

DO: Limited patient visitors, soft screening of symptoms of patients visitors prior to having access to patient populated areas, No overnight stays, [and providing] continuous nursing resources for educating the staff.

MN: Are there any discussions regarding supply shortages/shortages of beds/ventilators?

DO: Yes, supply shortages have become a constant topic as noticeably, patient visitors are stealing face masks, antimicrobial wipes, boxes of gloves and other protective gear. It’s gotten to the point of hiding supplies in locked or monitored areas to prevent future shortages. In some cases, they’ve asked us to utilize a mask several times and have suggested it’s okay to use in multiple patient rooms if needed (desperate times call for desperate measures because this was strongly discouraged [due] to infection control). As for beds, so far the census has been controlled in the sense that prior to being admitted, there’s a protocol of measures taken to ensure we don’t treat urgent care needs in an acute care setting. Also, I think people are just staying home and staying clear of the possibility of contracting the virus. The ER is no place to be if you don’t have to be especially if you’re immunocompromised at a time like this.

MN: When it comes to Black families and communities, Black women hold many customer facing positions and are seen as the backbone of the family. What are the concerns you have for Black women in this global health crisis as a collective, and what precautions have you taken to keep yourself safe/healthy?

DO: The concern I have in this global health crisis is if statistics show that we as a collective face greater obstacles in health care access and in some cases treatments, then how will we be protected against the existing inequities? How will we have the same access COVID-19 testing as white men and white women? Are testing kits equally distributed in our communities as they are in others? Furthermore, many Black people who do work in service industries may not have the necessary benefits needed to take time off if sick. The risk of that is, they come to work sick bearing through it so they won’t miss out on their wages but in turn their illness spreads. We are indeed at a great risk. Precautions I’ve taken to remain safe and keep others around me safe is to continue to do what has proven to work. Wash my hands (nothing new for me), take vitamins specifically for immunity, get much-needed rest and schedule an appointment with my PCP if anything reasonably changes with my health.

Diane Chism is a lead dietary aide who works in the culinary department in a home for the elderly in New Jersey.

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Diane Chism / Courtesy of Diane Chism

MN: As a Black woman working in the care-giving industry, what were your initial thoughts when you heard about this virus?

DC: My mind has been wandering. I’ve been thinking about the elderly residents I support who could catch it and their family members who are always traveling  I also wonder if the staff would actually let us know if someone contracted the virus. It also makes me sad that elders wouldn’t be able to see their families.

MN: Are you fearful in any way of being exposed or do you believe your job has taken enough preventive measures/ precautions?

DC: I’m a little afraid of being exposed, but I’m trying to have faith. It’s very scary.

MN: When it comes to Black families and communities, Black women hold many customer facing positions and are seen as the backbone of the family. What are the concerns you have for Black women in this global health crisis as a collective, and what precautions have you taken to keep yourself safe/healthy?

DC: My concerns for Black woman in this industry has to do with the fact that most of us need money and most women will do anything for their families, but being close-up, taking care of the elderly makes me feel jaded and under appreciated. A majority of the workers aren’t white but a majority of the residents we care for are. Even we if we don’t like that fact, many of us need the money and wonder if the industry cares about us. I really don’t know.

Ife Obe is the owner of The Fit In: Bed-Stuy, a boutique fitness center in New York.

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Ife Obe / Courtesy of Ife Obe

MN: Over the last few days, government officials have taken drastic, but necessary measures to contain the outbreak. How has it affected your business?

IO: The days leading up to March 16th, I knew it was only a matter of time until we would be mandated to close. Our members begged us to stay open but the writing was on the wall. We’re a business based around getting people together in a physical space and that is not allowed during this time. We have to temporarily shut our doors. And while that means no immediate revenue coming in, that also means our instructors, many who teach fitness for a living, are significantly impacted. Our community no longer has that place that kept them sane. Our community no longer has the service that we provide, both the exercise and the social piece of that. 

MN: Are you fearful in any way of an economic hardship/blowback for your business?

IO: Call me an optimist, but I truly believe we’ll be ok because we’ve built a strong and supportive community. They will come back stronger than ever. I’ve lived my life problem-solving and I will get through until then. 

MN: Lastly, is there anything you pledge to do as a community member to help others who may be underserved? 

IO: In terms of providing movement options to the community, we are launching affordable on-demand workouts people can do right at home, no equipment necessary. The instructor teaching will get the majority of the revenue per download. But thinking about the Bed-Stuy community as a whole, The Campaign Against Hunger (TCAH) serves Bed-Stuy and beyond to provide meals to those in need. The need has grown at this time, lowering the pantry inventory and this pandemic has caused a reduction in volunteers. We made a donation to the pantry and plan to donate a percentage of our video downloads to the pantry as well.

Jade Greene-Grant is a 37-year-old New York City public school pre-k teacher since 2008, who has had to teach remotely due to the COVID-19. 

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Jade Greene Grant / Courtesy of Jade Greene-Grant

MN: How do you feel about the recent changes to your classroom setting?

JGG: I’m actually sad because I don’t get to see my students. I have young students and I don’t see how distance learning is really going to help their socialization. We focus on their social skills and since this is their first time in school it’s important for them to interact with their peers.

I am concerned for them. I want to know if they have access to technology. Some parents are working, and we don’t know how much technology is in each student’s house, so they sent out a survey to see how many kids need a laptop. I’m just saddened by that and I really hope things get better and it seems like things are only getting worse.

MN: Are you fearful in any way of an economic hardship/blowback for your business?

JGG: I am blessed to still be able to get my salary and my husband works from home, so we have been blessed that we’re still afloat financially because we’ve both been receiving our pay. And I can save money on my commute, like gas and toll. I guess being home with my family is nice but that will get old soon and overwhelming, but I guess it’s no different than what I do in the summer anyway. I teach pre-k and my son is in pre-k and my daughter is in 1st, so we’re all set.

MN: As a teacher and mother, what are your thoughts now?

JGG: I just feel like everything is about to change in life. I really do feel affected by not being able to go to work. It has its positives and negatives so I’m just trying to reassure my class and kids. I don’t know who will get the virus and who won’t. You don’t know where and who it’s coming from and you don’t know the source. It’s just worrisome and we’re all just doing the best we can to get through it.

*Panda is a 37-year-old trans sex worker who has maintained their clientele in the wake of the virus.

MN: How has your line of work been affected?

P: See what’s really special about this, is that I can work from home too. I know, crazy. Like I still see a few of my veterans but people are really scared. But no one’s like really stopped and I dont think no one can really stop. It’s like maintenance work. But I’ve switched to like cam work, but it’s kinda hard if you don’t have your name out there already. And since some of my people have faded out a little, I’m still fine. The sun’s out and my pockets are fine

MN: Are you worried about contracting the coronavirus from your clients?

P: I’m not and only because everyone’s been on quarantine and everyone’s been really serious about it. It’s not like people are out here not listening. People are listening and taking care of themselves and I’ve been eating my fruits and vegetables and staying on top of my health and immune system. 

MN: Over the last few days, government officials have taken drastic, but necessary measures to contain the outbreak. Some of those measures required business owners to lay off their staff. Can you talk about that process—from when you learned you would be laid off, until now? Are you without insurance/ needed resources? – (I have a clarification question out to her here

P” So my job job had to close down because we’re not considered essential, but I always felt like it was always OK if I lost that job because I had my supplemental income. And honestly, I’m not out on the street you know? And I thank God for that because I know some people are struggling. I do not have insurance but I have savings and I have enough for me and mine and that’s my insurance. 

*MN used the alias “Panda” to ensure privacy.

Tabitha Jennings is a 49-year-old construction flagger, for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Tabitha Jennings / Courtesy of Tabitha Jennings

MN: Over the last few days, government officials have taken drastic, but necessary measures to contain the outbreak. Can you talk about how it has affected you in regards of your workflow? Have your hours been reduced or expanded? 

TJ: [The] MTA sad to say, is REACTIVE NOT PROACTIVE. They always wait for something to happen then try to clean it up. We are all STILL WORKING.  

MN: Are you fearful in any way of being exposed or do you believe your job has issued preventive measures/ precautions?

TJ: We have been told that some people in different departments have been exposed and they are quarantined for 14 days. I am praying for myself, my family and my co-workers.

MN: When it comes to Black families and communities, Black women hold many customer facing positions and are seen as the backbone of the family. What are the concerns you have for Black women in this global health crisis as a collective, and what precautions have you taken to keep yourself safe/healthy?

TJ: We just have to uplift each other. Love and take care of our Families. We must continue to live our lives. We can’t live in FEAR. 

Yasmine Parrish, 33, is the owner of Parrish Publicity, a small marketing and event consulting firm that has been severely affected by the cancellation of events and clients that are scared to pay next month’s retainers.

Black women on the front lines of the coronavirus

Source: Yasmine Parrish / Courtesy of Yasmine Parrish

MN: What are your thoughts regarding how the government is responding to the virus?

YP: Unfortunately, I feel like the federal government and leaders haven’t given consumers and citizens very direct instruction. I think that my specific state and mayor has been doing a really good job at keeping the public calm and giving us very clear information, which is something I don’t feel like I’ve gotten from the federal government. I’m disappointed we didn’t get ahead of this sooner.

MN: Are you fearful in any way of an economic hardship/blowback for your business?

YP: Well, one of the biggest issues is that I have clients who have business proposals for the future, and this affects my ability to gain income. Thankfully I have clients who pay deposits when they do an event with me, but I have at least two events that have been postponed indefinitely at the moment. It’s been pretty tough and its uncharted territory and everything is uncertain. I miss out on the money clients would have given me for putting on the event, or like 20% of whatever the budget is, or at the bare minimum the full $2,000. 

MN: How are you balancing motherhood and work now that schools are closed?

YP: With my child, it’s about balance and keeping things flowing and making sure my child, who is in preschool is taken care of. Luckily in a way, things are a little flexible with my business and I have his learning material at home, and I’ve been leaning into that more. I’ve been using specific channels on YouTube and help supplements since he’s not going to school right now. Every third hour I give him something educational to do.

*Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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