My pandemic emergency began on March 2, when my daughter’s school in Berlin was abruptly evacuated, the students sent to the safety of their homes. Two weeks later, I was told to work from home, because it would be healthier and less infectious. The next eight weeks were mildly inconvenient. We took long walks, did online homework and felt reassured as we watched the local police wander through the parks and politely ask crowds to sit a bit further apart.
George Floyd’s pandemic emergency began on March 13, when the governor of Minnesota ordered non-essential businesses to shut down and employed people to work from home. That meant losing his income from restaurant work and apparently resorting to a mishmash of temp jobs and hustles to get by. Staying home, for low-income people of colour in his inner-ring Minneapolis suburb, was neither healthier nor safer – it typically meant sharing a poorly ventilated apartment building and getting around on a city bus crowded with essential workers. Likely as a result, he contracted COVID-19. And police were not a source of reassurance, but of fear – as the world now knows, they targeted Mr. Floyd, who was picked up on a petty crime charge and then slowly suffocated to death beneath a police officer’s knee, a death provoked by his race and likely hastened by his coronavirus infection.
“Stay at home” seemed like sound public health advice – but it implies a notion of “home” confined to middle-class, mainly white neighbourhoods, an assumption that your house and street are a less infectious, more isolated and less dangerous place than school or work. For kids in these vulnerable suburbs, being at home, with many children to a bedroom and no computer and a shared ventilation system, is more dangerous than staying at school or crowding into a park. For Mr. Floyd, staying at home meant becoming exposed to the pandemic, being thrust into economic marginality and spending his days in far more danger.
George Floyd was not just typical of most victims of police violence in the United States. He was also very typical of most victims of COVID-19, not just in the United States but across the Western world. In most countries, including Canada, the disease is disproportionately targeting people from racial and ethnic minority communities and those with lower incomes. This is not a result of some biological proclivity – it’s because of the places where people live and work, by choice or by force of housing markets.
In Toronto and Montreal, and in most European cities, the disease has largely skipped majority-white neighbourhoods, and is highly concentrated in places, mainly suburban, where immigration settlement occurs or where housing-market discrimination forces people to live. In Toronto, COVID-19 is overwhelmingly present in parts of Scarborough, North York and northern Etobicoke that have the largest populations of Canadians of African and Caribbean descent. Black Canadians say they feel doubly victimized by the disease and by a police and justice system that discriminates based on colour – and on both counts, the data show they’re right.
According to a Yale School of Medicine study released in May, Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans – and again, this appears to be because their neighbourhoods and workplaces are much more vulnerable (lower-income minorities are far more likely to work in jobs deemed “essential services"). They are also, according to the Economic Policy Institute, likelier to live in crowded housing, and often in multigenerational households where younger members can easily infect older ones. This is also true of many racial-minority communities in Canada and Europe – the ones COVID-19 has hit hardest.
Toronto urbanist Jay Pitter notes that poor and racially marginalized people in Canadian cities tend to live in neighbourhoods that feature “ageing infrastructure, over-policing, predatory enterprises like cheque-cashing businesses and liquor stores, inadequate transportation options, and sick buildings.” As she writes, the inner-suburban identity of these neighbourhoods and their overall low population density contrast with crowding within buildings and on transit routes to create a toxic combination.
“The true underlying root is white supremacy, not geography," says George Galster, a Detroit scholar who’s been analyzing the economic effects of neighbourhood segregation for six decades. “But it helps to have somebody live separately from you if you are going to psychologically brand them as different and other… The bottom of the segregated housing market is quite unsafe in terms of vermin infestation, lead-paint contamination, poor air conditioning and ventilation systems, basic sanitary facilities that don’t work – and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a physical dwelling.”
“Stay home” must have seemed like sound, safe advice. But for too many of our fellow citizens, home is where the danger is.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.