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In Maine, and across the country, COVID-19 is infecting black Americans at much higher rates than their white counterparts. In fact, last month, Maine had the largest racial disparity in coronavirus infection rates in the country. Black Mainers were over 20 times more likely to contract the illness than the state’s white residents.
There are many specific reasons for this disparity. Black Mainers are more likely to work in low-paying jobs where the risk of infection is high, including in health care where they are employed as direct care workers and janitors. A meat-packing plant in Portland that was the site of a coronavirus outbreak in May employed many immigrant and minority Mainers.
New arrivals to the U.S. and Maine often live in small apartments with many family members, which makes it hard to isolate if one becomes sick. Low pay and a lack of comprehensive benefits makes it hard for members of these communities to access health care or, in some cases, to even take time off if they or a family member is sick.
There are many steps that need to be taken to solve both the short-term problem of better protecting minority and immigrant communities from coronavirus and the long-term problem of policies that have resulted in racial disparities in income, wealth, housing, health care and other areas.
It is a bit of positive happenstance that Maine lawmakers created a committee last year to work toward eliminating historic disparities among Indigenous and racial minority populations. The Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations has been pressing the Mills administration to devote more attention and resources to immigrant and minority communities that have been much harder hit by the coronavirus than the rest of Maine.
In mid-June, there were more new confirmed cases among Black and African American Mainers — who make up 1.6 percent of the state’s population — than white Mainers, who make up nearly 95 percent. Black Mainers comprised 27 percent of coronavirus cases in which racial data is recorded. Hispanics comprise 1.7 percent of Maine’s population, but 3 percent of all COVID-19 cases in mid-June, according to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
The commission has recommended allocating emergency funding from the federal CARES Act to Black, indigenous and other people of color as well as directing state agencies to track and publish more data sorted by race, ethnicity and tribal affiliation. The latter may sound mundane, but such data can better guide state resources and policies to ensure that these groups do not continue to be left behind, intentionally or not.
In late June, the governor allocated $50,000 to support its work. This is an important downpayment (the commission had only been allocated $500 by the Legislature), but only a fraction of the commitment that will be needed to make a difference, in the long and short term.
State officials, including Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Jeanne Lambrew, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, have called the racial disparities unacceptable. They emphasize that the state is working to increase access to testing and quarantine and isolation sites, among many other steps being taken to help all Mainers cope with the virus and its consequences.
Not all solutions involve money and infrastructure, however. For example, many new Mainers come from countries where government leaders are not trusted. Working through community leaders to build trust in government — and its safety edicts and services — is essential to ensuring that preventative measures such as mask wearing, distancing and isolation are followed.
Likewise, locating testing sites in places that are easily accessible for those who rely on public transportation and ensuring that childcare and dietary needs are met if a family member needs to quarantine will make these measures more effective.
In the longer term, Maine must continue to address systemic economic disparities. Before coronavirus, the state had a workforce shortage and employers relied on new Mainers to fill essential jobs. Those jobs too often don’t provide wages and benefits, such as health insurance and paid time off, that allow workers to prosper or to keep themselves and their families safe during a pandemic.
Enacting policies that assure low-income workers adequate pay, affordable health insurance, and access to affordable child care and housing, are the building blocks to a healthier society, during a pandemic and well after it is over.