New York – The new coronavirus pandemic has exposed some unpleasant things about human society — in particular the way systematic discrimination has made certain groups, such as black and Hispanic Americans, more vulnerable. But as I examine the evidence, a bigger question arises: Has our failure to address deep divisions of race and class actually made this shock much worse than it needed to be for everyone? In other words, did humanity’s social ills in a sense cause the crisis?
What got me thinking was a new study that the organization Measures for Justice conducted in Milwaukee. It finds that a neighborhood’s incarceration rate is the best predictor of how badly COVID-19 hit its people. This makes sense in a terrible way, because mass incarceration is the extreme expression of American social structure: The nation’s policing systems, which not coincidentally emerged from the slave-catching patrols of the old South, disproportionately imprison people who are poor, of color and generally considered “other.”
The researchers surmise that, over time, concentrated incarceration weakens communities by disrupting families and undermining both physical and economic well-being. Then COVID-19 comes along and exploits this weakness, creating a base from which to spread illness and death.
Their conclusion fits with a lot of other data about how the disease has developed. In the hardest-hit cities, it has infected and killed black and Hispanic people at much higher rates than whites, finding pathways among those who have no choice but to go out and work, in nursing homes containing people of color, and in disadvantaged communities already made susceptible by overcrowding and environmental pollution. These are the cases that have threatened to overwhelm hospitals, necessitating lockdowns that have triggered the deepest economic slump since the Great Depression.
It’s not just a U.S. problem. Consider Singapore, initially celebrated for its success in curbing the spread with a combination of testing, contact tracing and quarantine. What happened next was devastating: An uncontrolled outbreak among largely Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese guest workers, living in cramped dormitories with inadequate soap, quickly brought the country’s case count from 200 to more than 10,000. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong expressed the victims’ perceived otherness when he portrayed the situation as “two separate infections,” only one of which was circulating “in our own community.” Guest workers have similarly proved vulnerable in Saudi Arabia.
OK, but what if I’ve cherry picked these examples to make the case that if people want their societies and economies to be resilient, they must first address inequality, racism, poverty and mass incarceration? Aren’t some countries doing fine with all of the above? Malawi, for example, is a deeply unequal country with a high HIV infection rate, but has so far reported only four COVID-19 deaths. The mortality rate might stay low given the youth of country’s population, with a median age of 17.
I’d suggest we wait and see. Brazil, an extremely unequal society, is a mess. Russia, with an extremely high incarceration rate (albeit not as high as the United States), is having a very bad outbreak (again not as bad as the U.S., if we trust official Russian data). Other countries that stand out on one or more dimensions of inequity may soon find themselves suffering.
It’s hard to prove causality in cases like this. But if I’m right — if inequality, incarceration and racism make pandemics worse — then an economic and moral imperative arises. We must all actively work toward a less racist, less punitive, more equal society, both for self-preservation and because it’s the right thing to do.
Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist. She founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company, and is the author of “Weapons of Math Destruction.”