Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on Communities of Color

April 21, 2020 - (6 min read)

As local leaders respond to this COVID-19 pandemic, government decision-makers and decision-making processes will be tested in unprecedented ways. Now, more than ever, these decisions cannot only consider equity as one piece of many; they must center on equity.

Without applying an explicit equity lens to each city’s COVID-19 response, the response is likely to perpetuate or exacerbate existing inequities for people of color, low-income individuals, people with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community, and other vulnerable and marginalized groups.  

Communities of Color  

In responding to COVID-19, local leaders must account for the systemic and institutional racism that make Black people and people of color particularly vulnerable to both the virus itself, complications from the disease and the societal and economic insecurity created by the pandemicBlack people, people of color and indigenous people face underlying inequities in health, income, wealth, access to government resources and participationincarceration, education, and nearly every additional feature of society. If cities do not engage communities of color to amplify their voices and needs during this crisis and shape an equity-driven response, their actions are likely to perpetuate and exacerbate these existing inequities.   

Low-income families and people of color may have reduced access to health insurance and may face difficult choices when deciding whether to seek out medical services that put them in debt. Additionally, Black people, people of color and indigenous people experience institutional and individual bias not faced by white people, as medical professionals decide who to prioritize with limited beds, tests, and ventilators in hospitals.  

Businesses of color face many challenges that are only exacerbated during times of crisis, including a lack of access to capital, weak banking relationships and inferior business support networks. Research has shown that Black and Latino business owners are denied loans at higher rates their white-owned counterparts, a persistent legacy of historical discrimination.  

Steps City Leaders Can Take  

Partner with health care providers to collect accurate demographic data and disaggregate by race

If cities do not collect data that are disaggregated by race, they cannot measure the impact of the crisis and of their interventions to mitigate harm for communities of color. Some concerns exist about potential quarantine sites being located disproportionately in communities of color, due to disparities in community engagement and the history of placement of environmental hazards in these communities. Below are resources that address the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on communities of color across policy areas and society. 

  • Chicago, IL – City COVID-19 data dashboard disaggregates data by race 
  • Louisiana – State Health Department’s COVID-19 data dashboard disaggregates data by race 
  • Michigan – State Health and Human Services Department’s COVID-19 data dashboard disaggregates data by race 
  • Milwaukee County, WI – COVID-19 data dashboard disaggregates data by race 

Target resources to address disparities 

In order to address disparities in cases and deaths by race and income, these disparities need to be accurately captured so resources can be targeted. 

Integrate equity into emergency command center operations

Critical decisions about policies and the allocation of resources, personnel, quarantine and recovery sites are made in each jurisdiction’s emergency command center. An emerging best practice is for individuals and teams focusing on equity to be incorporated into these conversations through a formal role with the emergency command center. 

Ensure that reducing discrimination and stigma stemming from xenophobia and racism are addressed as part of your city’s COVID-19 response

Because the virus that causes COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan province of China, as the virus has spread around the world, Asian individuals, groups, and families have become the target of anti-Asian racist slurs, rants, and physical attacks. A number of people continue to refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus” to make China and Asians scapegoats for the virus’ damage. This crisis is a time to bring our diverse communities together in strength, not pit them against one another through fear. Local leaders play a pivotal role in condemning verbal and physical attacks on Asians and Asian communities and shifting to a message of hope in this time of uncertainty. 

Invest in local businesses of color

The COVID-19 federal stimulus bill included nearly $350 billion in aid for small businesses. However many local, ethnically-diverse small businesses may have challenges accessing such programs due to language barriers, navigating program eligibility rules and a lack of access to technology.  

Cities can help businesses of color navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn in a variety of ways: 

For more information on support vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit NLC’s website.

About the Authors:

Katherine_Carter_SmallKatherine Carter is a Senior Specialist with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative.



Ian_SnyderIan Snyder is a Heinz Policy Fellow with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative




Aliza R. Wasserman is the Senior Program Specialist with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative.