The Color of COVID-19 in Cambridge

By Ayesha Wilson and Emily Irving

By now it should be very clear. COVID-19 is not the great equalizer. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the systemic inequity that has defined American society since it stole the very land under itself. This is no less true at the local level than at the national. Since its founding in 1891, the YWCA Cambridge has been committed to serving the needs of the Cambridge community. We understand that powerful change starts at the local level, and here in Cambridge, the virus has shown a harsh light on the deep inequality that has always festered beneath the city’s veneer of progressive politics. We must do better.

Let’s start with the numbers. The case rate among black residents (168 per 10,000) in Cambridge is nearly triple that of white residents (60 per 10,000). While black residents make up only 11% of the total population in Cambridge, they account for 20% of the city’s COVID mortalities. The neighborhoods with the three highest rates of infection are the Port, Wellington-Harrington, and East Cambridge, followed closely by North Cambridge and Cambridge Highlands, areas which represent a disproportionate amount of the city’s black and brown residents. The higher rates of COVID-19 in these areas are only the latest chapter in a long history of underinvestment and oppression. These same neighborhoods were once classified as “Hazardous” under the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlining policies, a label given to neighborhoods “characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it.” Without public support for and investment in the expansion of affordable housing and equitable housing policy in Cambridge, housing inequity will continue to harm the city’s black and brown communities. 

COVID-19 case rates by neighborhood
Source: Cambridge COVID-19 Data Center, accessed June 4 2020
Redlining map of Cambridge, MA
Source: Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed June 4, 2020.

Existing inequalities in Cambridge Public Schools (CPS) have also been intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning requires that students have, at minimum, strong internet and a computer available for their personal use during the day. Students also need space to learn and do homework within their home, preferably one free of noise and distractions. Many students in Cambridge do not have these basic resources to support remote learning until Cambridge Public Schools did the inevitable and expanded educational resources beyond the physical school building, through the distribution of hotspots and laptops. Without an investment in city-wide broadband, access to public education will remain contingent on the uneven resources of individual households. And because the systematic exclusion of black families from wealth creation in the United States means that economic inequality maps onto racial lines, black students in Cambridge will suffer disproportionately from unequal access to distance learning. 

Let’s say it one more time. Racial inequality existed in Cambridge long before COVID and will not be solved with a vaccine. At the same time, COVID-19 represents an opportunity to acknowledge this inequity and to commit to meaningful action and policy change at the local level. This approach is in line with the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. We end this article with a call to take local action:

Ayesha Wilson and Emily Irving are members of the
YWCA Cambridge Board of Directors

#MyEthnicityIsNotAVirus

Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion/experience and does not represent the MA Asian American Commission in any way, shape or form. 

“They eat dogs, bats, and all of those other weird things and they died? GOOD. They deserve to die for eating that.” Those were the words that I heard come out of a Caucasian woman’s mouth at my friend’s nail salon on February 5th. This is the perception of many people who are unfamiliar with Asian, particularly, Chinese history and culture, who choose fear and blame over compassion and empathy. 

Statements like these immediately remind me of the privilege of first world countries. In the 1970’s, China’s Communist Party began the Cultural Revolution where 1.2 million people were tortured and killed, 30 million starved to death due to famine, the economy was destabilized, and the people lost trust with their government. During that time, China controlled all of the food supply and was failing to feed 900 million people. When the regime began to collapse, they relinquished control and allowed private farming. While major corporations dominated large farming of what is normalized to us such as chicken, pigs, cows, etc, small farmers turned to wildlife as a means of survival, such as bats, turtles, snakes. The Chinese government allowed these types of activities in order for people to survive and as a way for people to lift themselves out of poverty. 

Growing up, I remember being bullied in middle school for being Chinese and my classmates asking if I ate cats. But as I grew up, I became more educated and aware of the truths behind how we sustain societies. Time and time again, I’ve heard many people criticize what people in Asia eat and how animals are treated. But have you ever looked into the mass production of the US’ meat and dairy industry? While some of China’s laws are absolutely devastating, when you understand the extremity of third-world poverty and starvation, you may have more compassion for the way another person is forced to live. But it can also be easily said how devastating US laws are regarding the cruel treatment of factory farming for profit. The difference between the two is that one is for survival and one is for profit. Neither are okay. But again, it goes back to privilege.

When I see how my fellow Asian Americans are being attacked verbally, assaulted, or spat on, it shows me how little progress our society has made toward dismantling racism and white supremacy. In the 19th century, Americans popularized the belief that the Chinese were disease-ridden and dirty, which eventually led to the justification for the Chinese Exclusion Act. Two centuries later and we are allowing history to repeat itself. I’m infuriated with how our elected officials fail to see their blatant racism behind their efforts to create bills to blame China and call it the “Chinese Virus or Kung-Flu” and no one was speaking up for us. 

As the Program Director for the Massachusetts Asian American Commission, our Commission strongly felt that we should speak up for ourselves and condemn the racism happening towards our community. On March 12th, we gathered Asian American leaders from all sectors (legislative, health, business, community, law) to speak out against the discrimination and xenophobia surrounding COVID-19 within the Asian American community. It was important to have representation in the media to speak out against those who were continuously spreading misinformation and using a hateful narrative that only perpetuates anger and fear. There is nothing medically or scientifically “Chinese” about this virus. A virus knows no borders. 

On a more personal note, I have been extremely frustrated with the way society has failed to productively respond to this pandemic. In my opinion, everyone has failed. The Chinese government has failed to effectively take care of their people and create new laws: even after they experienced a similar situation with the 2003 SARS outbreak and the United States government has failed to effectively take precautions when we first got warnings about the COVID-19 outbreak. When you look at this on a larger scale, it is a systemic and structural problem. The last thing that should happen is a “me versus you” mentality, where blame, fear, anger, and hate consume society and everyone goes down. But rather, “us versus the problem”. This happened during 9/11 with Muslims, this is an everyday experience for African Americans, and now it’s happening to Asian Americans. The need to selfishly fight and hoard toilet paper and spew racism towards the Asian community easily shows how humanity is failing. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up a lot of ugly truths from top to bottom. But I also feel that it is necessary that people are seeing this because it allows us to really see how we cannot allow ourselves to get too comfortable and that there is still much work that needs to be done. The only way for us to overcome these obstacles is to unify and work together. It is important for everyone to care about others outside of their own communities because at the end of the day, we are all human, who all struggle and we are never alone. 

Jessica ‘Jay’ Wong
Program Director of AAC