COVID-19 is NOT the “great equalizer” after all
Ethnic minorities, the poor and LGBTI people are more affected by the COVID-19 virus

Last Tuesday, when announcing that his brother Chris Cuomo too had been infected by COVID-19, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the virus “the great equalizer” in a tweet. Before him, Madonna used the same expression in a bizarre bathtub rant which featured rose petals.

Well it’s definitely not. The statistics that came out in the past few days have illustrated what we already knew: ethnic minorities, the poor and other marginalized communities are the most severely affected. In Chicago, we learned that African Americans account for more than half of those who have tested positive and 72 percent of virus-related fatalities, even though they make up a little less than a third of the population there.

In a previous post, we argued that LGBT+ people are also more infected and dying more than the rest of the population although these numbers are not and will not be captured [Read: Re-asserting LGBT+ needs during the COVID-19 crisis is NOT frivolous — It is tempting to de-prioritize LGBT+ rights now out of solidarity, but it would be a mistake]. In 2020, LGBT+ people remain the least studied and therefore least understood community in the world.

If you are not counted, you do not count.

The disproportionate impact of the virus on the poor and the marginalized is shared globally. In France, as an example, the poorest suburb of Paris, Saint-Denis, where a large proportion of the descendants of migrants from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa, of Muslim culture, is seeing the most deaths.

However, the fact that there remains a chance the elite might get contaminated – as illustrated by the very mediatized sickness of Boris Johnson – is the reason why the public response has been so strong. Yet, the response has been geared towards protecting the elite: social distancing and wearing a medical mask are luxuries most cannot afford.

You might also want to oppose the amplitude of the public response to that of the HIV epidemic. When AIDS deaths peaked in New York in 1994, by then the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44, there were more than 8,000 deaths a year in the city. That year Ronald Reagan did not address this in his campaign and was still reelected. Who cares about a virus that affects mostly homosexuals? By comparison, as of Tuesday, more than 4,000 had died from COVID-19 in New York City, and the Mayor and Governor give daily live press conferences.

What is baffling is that it is still surprising to many. In fact, when the epidemic started impacting Hispanic populations in Queens disproportionately, a doctor in one of our This Week in Leadership episodes two weeks ago suggested Latinos may have a genetic predisposition to COVID-19. It is clearly not a genetic predisposition, but the direct and indirect result of being marginalized.

Last year, I wrote a piece for the Economist which mentioned that: “there is growing evidence that the burden of homophobia is harsher and heavier on the poor”. Someone commented “Duh! Everything is harsher and heavier on the poor”.

But my point was not to reiterate the obvious but rather to advocate for involving marginalized communities in LGBT+ decision-making as they are the ones bearing the brunt of homophobia and transphobia. Similarly, if racial minorities and local leaders had been involved in the COVID-19 response, and if resources such as protective gear or public announcements had been directed to the most marginalized, deaths would have been avoided.

Numerous studies have shown how the burden of homophobia is particularly heavy on the most marginalized communities and that racial marginalization is compounded by sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTI people are also people of color! The Williams Institute at UCLA has shown this statement is true for the poor in the US.

My friend and former World Bank colleague Edson Hurtado in Bolivia has shown that it is true for the indigenous population in a book he published several years ago. Here queer Latinos, Asians, and Blacks report being often marginalized in both LGBT+ communities (because of race) and Latino, Black, or Asian communities (because of sexuality).

While we believe that COVID-19 could be a wakeup call on the inequalities in the United States and other countries, Out Leadership also believes that for LGBT+ people the lesson here is that representation not only matters, it is also a question of survival.

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